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Tim Stead: Object Maker And Seed Sower, Low Parks Museum, Hamilton

Like most artists, the late Tim Stead struggled with the business of describing himself and his art.

But he tried. A new book, with the beautifully crude feel of one of his personal notebooks, has been published to tie in with a touring exhibition of Stead's work. In it, Maggy Stead Lenert has transcribed her husband's words, now reproduced with love in her own neat handwriting because, she says, "his writing is very difficult to read easily".

"Tim liked my handwriting," she adds. "Before the facility of computer fonts, he asked me to write his letters and all the exhibition labels by hand."

The title of this new book is the same as the exhibition - Tim Stead: Object Maker And Seed Sower. In it, the artist and environmentalist, who died at the age of 48 in 2000, says: "The centre of my world is wood. If I have a problem, I solve it with wood."

During a three-decade-long career spent as an "object-maker", Stead deconstructed wood only to reconstruct the harmony he found buried deep within its core. Known for his furniture in public spaces such as Cafe Gondolfi, Glasgow (1979), the Memorial Chapel in the Kirk Of St Nicholas, Aberdeen (1989), The Peephole created for the Gallery Of Modern Art, Glasgow (1996) and the Millennium Clock Tower for the National Museum Of Scotland, Edinburgh (1999), Stead was an artist to his fingertips.

His furniture-making was always sculptural, designed with sympathy for the nature of his raw materials and the ergonomics of the human form. He described his chairs as "sculptures with legs" and, such was their allure, he was invited to make a Papal Throne for the visit of Pope John Paul II to Edinburgh in 1982.

In 1999, a year before Stead died from cancer, he conceived a touring exhibition that would focus on the seemingly disparate worlds of furniture and sculpture. According to Laura Hamilton, the former director of Strathclyde University's Collins Gallery, who has curated this exhibition in collaboration with Maggy Stead Lenert, his plan for this show was that it would encapsulate the essence of his art, which was "sculptural, pedagogical, environmental, architectural, fundamental and fun".

Today, 14 years after his death and with Stead Lenert preparing to leave The Steading, the family home in Blainslie, near Galashiels, this exhibition has finally come to glorious life. Among the treasures are a chess board Stead made in 1973 from railway sleepers while still an undergraduate at Trent Polytechnic, Nottingham; a cradle made for his children, Sam and Emma, in 1978; wood sculptures fashioned to form the most exquisite puzzles; tiny notebooks and drawings; and a selection of work taken from more than 100 intimate creations made in the final year of his life. In true Stead fashion, they were designed for contemplating time and space.

Stead was born in Helsby, Cheshire, in 1952. After studying fine art in Nottingham, he headed to Glasgow School Of Art and, while studying sculpture there, he met the woman who became his wife. He graduated in 1975 and lived for most of his working life in the Borders in a house that became the embodiment of his art.

Acutely environmentally conscious, Stead led a successful campaign to establish a Community Woodland in the Borders and, to encourage new makers, set up the Wood School in the same area. The Steading is due to be passed to the Prince's Regeneration Trust in partnership with the Scottish Borders Council when his wife moves permanently to France next year.

There is a sense of underscoring the past in this exhibition, which has been curated with a sensitive eye. The work from Stead's back catalogue includes a copy of a play written by him when he was 20, called The Man In The Large Checked Suit, and various personal gifts made for his wife, such as Message Box For Maggy and Ring Box For Maggy.

It all serves to remind the viewer what a personal loss his death was to his family as well to the wider world; one can't help but wonder what Stead have gone on to do in his fifties and beyond.

One of the most extraordinary things about this show is that so much of the work was made in his final year of life. This includes 19 of the sculptures he called Excavations. If you ask staff at Low Parks for a torch, it is possible to delve inside these extraordinary art works and travel around their hidden chambers, checking for marks made by nature or the artist as you go.

As his strength dimmed, Stead worked on a small scale but, in keeping with a lifetime spent always looking to the next creative project, his ambition was limitless. He wrote the following words about his Excavation series in 1998, but they could almost sum up his whole approach to life and art:

"With all my work I seem to be continually going around the relationship of man and nature. I am an incorrigible optimist and like to celebrate the fact that a man can make an input which reveals nature in an altered beauty. We are natural and represent a vast natural force of change. Balance is everything."

Tim Stead: Object Maker And Seed Sower, A Retrospective Of Sculpture In Wood: 1973-2000, Low Parks Museum, Hamilton (www.timsteadfurniture.co.uk) until May 31 (then touring)

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