LARGER THAN LIFE
Sculptor Jerry McKenna can now add the French Connection to his renowned portfolio
|Jerry McKenna (Photo: JerryMcKenna.com)
Before embarking on a career that would see him become one of the world’s most renowned sculptors, Jerry McKenna traversed the globe for 25 years as a United States Air Force officer and decorated Vietnam veteran. No matter where he was stationed, one constant of McKenna’s travels was a trunk of his personal belongings that he’d brought from his home in Connellsville, Pa. Little did he know that inside that trunk would be a pair of hockey skates that would one day play a crucial role in creating one of his most elaborate works of art.
McKenna is the artist responsible for the French Connection statue that will be unveiled Friday night as the centerpiece of Alumni Plaza at First Niagara Center. The bronze sculpture depicts the iconic Sabres trio of Gilbert Perreault, Rene Robert and Rick Martin in action during their heyday in the mid 70s, using a Ron Moscati photograph as the inspiration.
With more than 30 busts installed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and 28 statues positioned across the campus at Notre Dame – including likenesses of legendary Fighting Irish football coaches Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz – immortalizing sports figures was nothing new for the 74-year-old McKenna, who was named the 2003 Sports Sculptor of the Year by the All-American Football Foundation.
But this sculpture represented a new challenge for him.
While most of his other pieces depicted a singular figure as the focal point, the French Connection involved three main characters. This sculpture also required him to create seven-foot tall likenesses of the men using only skate blades as their foundation.
“The first thing I realized was that it was going to be very difficult to create three figures that would be supported on skates. They wanted a ‘lifesize-and-a-quarter’ sculpture, and to support all that weight on skates was a real problem. So I had to keep that in mind when I was sculpting it.”
That’s where McKenna’s trunk of personal treasures came into play.
“I played hockey as a boy. I was raised up in the Pittsburgh and Cleveland areas, so I’m very familiar with the sport. And in fact, I still had my hockey skates,” explains McKenna, who now makes his home in Boerne, Tex. “I had a trunk that had traveled all around the world with me when I was in the service, because I had been stationed everywhere from Vietnam to England to Japan.
“In that trunk were three pairs of skates: figure skates, racing skates and hockey skates. And the hockey skates were identical to the ones the French Connection wore. They didn’t change at all from the ‘50s when I played, and the ‘70s when the French Connection played. So that problem was solved – I just had to reproduce a lifesize-and-a-quarter copy of my hockey skates.”
McKenna’s next hurdle was sculpting a statue with three fully-equipped hockey players. Over the years he’s done several football, basketball and baseball players – but never hockey. He’s a figurative artist that specializes in the human body, so getting used to all the padding was something he needed to research extensively.
“You don’t get to show off much anatomy with a hockey player. As athletes, they bear more of a resemblance to the Michelin Tire man or the Pillsbury Doughboy, than they do to a discus thrower or football player,” explains McKenna. “There’s just so much padding that has to be figured in to the sculpture, but that doesn’t mean you get a free pass on doing the anatomy. It just means that you also have to add the skill of portraying all that padding beneath the garment."
“I got all of the equipment from that era, and I dressed a mannequin so I knew exactly how it fit the player. I also went on eBay and purchased every possible photo that I could of all three players. And I was also provided other items by various people. Through that I was able to cobble together all the information I needed. They were well photographed individuals, so I had plenty of those to work with.”
One photograph that McKenna became very familiar with was the one from Moscati that became the vision for the statue. It’s an extremely rare photo (from an April 1975 playoff game against the Montreal Canadiens) because it includes all three members of the French Connection in action at the same time. McKenna said that building a pleasing composition is essential when sculpting, and he wasn’t sure that was going to be possible with Moscati’s photograph.
“I had thought at first of the French Connection in a celebratory pose, where they’d be up on the tiptoes of their skates, shaking their sticks up in the air – and I could build a triangular from that. Initially I thought that’s what we were going to go with,” said McKenna. “But then they had a photograph of the French Connection in the process of scoring a goal. Both Perreault and Robert are pretty much in the same pose, with the same leg trailing – and Martin is almost standing up at the end. It was not the most ideal composition because usually you want a triangular composition; it’s just more pleasing to the eye. But we were able to work it out, by bringing Martin in a little closer and exaggerating the action a little bit.”
It’s been a year-long process for McKenna to create the French Connection statue, which has included a pair of 4,000-mile round-trip car rides from his home in Texas to prep the statue. Last month he delivered the statue (cut into three pieces) to Buffalo where it was partially assembled in order to scribe the bolt holes for the template to put the anchor bolts in. It was then stored at First Niagara Center under a shroud of secrecy – with not even Sabres employees being able to catch a glimpse of it.
With the ceremonial unveiling now just two days away, McKenna has returned to assemble the final product. The owner of the foundry in Texas that McKenna works with has joined him, and the two will weld the pieces together. They will also repatinate some of the areas of the statue that will get damaged while welding, along with “chasing” the welds – a process that removes the weld and restores the sculpture’s intricate details.
Despite all the last-minute welding on the statue, McKenna said that fans won’t have any clue what the statue has been through over the past few weeks.
“I challenge anyone to find the seams!”