Tim Stead: Object Maker and Seed Sower

Publication: The Times.
March 2014    

Tim Stead, who died in 2000 at the age of forty-eight, was a sculptor, furniture-maker, tree-planter, educator and visionary. He has left a rich, enduring legacy.

His life and vision touched many, not only because of his wide range of interests, but also because his work broke down the conventional barriers between ‘art’ and ‘craft’.

His furniture, in particular, had a wide appeal. Even if owning a distinctive native elm or oak chair, table or sideboard was beyond the means of some, venues such as Café Gandolfi in Glasgow’s Merchant City, which Stead fitted out in an early commission in 1979, gave his work a wider audience. His Papal Throne, made for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Scotland in 1980 further enhanced his reputation.  The Memorial Chapel in the Kirk of St Nicholas, Aberdeen is a tender, much-loved tribute to all those who lost their lives in the Scottish oil industry.

This show, wide ranging, lovingly-curated and imaginatively displayed, gives a flavour of Stead’s enormous range – as well as documenting and explaining how his thinking  and making evolved. As a student at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham in the early ‘70s, Stead rejected the prevalent ethos of conceptualism, striking out in a new, bold and imaginative direction.  He found his artistic path when he stopped taking himself seriously and began to ‘play’.

He made sculpture from any material that came to hand, such as stone, wood and fibreglass. An early work is a chess-board and table with integral chairs. Chess fascinated Stead and this theme was to emerge again and again throughout his short, prolific career. In Nottingham, Stead had access to the post-industrial detritus which littered the area. He was particularly drawn to the forms and substance of rotting hulks of boats and barges found on the canal. The worn, rounded timbers, resembling giant skeletons, held a particular fascination. Stead illuminated the innate, formal links between these made-made structures and those in the botanical and zoological worlds.

Stead consolidated his reputation with a large, complex show at the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh in 1993. An economic, critical and popular success the work ranged across conventional thinking and showed how furniture and sculpture – often falsely compartmentalised – had common origins in the once-living wood, revealed through Stead’s hand and mind. A huge, mature ash tree from the garden, felled because of disease, was transformed with a band-saw into enormous ‘trilobites’. These invited tactility and play. This was not just allowed but encouraged, reversing the traditional notion of art as a sanctified, purely visual experience.

Stead has inherited the mantel of artistic giants such as Constantin Brancusi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth and helped to maintain an alternative, formal, object-based course for sculpture.  His work, unique, but part of a tradition, will assume its rightful place among the most gifted sculptors of the 20th century.