“John McNaughton: Artist-Mentor-Friend:” The remarkable life of John McNaughton

Tegan Ruhl, Assistant Lifestyle Editor

“The Schlechte Facade,” 2006, on the exterior rotunda of the David L. Rice Library. The piece was created by John McNaughton and Katie Waters. (Photo by Tegan Ruhl)

While current students may not know who John McNaughton was, his legacy is hidden everywhere on campus, shaping the atmosphere of USI for years. 

His legacy hides in “The Screaming Eagle” sculpture in front of The Screaming Eagles Arena. His legacy hides in each student who graduates from the art and design department. His legacy hides in plain sight. 

John McNaughton, professor emeritus of art, passed away on March 11, 2022, at the age of 78. 

McNaughton worked in the department of art and design from 1970 to 2006. He is largely known for developing the art program at USI, being a strong mentor, a friend to students and faculty around him and for his sculptures located around campus and Evansville. 

Beginning his professional career in 1970 after graduating from Ball State University, McNaughton worked as a designer for General Motors. He would go back to Ball State to earn his master’s and earn his Master’s of Fine Arts at Bowling Green State University before beginning his career at Indiana State University Evansville, what is now USI. 

In 1970, McNaughton began an extended period of his working career as a professor at USI. With his fellow faculty members, he helped expand the art department and develop the program into what it is today. When the program first started, McNaughton and one other faculty member were interested in further expanding the art program. 

McNaughton working on a project in the studio in 2003. (Photo courtesy of UASC Digital Collections)

“He was so pivotal in expanding the program and saying, ‘There’s so much more,’” said Susan Sauls, director of University Art Collections. “He was one of the people that selected the art faculty as a group. He hired Katie Waters,  former professor emeritus of art, Micheal Aakhus,  former professor emeritus of art, Lenny Dowhie,  former professor emeritus of art and other people that contributed to the history of the art department. He formed it as far as selecting faculty.” 

Out of the hundreds of pieces McNaughton has completed, a small handful are on display in the McCutchan Art Center. 

“John McNaughton: Artist-Mentor-Friend,” an exhibit arranged by Sauls, was unveiled on July 19 and will close on Sept. 9. The exhibit includes a variety of pieces McNaughton contributed to USI’s Campus, places around Evansville and pieces made for former faculty and friends. 

Some notable pieces in the exhibit include “Book and Cloth Still Life,” “Head of a Woman,” “Coffee Table Pair,” “Lannert Reliquary” and “Magic Carpet.” 

“Coffee Table Pair,” 1981, contributed contributed from the Estate of Barbara K. Blevins. (Photo by Tegan Ruhl)

“Head of a Woman,” “Coffee Table Pair” and “Lannert Reliquary” are all contributions by friends and former faculty members of USI. 

“Head of a Woman” and “Coffee Table Pair” were contributed by the family of James R. Blevins, founding head of the College of Liberal Arts. 

“Head of a Woman” was created after the Blevins took a trip to Athens, Greece, and brought home a tray that is meant to be worn on a person’s head. The family commissioned McNaughton to create something appropriate for the tray to sit on, and he created the bust of an Athens woman.

Sauls noted the detail in this piece such as the woman’s broach, her earrings and the barrette in the back of her hair. 

“Lannert Reliquary.” (Photo by Tegan Ruhl)

McNaughton packed “Lannert Reliquary” with symbolism. He was commissioned by Ann Lannert to build the chest with many drawers for each of her children to keep their ashes after they pass on.

“We’ve tried to stress to people that there’s nobody in there,” Sauls said. 

The flower on top of the reliquary is representative of Lannert’s family. Six petals are for her six children. Six cured “antera” are for her grandchildren. The center bud represents her with seed-forms for her great-grandchildren and future generations. Finally, the two leaves represent herself and her children’s father, Dick. 

“He’s very in tune to symbols and putting things together,” Sauls said. 

While just a few of his pieces are on display in the McCutchan Art Center, many of his pieces have been hiding in plain sight on USI’s campus.

The University Art Collection has 18 pieces of McNaughton’s work scattered throughout campus. Among these works include “Sunbird,” “Vision,” “Tequila Sunrise,” “The Schlechte Facade,” “Bent Twig,” “Take a Magic Carpet Ride” and “The Screaming Eagle.”

Students can probably recognize “Vision,” “The Schlechte Facade” and “The Screaming Eagle” without realizing it’s McNaughton’s work.


“Tequila Sunrise,” 1974, between the Arts Center and the David L. Rice Library. This piece was created by John McNaughton and James Greer. (Photo by Tegan Ruhl)
McNaughton’s piece “Vision” can be found in the Orr Center.(Photo by Tegan Ruhl)


“Vision,” often referred to as “the spiral staircase,” is found on the first floor of the Robert D. Orr Center. McNaughton created this piece with his former students Trevor Dunville, Mary Fahrenkrug, Ken Holder, Chris Peake, Carol Schneider and Ellen Wedeking while teaching a summer class in 1990. 

“The Schlechte Facade” is found on the exterior rotunda of the David L. Rice Library. McNaughton created the piece with Kaite Waters, former professor emerita of art, in 2006. The two carved the sculpture out of clay and wanted to include tools used by students seeking a modern college education. They wanted to include the landscaping of USI in their piece, and added the Liberal Arts Center in order to do so. 

“The Screaming Eagle” was the last piece McNaughton contributed to USI in 2021. USI specifically commissioned him and Joan Kempf deJong, professor emerita of art, to create the piece for the unveiling of the Aquatic Center.

“The Screaming Eagle” by John McNaughton. (Photo by Tegan Ruhl)

“I can’t remember who the vendor was, who created it with them,” Sauls said. “They provided the designs and these guys, metal fabricators that normally fabricated machinery or some other kind of industrial tool or machine, they’re working on a piece of art.” 

“When they were installing that, I heard one of the guys telling somebody at the unveiling, ‘I helped install this,’” Sauls said. “He was really proud of the work that he had done. He felt like he was a part of that piece of artwork, which is something that I think is just priceless because he said he couldn’t wait to bring his family out and show them. It was just a point of pride and I thought that was great just to hear that.”

While McNaughton’s contributions of art to USI are impressive, the contribution he will be remembered for the most will be the impression he made on students and faculty in his 35 years of teaching at USI. The gallery includes quotes from McNaughton’s former colleagues.

“He taught them not just in the classroom, but he taught them how to actually be successful out in the art world,” said Aakhus. “And the method worked—many of McNaughton’s students have become successful in their art careers.”

“I was always impressed with the ‘magic’ of his creativity and acquaintance, and it is this magic that I will always remember,” says deJong.

“John’s works throughout the Evansville area are a testament to the esteem the community held in his creativity,” said Dowhie. “The many individuals who commissioned him to make sculptures also reflects his reputation as one of the innovators in the field of wood sculpture and his professionalism.”

John McNaughton working on one of his many commissions for the community. (Photo courtesy of UASC Digital Collections)

“He would tell them (students) to not be afraid to go out and seek out commission, seek out opportunities for yourself,” said Sauls. “It was very much about you can’t wait for opportunities to find you. You need to go out and find it. He was very good at teaching students how to do that and how to go out and find opportunity, create relationships.”

McNaughton’s presence on campus will not be forgotten. His legacy lives on through the art he created that each student passes on campus every day. 

Often, college is a wonderful time that we don’t appreciate until we look back on it,” said McNaughton. “It’s some of the freest time in our lives, but it can be fleeting, like a magic carpet.”

“John McNaughton: Artist-Mentor-Friend” ends on Sept. 9 at 4 p.m.