Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower The Maclaurin Art Gallery, Rozelle House Ayr

Publication: The Times.   
November 2015

Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower
The Maclaurin Art Gallery
Rozelle House

Until Jan 17


Tim Stead, who died in 2000 at the age of 48, combined the roles of furniture maker, sculptor, designer, environmentalist, poet and educator with aplomb, enthusiasm and commitment.

This touring exhibition makes explicit the many facets and achievements of this talented and wonderful artist in a format that is expansive and well conceived. The Georgian splendour of Rozelle House, its converted stables and wooded grounds, a stone’s throw from Robert Burns cottage in Alloway, allows Stead’s vision the necessary space and appropriate atmosphere.

Stead studied sculpture at Trent Polytechnic and, later, at Glasgow School of Art, at a time when ‘conceptual’ art was gaining a firm hold in British art colleges. At Trent, Stead became fascinated by the forms of decaying ships and barges in the nearby Nottingham Canal and began using discarded timber to construct elaborate forms using wood, string and other recycled materials – a version of Arte Povera.

A photograph from Stead’s Trent graduation in 1974 shows him standing next to ‘Burnt Tower with Creaking Pendulum’ a large structure, over 8’ high, comprised of discarded wood, and bound together with rope and chain. There is no ‘conceptual’ basis for the work; it is what it is: an impossibly unstable-looking structure made from ‘found’ materials which delights in its own presence, form and solidity.

Such embryonic works were at the beginning of Stead’s rapid development as an artist. Many of his ideas took the form of rudimentary sketches in hundreds of notebooks which accumulated throughout his short working life. Some of these are to be seen here –they show the workings of a fertile and fecund imagination, where words and images interweave as ideas developed, took hold and grew to fruition.

In the early days Stead tended to work with imported hardwoods but later, as his consciousness developed, he used native British species such oak, elm and ash to develop his work as a furniture maker. His characteristic chairs and tables – solid, organically formed and hard-wearing – made it the ideal choice for restaurants and cafés (such as Café Gandolfi in Glasgow) as well as a domestic market.

As well as his work with wood, he also worked for the wider environment, recognising that he had some kind of a responsibility to put something back. He was instrumental in setting up the first Scottish community woodland (at Wooplaw Wood in the Borders) – an organisation which continues to thrive as an important educational and leisure resource. Towards the end of his life, Stead became unable to work with the huge slabs of timber that had characterised the earlier part of his career. Stead turned adversity to advantage and began on a massively ambitious project to develop smaller-scale sculpture.  The result is a rich legacy of hundreds of intricate, finely-honed works which reference a series archetypal forms, include the human body. It is sculpture in it purest forms and stands in a long line of work that can be traced back through Hepworth, Moore, to Gaudier-Brzeska and Brancusi, amongst others.

Stead died too young at a time when his ideas were developing at a fast rate. It is impossible to tell how his work might have developed, had he lived a normal life span. We should, however, be grateful for his invaluable and enduring legacy.