A fitting tribute to an artist and a man.

Dylan Moore reviews ‘Encounters with Osi’, a tribute to Osi Rhys Osmond, who died earlier this year.

Encounters with Osi: Remembering Osi Rhys Osmond

Eds. Iwan Bala and Hilary Rhys Osmond

(H’mm Foundation)

Unlike all of the contributors to this handsome hardback, I never met Osi Rhys Osmond. The highest praise I can therefore offer is that now, after having read this profoundly affectionate and often moving series of tributes, obituaries and eulogies, I sincerely wish I had. The book is a successor to others in the H’mm Foundation’s ‘Encounters’ series; each is a collection of essays by some of Wales’ leading writers, artists and public figures, simultaneously paying tribute to, examining the work and painting a multi-faceted picture of a singular personality.

Encounters with Osi marks a departure for the series in three important respects. First, Osi – it does not take long to feel as if first-name terms is the only way to refer to the artist – is a painter; his series predecessors, Nigel Jenkins and the Thomases, Dylan and R.S., were all poets. Second, the volume is a hardback: the fact of Osi’s prodigious output over decades necessitating a glossy, colourful volume strewn with photographs and images of wonderful paintings that fully illustrate and validate the often effervescent, ebullient praise heaped on Osi by his contemporaries, peers and lifelong friends who form the phalanx of willing contributors to this volume. The third and perhaps most important difference between Encounters with Osi and its series forerunners is the fact that Osi was alive to read, peruse and comment on drafts.

The book was born out of sad circumstances: Osi’s terminal illness. Iwan Bala notes in his introduction that, ‘It is rare for a person to get an opportunity to read the tributes, obituaries and eulogies written about them. But Osi was a rare person.’

That much becomes clear throughout this repository of reminiscences. The book is infused with a collaborative feel. Its jumble of contributors between them summon decades worth of anecdotes from Osi’s Wattsville childhood, his student days at the legendary Newport College of Art and later, quieter days of painting out in rural Llansteffan. Carefully chosen photographs – intimate portraits of Osi at home in front of a roaring fire, the detritus of a lifetime’s living and painting scattered judiciously around – serve as evidence to support the equally intimate portrayals of Osi in the essays. Here, friends, relatives, acquaintances and colleagues all attest to the generosity, charisma and talent of the man.

If the book has a weakness, it is that there are too many overlaps. Inevitably perhaps, the same stories and facts and impressions crop up, told similarly or differently by the varied contributors. But in a sense this weakness, which in any ordinary book might be attributed to editorial oversight, is also the book’s beating corroborative heart, testament to the veracity of testimony given by all of Osi’s many and diverse admirers.

But above and beyond the thousands of kind words about the man and his art, the real treat of the book has nothing to do with what others have said. Scattered lavishly in full and glorious colour, it is Osi’s art that puts the seal on things. Osi, clearly, was a master of mixed and almost every other media. Oils, watercolours, pen and ink sketches, maps, collage. His charcoals of winding gear at Risca Colliery are extraordinary evocations of a now-gone south Wales; his Red Horses and blue Helicopter are simple, darkly beautiful oils-on-canvas creations. His 1991 portrait of ‘My father Malcolm’ is as strikingly iconic as it is warm and personal; his Hostage series is unsettling, demonstrating his engagement with the world well beyond Wales – the book abounds with soldiers, Africa and the Middle East as well as local landscapes.

Encounters, then, is a fitting tribute to an artist and a man: a man who inhabited and lived his art, and was much loved by friends and family. Among other things, it should prompt the staging of a full and major retrospective of Osi’s art, for those, like me, who are only just discovering this wonderful painter.

If you wish to purchase ‘Encounter with Osi’ please contact [email protected]

Dylan Moore is Comment and Analysis Editor at the IWA.

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