By: Kelly M Gross, Director
The Art Association of Jacksonville is please to present Michael Onken to The David Strawn Art Gallery February 3-25. An opening reception will be held on Saturday, February 3, from 6-8 p.m. with introduction of the 2018 Beaux Arts Ball Co-Chairmen, Brittany Henry and Christine Grojean at 6:30 p.m. Onken will give his “Gallery Talk” immediately following the introduction.
Michael Onken has lived most of his life in the northern and central regions of Illinois or the south part of the state. Growing up around Chicago, the Field Museum served as his art gallery, albeit an informal one. Following in family tradition, he attended Eastern Illinois University where he graduated with an art degree. Later, at Northern Illinois University, he completed graduate study in art. In 1968, he moved to Carbondale to teach drawing at Southern Illinois University. After teaching 34 years in the School of Art and Design, of which 29 years were as director of the graduate program, he retired in 2002.
Over the years, in his studio, narrative aspects informing his work came from many sources, including 20th century British literature, British neo-romantic paintings, 16th century Indian paintings, early Italian, Persian and Japanese art, manuscripts, children’s book illustrations, and wood engravings in general, to name a few.
Onken says of his work; “While my images may appear to be part of a narrative, for the most part each stands alone as a separate moment. I do love stories and may even be guilty of inventing one after a painting is finished however they are most often generated by a gesture, a pattern, object, a fragment of a poem, or a remembered aroma which is seized by the imagination, connected to a well of experience and pressed into form. They tend to live in a time which is distant but not outside of memory and in a place not my own but which I fancy I know just well enough. Nothing is autobiographical save what is unavoidable.”
Onken’s working methods and materials are quite simple and traditional. The work is mostly small and in his mind, relates more to the pages of a book than to gallery walls. He has no statement to make or theory to pursue. Leaning toward the literary he does rejoice in the decorative. He works in relative isolation but enjoys collaborations with fine craftsman having done so with potters, printmakers, makers of books, and most recently with an exceptional cabinetmaker. Three pieces in which he played a part were included in an exhibition at the Cedarhurst Center for the Arts called “The Quiet Object, The Art of Kyle Kinser” which closed in December of 2017.
At Southern Illinois University, Onken developed an annual student abroad program with the Hospitalfield Centre for Art and Culture in Arbroath, Scotland. Hospitalfield Centre for Art, a residential art centre, was originally a 13th century hospital that was rebuilt in the 19th century by Scottish painter Patrick Allen Fraser as a haven for artists and scholars. Housed in a scenic gothic revival castle, the centre overlooks the North Sea and is filled with Scottish antique furniture and an art and literature collection that rivals many. For the following two decades, Onken made the annual summer sojourns to Arbroath and beyond (particularly to Orkney, Scotland) where he developed lasting friendships with artists, writers and poets, and an affection for the landscape, the sea, the folklore and legends.
Although much of the work in this exhibition, both in his paintings and relief prints, reveals hints of Onken’s experiences, taken as a whole, it is almost like a memory book of “found thoughts.”
The exhibit continues through February 25. Gallery hours are: Sundays from 1-3 p.m. and Tuesday through Saturday from4-6 p.m. The Gallery opening and gallery hours are free and open to the public.