Sculptor, installation and performance artist,Unsworth was born in 1931 in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. Despite growing up as a self-described typical Melbourne kid who loved football, trams and a beer, Unsworth has become one of Australia's most significant contemporary artists.
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Sculptor, installation and performance artist, Ken Unsworth was born in 1931 in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond and grew up in Calivil, rural Victoria. Reflecting on his childhood he describes himself as a typical Melbourne kid who loved football, trams and a beer (Unsworth in Katharine Buljan and Christopher Hartney, “Interview with Ken Unsworth”, 7 March 2007, audio-recording).
Unsworth’s adoptive father directed him towards the study of architecture and in 1948 he enrolled in an architectural course at the Gordon Institute of Technology in Geelong (Victoria). However, three years later, in 1951, he discontinued his studies. After leaving the Institute, Unsworth worked for a short time in various places, including the Ford Motor Company, the Brighton Hitchcock Department Store and a number of pubs. In 1954 he was awarded a Trained Secondary Teachers Certificate (TSTC) at the Melbourne Teachers’ College. For the certificate he took subjects such as painting at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and fine arts at the University of Melbourne.
In 1955 Unsworth met French concert pianist Elisabeth Crouch (née Volodarsky). They married in 1956 and moved to Geelong to work as teachers. In 1962 the artist took up study at the National Art School and they transferred to Sydney. He was then offered a teaching position at the Bathurst Teachers’ College where he worked from 1966 until 1968. It is while at this College that Unsworth began making sculpture. His involvement with the Contemporary Art Society began soon after, including his participation in their group exhibitions. It wouldn’t be until 1975 however that Unsworth would hold his first solo exhibition, the artist stating, “I wouldn’t have one until I knew that that was really what I should be doing” (ibid). His first performance piece, Five Secular Settings for Sculpture as Ritual and Burial Piece, in 1975, was followed in 1977 by the Face to Face. These two performances brought him to the attention of a wider art establishment.
After living in NSW for several years, Unsworth was offered a teaching position at the Tasmanian School of Art, and, together with his wife, he moved to Hobart in 1969. They stayed in Tasmania for three years, during which time, in 1970, he won the prestigious Captain Cook Bi-centenary Sculpture Competition with the work entitled Blaze.
An Australian-American Education Foundation Grant was awarded to the artist in 1971 and the Unsworths went to New York. They returned to Sydney in 1972. Arriving on the ship “Empress of Tasmania” their return was memorable, as they both felt that they were “back in the right place” (ibid).
In 1972, Unsworth accepted a teaching position at the Sydney Teachers’ College. The artist also recalls the film expert Bill Collins, the actor John Reid and the artist Rah Fizelle teaching in the College at the same time. He worked there for the next 16 years lecturing in sculpture in the concept/ideas course until 1988. Nick Vickers, Curator of the Delmar Gallery at Trinity Grammar School in Summer Hill (NSW), was one of Unsworth’s students in 1982. In Vickers’ view, Unsworth was a remarkable person with an enormous amount of energy whose ideas were, “[...] bubbling away.” (Nick Vickers in Katharine Buljan and Christopher Hartney, “Interview with Nick Vickers,” 2 March 2007, audio-recording).
Apart from his exposure to audiences on a national level, Unsworth has also enjoyed the attention of international audiences through his regular participation in various international art events since the mid-late 1970s. The first of these was the Biennale of Sydney in 1976, in which he has participated five more times, most recently in 2000 with the installation titled The Skidderump. For 1976 Biennale the artist created the installation/performance work A Different Drummer, and at the 1982 Biennale he participated with the installation/performance piece Rhythms of Childhood.
In 1978 Unsworth, together with fellow artists Robert Owen and John Davis, were chosen to represent Australia at the Venice Biennale. The following year Unsworth was granted a six month Paris residency at Cité des Arts, and in 1980 he received a three months’ residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin. During the 1980s Unsworth participated four times in the Australian Perspecta exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and in 1981, the year after his return from Berlin, he received a commission from the City of Wollongong to convey the idea of the dynamics of city of Wollongong as “The Steel City.” The result was Nike which stands in the forecourt of that city’s art gallery.
In 1985 the artist received an invitation to participate in the 13th Paris Biennale and in 1989 he was part of the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition in Paris. In 1988 the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased his work Suspended Stone Circle II (1974-1977) for their permanent collection. In 1997 fifty art specialists were asked by the Sydney Morning Herald to nominate Sydney’s 10 best artworks and, as art critic Sebastian Smee wrote, “The most nominated work – with twice as many nominations as any other – was by contemporary Australian artist Ken Unsworth.” This was for Suspended Stone Circle II.
Unsworth was the first visual artist to receive the Australian Creative Fellowship in 1989, an award initiated by the then Prime Minister Paul Keating. In 2008, at the age of 77, Kenneth Lowell Unsworth was awarded the degree of Doctor of Visual Arts (honoris causa) by the University of Sydney. He continues to create new works with the same vigour, determination, ethusiasm and energy that he had in his youth.
Unsworth is one of Australia’s most significant contemporary artists. During his long artistic career he has created a large body of work that includes not only sculpture, installation art and performance, but also drawing, painting, relief and maquettes. Unsworth’s oeuvre abounds with bold and complex works. Many of them touch on the existential questions common to all human beings. Unsworthian aesthetics has the ability to trigger a transformation of a passive viewer into participator; in other words, it has the ability to inspire a deeper connection of the audience with the works. Concerning his role as an artist Unsworth states,
“[...] my role, if any role, is [...] providing a situation where I might be able sort of to stimulate a response that’s utterly personal and even though it’s not unique to that person because it’s universal, we all fundamentally have the same fears and ambitions and desires, we are not unique in that sense. But the way in which we experience that, interpret it, and the way in which it shapes us is something that is different.” (Unsworth in Katharine Buljan, “Interview with Ken Unsworth,” 29 April 2007, audio-recording).
As Sandra McGrath writes, “[Unsworth] is one of the most original and powerful sculptors that this country has produced.”
Note: Primary biographer Buljan, Katharine
Note: Primary biographer