The Stead Obituary (Scotsman)

The Scotsman
April 2000

Tim Stead died on April 21, 2000 at the age of forty-eight following a long fight with cancer.  He was buried in Wooplaw Wood – part of a community woodland he had helped to found – on Saturday April 29  in a simple, moving ceremony.  I was invited to contribute an obituary to The Scotsman and wrote the following:

The death of Tim Stead has deprived Scotland of one of its most prolific and eclectic artistic talents.  To the many people whose lives he touched, his presence and influence was always meaningful, frequently challenging and usually great fun.  These three aspects also informed his work both as a sculptor and a furniture-maker.  For Tim, wood — the medium in which he worked for more than 30 years — was a wondrous and miraculous gift from nature.  He passionately believed that as an artist his role was to unlock the beauty of the natural material and share its secrets with others.  In this aim he succeeded brilliantly for his work proved immensely popular with many diverse people. The success of Tim’s work was not difficult to fathom for he often said that as an artist he wanted to let the wood speak for itself.  This stated desire to take a back seat was, more often than not, modesty; in fact, his role as an artist was crucial in shaping, presenting and interpreting his material.  His work was popular because he recognised humanity’s instinctive and archetypal need for tactile expression and aesthetic enrichment. 

He also recognised the desire of others to own his work and so, beneath what appeared at times to be a slightly disorganised nature, lay a shrewd business sense which allowed him to establish and sustain a thriving workshop in his adopted home in Blainslie, in the Borders.  This allowed him to design and assemble — along with various apprentices, co-worker s and volunteers — his range of idiosyncratic and individual items of furniture.  Over the years a distinctive style evolved, given impetus by an early commission for Cafe Gandolfi in Glasgow where the robust, organic forms of Tim’s tables and chairs still give the cafe its particular character.  Tim’s output was never less than voluminous — a direct result of his capacity for hard physical work, so much an element of woodworking.  The result is that his furniture has been acquired, collected and cherished by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals and organisations.

Tim’s work as a furniture-maker could not be separated from his ideas as a sculptor; the relationship between the two was always symbiotic.  He joked that he was addicted to wood and that his furniture-making allowed him to support the habit.  He described his work as a sculptor as ‘play’, for he recognised that this activity was not confined to children. Although, as adults, we might describe it as ‘creativity’, the processes and function are essentially the same. 

Sculpturally, Tim’s work did not appear to derive from any particular art historical tradition, although the ideas of Brancusi, Beuys and Hundertwasser, amongst others, were central to his vision.   His furniture owed something to Art Nouveau, in particular, Macintosh, Majorelle and Horta; his training at Glasgow School of Art was influential in this respect.  Early on, he rejected Conceptualism particularly in the way it was practised at Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham where he completed the early part of his training.  An early work, ‘Burnt Tower with Creaking Pendulum’, contains most of his essential vocabulary, later expanded and refined.  The piece shows items of worn driftwood bound together with rope, spectacularly off-centre and asymmetrical.  Tim loved the natural processes which eroded and shaped the world and this piece was a personal metaphor, redolent with the infinite possibilities he would later explore.

Few people when confronted by his giant, elm chess-sets with their towering tusk-like pieces, or his massive thrones constructed from segments of pale ash could have failed to be moved.  These pieces appear fantastical, the result of an imagination and talent given free-rein.  Yet there are quieter works which invite close inspection and derive from a relationship with his material which seems spiritual.  Pieces like ‘Vanished Gods and Banished Gods’ and ‘Spawning Voyage’ are essays in the exploration of self and humanity.  They appear on one level as three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles, inviting touch and involvement; they engage the hand and the eye (beside any piece of work at one of Tim’s exhibitions could be found a notice ‘Please Touch!’).  Because works such as these were cut from a single piece of wood, usually burr elm with its intricate grain and figure, the process of dismantling and putting together really was an exploration.  Again, these works could be read in several ways — on one level they were great toys, but philosophically they involved the artist looking back to his own seed and source and inviting others to do the same. 

Tim’s popularity as an artist was both reflected and increased by a number of large public commissions.  These included the North Sea Oil Industries’ memorial chapel at the Kirk of St. Nicholas in Aberdeen; here, he achieved that rare thing — highly crafted work of aesthetic value, which successfully managed to accommodate the sensitivities and sensibilities of a wide cross-section of the community.  Elsewhere his work for the Museum of Scotland had immediate and lasting appeal — I recently witnessed a group of schoolchildren engrossed by his doorway to the education department.  In the same building the enormous Millennium Clock — recently completed in collaboration with the Russian sculptor Eduard Bersudsky and a number of others — draws a fascinated audience to the kinetic theatricality of its hourly chimes.  Other equally involving works by Tim are to be found in Glasgow’s Museum of Modern Art and in the recently refurbished Hamilton town centre, the site of a major public art project.

Tim’s guiding ethos in life was to put in more than he took out; because he realised that trees were central to his own life, both ecologically and economically, he helped found a community woodland near his home.  The funds to purchase Wooplaw came in part from Tim’s inspired idea to make a wooden axe-head for each day of 1986 — these he subsequently sold.  This community involvement also extended to his role of co-founder of Woodschool in Ancrum, based on the idea that a plentiful supply of local, indigenous timber could be used by the increasing number of furniture makers emerging from art schools and colleges.  The project has proved an enormous success, attracting interest from around the world.  It is an enduring testament to Tim’s vision for sustainable economic activity based on local resources.  It was this community involvement which led to his being awarded an MBE earlier this year.

