Barbadian sculptor Onkphra Wells, the master woodsman.

In the Woodsman's Enchanted Forest

WAYNE ONKPHRA WELLS, SCULPTOR

THE VIBE changes as you get older: as man, as artist, as human being on Planet Earth.  Just ask Barbadian sculptor Wayne Onkphra Wells, who has been busier than ever these last nine or more months. 

In November 2015, he held an exhibition entitled eye of the Storm at Kohi Noor in Sandy Lane—the residence of Amor Mottley.  Her daughter, Mia Mottley, the leader of the Opposition, gave the opening address. 

By February 2016, Writers Ink had commissioned him to produce Bim LitFest 2016’s Lifetime Achievement Award for the American-Barbadian writer Paule Marshall.  His smooth, freeform sculpture was presented to Evan Marshall on behalf of his mother (the author of the classic novel Brown Girl, Browstones) at a reception brunch hosted by the Prime Minister at Ilaro Court, his residence, in May.

For May and June, he had another exhibition, this time at his studio Bajan Artforms in Pelican Craft Centre.  When I stepped into the space (Onkphra—everybody calls him Onkphra—had shouted me over from the parking lot, where I had just gotten out of my car), it was filled with moody lighting, dried leaves and branches; and sculptures of varying shapes and sizes ornamented a path seemingly leading to an altar. 

This last exhibition, sensitively and thoughtfully curated by Sandrine Haguy, was called Enchanted Forest.  It was hard not to be charmed.

Each show, each event, has said something different about Onkphra as a mature workman yet searching for the Truth in and through his art, still learning the meaning of Beauty, thirty years after first taking its pursuit seriously.

One insight may be that he believes what he does involves everyone, it doesn’t matter which side of the political divide you lean toward.

Another?

“At this stage in my life, I go with the wood.”

Onkphra, who turns 61 this September, tells me that that requires listening, not just seeing.

The traditional is no longer of interest, per se.  Looking at the lithe, limber, polished work that has been a trademark of his woodwork for so long, it’s a bit of a challenge picturing a time when conventional forms ever were.

He feels the real challenge is staying engaged with your work, avoiding monotony—for yourself as much as for the viewer, patron or audience.

An admission?

“Masks are a challenge,” he says.

True.  A neat series reveals a struggle with illustration and form, with obeying the rules while kicking them to the curb.  But Onkphra’s eyes are as frisky and ensorcelled as an apprentice half his age, watching me watch them.

“They keep me sane,” he confesses, nodding.  “In this way, you become a master of the wood.”