Meet artist Dick Onians
PUBLISHED: 09:21 17 January 2017 | UPDATED: 12:37 08 February 2017
Dick Onians grapples with the eternal in his work. Sandra Smith meets the Royal British Society of Sculptors Fellow at his Chipperfield home, surrounded by his creations
Within minutes of arriving at Dick Onians’ Chipperfield home, I am captivated not only by the numerous sculptures injecting interest and intrigue into every available space but this artist’s enlightened attitude and informative manner, articulately expressed with a healthy smattering of single-mindedness.
‘My passion was always for inventing shapes. I’m a maverick,’ he says. ‘I make things I want to make. Sometimes I have created the odd animal or human figure but God does natural forms so much better.’
In a first-floor sitting room where sculptures and sofas vie for space, our conversation centres on abstraction. As if to compensate for following his own rules, the 76-year-old declares a degree of arrogance. ‘Self-belief’, I counter. He brushes away my comment as if diplomacy is unnecessary. His reputation is due, after all, not only to talent, but an enviable level of conviction.
Sculptural interest first evolved during childhood thanks to acquisitions made by his father, an academic with an interest in art. ‘Father surrounded us with art objects,’ Dick explains. ‘We lived in the country and I used to clamber around in the woods. I carved model aeroplanes out of balsa, and when aged 14 he gave me a pen knife, I started carving chalk and wood.’ 4
Once free from prep school, public school and university, Dick discovered a course which reignited his early passion.
‘After my degree, I found an evening class in wood carving. That was wonderful! I knew there were such things as carving chisels, but I’d never seen one. At the City and Guilds of London Art School, I did life drawing and clay modelling. I loved every minute. People told me my whole personality changed; I became much more relaxed.’
To earn an income, Dick taught at Hemel Hempstead’s College of Further Education while simultaneously creating a body of work. An exhibition at London’s Mall Galleries followed, though the opportunity to be a gallery artist at a Mayfair outlet was declined due to the artist’s determination to pursue his own style.
Such focus deterred neither approach nor output. ‘I never knew whether I’d be employed next autumn. The uncertainty of freelance work gives spice to your life. As an artist, you have to have confidence in yourself.’
An ongoing teaching career is, I discover, as crucial to him as the twisting, bending, curvaceous shapes he crafts. ‘Being able to teach and make,’ he states, ‘give me most fulfilment. One is not separate from the other.’
As I’m taken on a tour of his workshops and gardens, I learn more about the materials he favours.
‘The scale of my installations depends on the commission and availability of material,’ he says. ‘Wood doesn’t cost much and people tend to give it to me. Because wood has a grain, you have to think about getting the wood to behave how you want it to. Stone is a different matter. It’s so heavy but a lot easier to work. You can work large in stone very quickly and in any direction. The only disadvantage is it’s dusty and you need hoisting equipment. Bronze will survive outdoors, but it has a known scrap value.’
Regardless of subject, Dick begins each project with drawings, then creates a model fashioned from Plasticine or alabaster. Ideas are encapsulated in notebooks amassed over decades.
‘Usually I finish one thing and something else pops into my head,’ Dick says. ‘Infinity, endless surfaces and eternal verities feature in a number of my sculptures and there’s a strong mathematical element to my work.’
Alongside his prolific output, the septuagenarian is also a founder of the Herts Visual Arts Open Studios, responsible for attracting thousands of visitors since its inception 25 years ago. How did the concept originate?
‘I noticed Bucks had been successful with Open Studios and the East of England Regional Arts were interested. We started with 16 artists in Hertfordshire. The idea was not to make money but to demystify and make the arts accessible to people.’
The creation of a large sculpture for a site in Greenwich led to fellowship of the Royal British Society of Sculptors. And as the first recipient of the President of the City and Guilds of London Institute’s Award for Teaching he was ‘wheeled out to St James’s Palace’ to meet the Duke of Edinburgh, an accolade which ‘makes one very chuffed’.
Despite his success, an underlying frustration simmers about the nature of art in this country.
‘The public doesn’t have belief in its own judgement when it comes to art – the English aren’t three-dimensionally minded. Other people’s opinions don’t bother me but you have to give yourself time to see. You don’t look at a cloud and ask what it means. Critics can look at artwork and say they’ve never seen its like before. What they don’t say is it is full of passion and has depth of feeling. Artists aren’t encouraged to tap into their own feelings.’
The sculptures I have seen at the artist’s home deserve time and attention. Indeed, so does the artist who created them. For Dick Onians’ principles are, like his carvings, solid and stimulating. They reflect a mind absorbed by abstraction.