The art of Aragorn Dick-Read is singularly unique, artistically brilliant and culturally appropriate to tropical island life; it radiates a certain joie de vivre, a psychological stimulant. Aragorn’s Studio located at Trellis Bay in the BVI is the hub of activity in this beachfront community. The studio houses the metal sculpture workshop, pottery studio complete with kiln, a retail outlet for a significant selection of Caribbean crafts including an assortment of signature silk screened, hand painted cotton tee shirts. The venue also hosts the now famous Full Moon Party with its burning fireballs and burning man effigy. The origin and history of Aragorn’s sculptures was one of the main reasons I went to chat with this inimitable artist at his Good Moon Farm on Tortola’s north side.
Art literally oozes from the mind, body and soul of Aragorn’s being. While we were chatting, a pen was doodling symbolic designs, glyphs, on a notebook, naturally, absentmindedly. Aragorn was born on Tortola and the intense natural beauty of the BVI must have been ingrained into his early life. It was his university training and a degree in art history that gave him the foundation of where he is today. Tribal art and design, especially symbolic creations became his specialities. Travel to the four corners of the earth, particularly to remote regions, and meeting and befriending local populations, has been a major influence and has had a profound effect on his work.
The now famous fireball sculptures didn’t just suddenly become a revelation overnight but rather evolved from Caribbean island life. It was during a trip to Haiti in the late 1980s where he saw the unique, gaily painted sculptures of local artisans made from discarded oil drums that planted the seed and inspired him to experiment with the technique. Soon he was utilizing copper, silver soldering techniques, brazing with brass and bronze. Different finishes were created by acids, oxidizers and polishers. These techniques produced wonderful wall hangings that later metamorphosed into three dimensional sculptures.
Visitors to the studio in Trellis Bay become enthralled at the creativity of the exhibits displayed there and orders of customized work have increased – every year the sculpture shop is busier and busier. Long time assistant John Francis, a Carib Indian from Dominica, is an invaluable employee. “If I draw out shapes on various metal sheets I can rely on him to cut out accurate size pieces to assemble at a later date. Johnny has been with me since we built the Carib Indian canoe, Gli Gli, in Dominica in 1996 – he’s my right hand man.” Custom orders like the Dorado’s Dinner, a sculpture of dolphins chasing flying fish, are now on display in the US at Harborside Place, Jupiter, Florida. The impressive “Blue Marlin” was commissioned by the luxury Oil Nut Bay Resort in Virgin Gorda.
Humans have always been fascinated by whales and the BVI is right in the path of the migratory hump back whale. In 2010 property developer, David Johnson of Oil Nut Bay, commissioned four sculptures of whales. Just before delivery the work was used to form a backdrop to an underwater portrait picture of Sir Richard Branson in his open top submarine. This spawned the idea of creating an underwater theme park with marine life sculptures, a project that Aragorn hopes to see come to fruition in the future.
Aragorn’s defining art work is the burning “fireball” and from simple beginnings to its present state of development it is fascination itself. The first fireball was created from bits of scrap from various dump sites (a fridge door, a car bonnet) and it involved a lot of work. Then one day providence lent a helping hand; a large round steel mooring ball washed up on the beach at Trellis Bay; a blank canvas had arrived.
After a few weeks of drawing and cutting, the first “fireball” sculpture was rolled out of the studio, filled with wood and set alight. The result was stunning. Since then the fireballs have become the centerpiece of the now famous “Full Moon Party” and attract a lot of attention. The motifs are variously human figures, symbols and unique patterns and when the balls are lit dancing figures appear to come to life. Now the fireballs are accompanied by pyramids, cubes and columns. A lighted pyramid positioned upside down on its apex and over water creates a spectacular impression; the mirror image completes a mesmerizing composition.
Now the burning fireballs have become synonymous with the British Virgin Islands. “People identify the sculptures with the BVI,” explains Aragorn, “Figures dancing around a fire on a full moon night on a BVI beach make for unforgettable memories.” Shows, exhibitions and private displays are becoming more and more sought after and individual commissions are on the increase. In 2014 an interesting fire cube display was exhibited at Bryanston School in Dorset, England, the school of Aragorn’s youth and recently his sons, Zanti and Ceiba. Aragorn has considerable exposure in the UK with an agent, the director of the acclaimed Moorwood Gallery in Somerset. A recent sculpture exhibition “Out of Nature” at the historically significant Newport House in Herefordshire created huge interest and a 2016 event is imminent. In October Aragorn’s fire sculptures were displayed at the Light Night Festival in Leeds.
Closer to home, Sir Richard Branson commissioned a fireball in 2015 and villa owners at the Oil Nut Bay Estate are taking a keen interest in metal sculptures. A recent work depicting a family tree, with each member’s life interest depicted in sculpted detail, has just been completed.
The highlight of Aragorn’s artistic career to date is the massive fireball titled The Dream of Human Harmony commissioned in 2011 by the mayor of Changchun in China. The fireball took 7 weeks to create and stands at 14-ft tall. It represents a multitude of human figures adrift in a dream like space over a decorative interpretation of the Great Wall of China. It was lit at a full moon party in China on August 11, 2011.
The arts and craft centre in Trellis Bay should be on everyone’s list of “must do” activities in Tortola and if you’re fortunate enough to be here during full moon then take in the party, enjoy the burning sculptures and browse the various studios and shop. It could be the highlight of your BVI adventure.