One of Tim’s favourite poems was ‘Since feeling is first’ by e. e. cummings; I can think of no better and more apposite epitaph.

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis[1]

There were a number of other obituaries published in the national press.  Alex Fraser, writing in The Guardian commented that “A mighty tree has been felled before its time: but Stead planted seeds for more than trees.” [2]  Julian Spalding in The Herald said that “It is very likely that Tim Stead ….will come, in time, to be regarded as one of the most significant sculptors in post-war Britain.” [3]  It goes without saying that these sentiments reflect the high esteem in which the man and his work were held. 

One of the most personal recollections of Stead’s life was by the arts impresario and friend of the Stead family, Richard Demarco.  Writing in Artwork, Demarco contributed the following appreciation:

Tim Stead’s death at the tragically early age of 48 was a severe blow to all those who believe that the life and work of an artist at this time when the new millennium is beginning should be about the regenerative and healing powers of art working in harmony with nature.

Artists such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and Joseph Beuys come to mind as makers of art which gives hope to future generations.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Temple Garden of Little Sparta in the Lanarkshire Hills is a great gift to future generations, so too is Joseph Beuys’s sculpture ‘Seven Thousand Oaks’ now flowering into maturity in the city of Kassel.

Tim Stead’s ‘Community Woodlands’ which are flowering near the village of Blainslie in the summer of the year 2000 will surely operate as the handiwork of a sculptor who loved, protected and extended the life of trees as a gift to all those who are continuing his life’s work through the fast developing community woodlands movement.

Tim Stead was born in Helsby in Cheshire, one of three brothers.  He was educated at Heronwater Prep School in Wales.  Here he leaned to the natural world and the love of nature at Leys School, Cambridge and Nottingham School of Art, where he had the good fortune to be taught the art and craft of working in wood by Frank Lindlay.

The old Scots word ‘makar’ could be applied to both Frank Findlay and Tim Stead because they were literally ‘Makers’.  They both delighted in making manifest their ideas in wood.  This delight is succinctly expressed in a poem which Tim Stead felt obliged to write entitled “Making/Taking/Breaking/Waking”:

To change the form

Create a shape

Is like drawing rabbits out of hats

Without the tricks.

There is tension

Between destroying the given piece

Its partial destruction

And the moment where it draws itself together as new –

Making footprints not scars;

Imposing form but with harmony;

Eroding with tools and imagination

Compelled by the excitement 

Of creating something which wasn’t there before

Realigning and composing the elements in moment like music

That echoes on.

His post-graduate studies were at Glasgow School of Art.  There was nobody like Frank Lindley there, but it was in Glasgow that he met Maggy Lenert at the farewell party she was giving at the end of her year’s teaching at a school near Barlinnie Prison.

She did not return to Luxembourg because she and Tim were married and settled in the idyllic setting of an old Border farmhouse, high on a hill above Lauderdale.  Maggy Lenert was not only a teacher of French, she was also a highly talented artist – and it gives me pleasure to think that she and Tim are exhibiting at the Edinburgh City Art Centre as part of the exhibition ‘70 Over 2000 on the Road to Meikle Seggie’

This road led to Blainslie as it did to Little Sparta as two locations near to Edinburgh which question the places where art is housed in the shape of galleries and museums.

Murray and Barbara Grigor gave Tim Stead the opportunity to rethink the genius of the prehistoric builders of Skara Brae in their exhibition at the McLellan Galleries in 1990.

In 1993 he was given his most significant one-man exhibition which he entitled ‘The Botanic Ash’ under the aegis of the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh.

His most testing commission was the Memorial Chapel to those who died on Piper Alpha in Aberdeen’s Kirk of St Nicholas.  He created 40 chairs, a lectern, a communion table and a minister’s chair and added a rood screen which separated the chapel from the rest of the Kirk. 

He worked incessantly through all the days of his adult life and it was typical of his single-mindedness that he should have given himself the task of making a wooden axe-head for each day of 1986 and by selling these to help raise the £40,000 to purchase the first community wood.

If you visit the National Museums of Scotland in Chambers Street you will be intrigued by the Millennium Clock Tower which came to life on January 1, 2000.  It is a construction in wood, metal and glass and is a celebratory monument to the 20thCentury encapsulating the hopes and fears which were provoked over the past 100 years.

The makers of the tower were listed as Eduard Bersudsky who is defined as a sculptor- mechanic; Tatiana Jakovskaya, a theatre director; Anica Sandström, a glass artist, Jürgen Tübbecke as a clock-maker and Maggy Stead-Lenert as an illustrator and, of course, Tim Stead as a sculptor-furniture maker.

This list defines the team spirit which Tim engendered whenever working with fellow artists, scientists, engineers, environmentalists, mechanics, craftsmen and school children.

He was much loved and commanded respect from all those who were privileged to know him and benefit from his love of life and art.[4]

[1]‘The Scotsman’ April 26, 2000

[2]  ‘The Guardian’,  April 29, 2000

[3] ‘The Herald’ April 29, 2000

[4] ‘Artwork’ No. 105  August/September 2000