Artist on File: Dick Onians, Sculptor
Dick Onians is an altogether knowledgeable, curious and engaging human being. As it was an Open Studio day in September, I shared him with a stream of visitors looking at his intriguing body of work. Dick works with many materials including wood, stone and also casts some of his pieces in resin and metal.
On walking into his house my gaze was immediately drawn to the ceiling; protruding from it were sculptures of two arms, one carved in birch wood and the other cast from it in bronze resin.
This made me smile and straight away I knew I would enjoy interviewing Dick.
There was also an incredibly lifelike but disembodied pair of feet standing on the sideboard; both feet and arms were modelled on him.
‘It is quite uncomfortable using yourself as a model and it can be dangerous...when I was sculpting my feet a chisel fell and pierced my foot.’
The overwhelming thrust of his work deals with the endlessness of time, space and regeneration. With mathematical references; the smooth, sinuous and swirling shapes of his abstract work are absorbing.
One is instantly compelled to follow the twisting, flowing forms portrayed in a work carved in alabaster called ‘A Twist in Time’.
Dick is one of six children born in Chalfont St Giles in Buckinghamshire and from the age of 10 he already had a passion for whittling wood, as he put it; making model aircraft out of balsa and figures out of twigs and using chalk to sculpt. He had originally intended to be a farmer but his enthusiasm for sculpture was about to overtake him.
As a young adult of 19 he embarked on the Grand Tour with his elder sister and his brother, John, now an Art Historian. They travelled to the cultural haunts of France and Italy and I asked if there was one work of art that he remembered in particular: ‘We visited St Peter’s Basilica in Rome and I was entirely entranced and moved by Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà. This was the first time I had felt such emotion about a work of art’
Dick attended Merchant Taylors School followed by Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied Classics followed by English. His first and only full time job was teaching English, Latin and some Divinity at Dudley Grammar School. After three years he decided to leave teaching and he enrolled at the City & Guilds London Art School at Kennington to study carving and sculpture under William Wheeler. ‘The school is housed in a row of beautiful Georgian buildings. I fell in love with the place and knew this was the right move’.
We walked together through the garden which was replete with captivating sculptures. The largest piece called ‘Striding Arch’, containing an inverted arch; it stands at a magnificent 4 metres. It wields an impressive punch dominating the landscape in a meadow lined with trees. ‘I entered the piece in a competition in New York to commemorate the British victims of 9/11. I was amazed to learn that I was a finalist alongside work by Anthony Gormley and Anish Kapoor.’
Other work that I particularly enjoyed was a life size self-portrait stone sculpture and two wooden carvings that felt free-flowing but precise called ‘World held in space’, made from Horse chestnut and ‘Scroll Bowl’, which was carved out of a single piece of a Plane tree.
Dick was a founder member of the Herts Visual Arts Forum, the first leader of the Sculptors Group and initiated Open Studios in 1991, in which 17 artists took part. He has been exhibiting his work in the UK and abroad since 1968.
Dick returned to teach at the City & Guilds London Art School in 1978 and has been senior tutor in the woodcarving department since 1985. ‘Kennington is the only place in Britain where traditional carving is taught to degree level.’ Dick received a Gold Medal for teaching from the City and Guilds Institute, and he was the first recipient of the President's award for a City and Guilds teacher in 2003, presented by The Duke of Edinburgh.
He devised 4 levels of Design for Craft woodcarving courses for the City and Guilds of London Institute and he still teaches this independently at Missenden Abbey Adult Residential College. ‘I have learnt an awful lot from teaching and research and having to explain sculpting to others. It’s amazing how much you can elicit from copying old ideas.’
Books and Magazines
Regularly writing for the woodworking press, in particular ‘Woodcarving’ Magazine, Dick was also asked to contribute to MacMillans, The Grove Dictionary of Art.
Dick has had two books published on carving techniques; ‘Essential Techniques of Woodcarving’ in 1997 and ‘Carving the Human Figure: Studies in Wood and Stone’ in 2001. Both are available to buy on www.Amazon.co.uk.
Looking around Dick’s well-established workshop was an engrossing experience. The accoutrements of his trade are a work of art in themselves; there was an array of chisels, gouges, rasps, and callipers. These tools in the hands of a master craftsman have created outstanding artistry.
‘Sculpture is my work, what I do, it’s what I am. Teaching will always be my hobby. It is the essence of my being. If I can’t make then it’s not me’. If you would like to see the work of Dick Onians please contact him:
Address: Woodside, Commonwood, Chipperfield, Herts, WD4 9BA
Telephone: 01923 265996
by CLARE KENDAL BATE