As part of our ongoing series of finding inspiration during lockdown, this week we hear from Scottish Borders artist Neil Stewart.
Hey Neil, tell everybody where are you based and what you do!
I live in a small hamlet of wooden ex forestry houses, nestled at the edge of Elibank and Traquair forest, a stone’s throw from the Tweed.
These prefabs were sent over from Sweden or Finland after World War 2, ours used to belong to Doddie, an elderly, characterful shepherd with mutton chop sideburns and a mischievous glint in his eyes.
Typically, the large back garden had been given over to potatoes and chickens. What had been his coal bunker and workshop we turned into living quarters.
I trained as a sculptor and work mainly in wood. More recently I’ve focused on lino printing and many of my pictures celebrate this beautiful neck of the woods.
How long has the outdoors been a part of your life?
As kids, we lived in Silverknowes in north Edinburgh, close by football pitches, leading down to a municipal golf course, which ended at the coast and Cramond Island with its tidal causeway. Lauriston Castle and its grounds were nearby too.
We came inside only to eat and (finally) to sleep. I remember spending endless hours traversing an enormous beech hedge surrounding our garden. (Tree climbing is still a favoured past time).
For family summer holidays we camped, caravanned or rented a cottage in Ardnamurchan and then Raasay. In fact I didn’t really appreciate there was an outdoorsy kind of a Scotland south of Edinburgh, until settling in the Tweed Valley 20 years ago.
Since moving here I’ve run just about every conceivable bike path, deer trail and logging road in the adjoining forest and even write a blog about those experiences.
What’s been your favourite trip or adventure?
One summer I packed my bike panniers and set off solo from Stirling railway station for the Outer Hebrides, via Uig on Skye Youth Hostelling and camping en route. A dog-eared Finlay J MacDonald’s The Corncrake and the Lysander in my bags, I still recall the smells and sounds of the Machair, the brilliant aquamarine water and the white gold sand.
The next favourite trip is one I’m looking forward to in the future, once there is some return to normality in our lives: I have VACMA funding (Visual Artists and Craft Makers Awards) to produce a series of prints about a cycling and a wild camping journey from my front door at Glenbenna (right on Sustrans route 1), through the Trossachs and Cairngorms National Parks and ending in Inverness.
I’ll be gathering photos and sketches and recording sounds of the forests and making up tunes for a portable guitalele (strapped to the bike, somehow).
It’ll be a shout-out for Scotland’s Right of Responsible Access, Sustrans, our National Parks, and the simple joy of sleeping under the stars.
How do you make / find a balance between being active and life’s other responsibilities i.e. work and family?
Just now there are 5 of us sharing a wee wooden house. But this house has a garden. And at the garden’s end is a gate leading into pastureland and then woodland.
Apart from making art and music I work in Social Care in what will become an increasingly demanding service over the coming weeks and months.
I need to find pockets of quiet. Bizarrely perhaps, I can find this in cleaning the kitchen, hanging out the washing, tuning into the present moment and then escaping into the woods to photograph bees or trees.
Is there anyone who inspired your love of the outdoors?
My dad, Jake Stewart, is a founding member of the Ochil’s Mountaineering Club. As a Bannockburn youth he’d hitch a ride for a weekend’s climbing in Glencoe or Skye. It was his love for the outdoors that inspired those family holidays and weekend jaunts to the Pentlands, and instilled my own love of Scotland’s natural environments.
Most recently, Robert MacFarlane (The Wild Places) as well as Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain) has helped me to tune into, rather than pit myself against the outdoors.
Do you find that being outside has a positive impact on your wellbeing mental health?
There is nothing quite like the cleansing purge of a long run in the hills. It’s so intrinsic to our natures. That and finding an accommodating tree to climb, and to sit in it long enough for the birds to return. Also, these past few weeks I’ll plunge into the garden from morning to evening. Savouring the birdsong, seeing the plants come to life, enjoying the graft of creating a fire pit, making a grass roof for the woodshed, establishing a vegetable plot. Worries fall away.
Does the great outdoors inspire your art?
The Great Outdoors is the foundation to my art. There’s a fair dose of free ranging imagination woven into the fabric, but it’s all grounded in the world I observe.
I collaborated with Alex over the last few year on a couple of design projects, specific to the FINDRA vibe, capturing the essence of the brand, for their Innerleithen shop window design and more recently for their 5th birthday where I created a piece of art that encapsulated the journey the brand and Alex has been on over these last 5 years. Research was mainly walking and running trails with my camera, letting ideas jog in and out of focus.
Last year I spent time in the Faroe Islands developing and exhibiting a series of prints inspired by those astounding land and seascapes.
Thanks for taking the time to share you thoughts with us and if any readers want to view or purchase your work, where can they find you online?
You can visit my website here: www.narrative-ark-neils.com.