A Wizard with Wood: The Keith Rand Studio Gift

Posted on 20 August 2020

Question: What do the Greek Philosophers Socrates, Aristotle, and the German Theoretical Physicist Albert Einstein have in common?

Answer: All three are credited with quotations which can be summarised as acknowledging that the more one learns, the less one realises one actually knows.

I know I will not be alone amongst those working in the visual arts, in finding empathy with these expressions, but in the most wonderful and stimulating manner. Amongst the distinguished collection of the Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture, is a wealth of work by someone, sadly no longer with us, whose name was a new discovery for me, and whose life and work I have had the rare privilege of exploring. In doing so the adage of realising “how little I know, the more I learn,” has become self-evident.

The individual was the sculptor Keith Rand RSA (1956-2013)

 

Portrait of Keith Rand, and at work from tree felling to splitting and carving. Keith Rand Studio Gift

Born at a British military base in Rinteln, West Germany on 25 October 1956, Rand attended boarding school at Woodroffe in Dorset. After leaving school he trained as a Cartographic Surveyor with Ordnance Survey in Southampton before undertaking a portfolio year at Dewsbury and Batley Technical and Art College in West Yorkshire. He enrolled at Winchester College of Art in 1979, graduating with First Class Honours in 1982.

His subsequent mastery of his medium is little evident in his often cumbersome early work. Inspired by both tensile and kinetic interests, he deployed wood, glass, metal, concrete, and slate. He was clearly experimenting and trying to find his own style, as evidenced by his large scale sculpture “drawings.” For these works he used significant quantities of sawdust to create outline shapes, on hillsides and in fields. These ephemeral pieces survive only in the photographic record, but already point to a subtler yet more intense symbiotic relationship between his sculpture and his preferred medium, wood, with the natural world.

 

Keith Rand working on an early sculpture

After graduating Rand worked for bespoke woodworking studios in London and at Breamore to the South of Salisbury. Desperate to achieve his own niche, in 1984 he arrived in rural Aberdeenshire as a part-time sculpture technician at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop at Lumsden.

Founded in 1979 by Fred Bushe RSA (1931-2009) the ethos of Lumsden was to enable those in attendance to learn new, and share existing, skills and techniques in an open, supportive, and non-judgemental environment. A key focus was the large communal table where attendees and staff alike were encouraged to take their breaks and eat their meals, using the informality and closeness to bounce ideas off each other. Rand’s initial enthusiasm for the place and the interaction with a changing presence of like-minded creative individuals in time gave way to restlessness.

Rand, who suffered from severe bouts of depression throughout his life found the community aspect more challenging to cope with regularly on a personal basis. He also became increasingly frustrated with his role as a technician, there primarily to service other people’s needs, at a time when his own creativity was battling to emerge, and finally he resigned.

 

The studio at Quarry Hill Cottage, Aberdeenshire

He remained in the Lumsden area however, where he built a studio at the rented Quarry Hill Cottage on the Craig Estate. He augmented his income by teaching part-time in the sculpture departments at Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, and was visiting lecturer at Glasgow School of Art and Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee.

In the catalogue to the SSW’s 4th Annual Sculpture Open held in 1987 at nearby Kildrummy Castle, Rand wrote; “I am a constructor foremost, not a carver or a modeller – what concerns me the most is the way an object is put together and I find building and manufacturing skills of great interest.” Indeed, at this time Rand was working as a constructivist, making large wooden structures evocative of agricultural machinery or implements. But he was already pushing into new areas such as steam-bending of wood; which he introduced to Lumsden in rudimentary form.

Hugely practical, Rand deployed steam-bending in the manufacture of pieces of domestic furniture, in particular chairs. His personal library, though small, included books on rural woodworking techniques and rustic furniture making. A prototype Expanded Elm Seat represents this aspect of Rand’s output, and indeed some of his earliest exhibitions promoted not his sculpture but his furniture making.

 

Expanded Elm Seat, elm wood, cut steam-bent and wedged, 65.0 x 52.5 x 18.5cm, 1987 or 1988

This piece was exhibited at the Crawford Arts Centre in St Andrews in 1988. It is a fascinating work, being cut from a single plank of wood which has then been subjected to the steam-bending box. A couple of inserted wooden wedges tie the piece in its finished shape.

Rand developed a unique leg joint for his seating; two vertical parallel cuts are made in a piece of wood to create three equal tines. The plank is then steamed which allows the central of the three tines to be bent in one direction and the other two bent together in the opposite direction. Already evident in his Expanded Elm Seat, he was to develop and refine the joint, which was prominent in his unrealised designs for Mackintosh-inspired, high-backed gallery seating at Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art.

Lumsden was important to Rand for many reasons, and though his mature period saw him living and working in rural England, much of what he achieved latterly had its roots firmly embedded in his earlier years in Scotland.

 

Loose sketchbook page developing pig forms

Pig, Vessel is an example of Rand’s work at this time which epitomised many aspects of sculpture which he was subsequently to refute. Pigs feature in many pencil sketches executed by Rand during his time at Winchester. Rand saw in them something darker; literally earthier. Pig, Vessel’s alternative title is Erotic Piece, where the snout is exaggerated and the rest of the form is suggestive of human reproduction as much as the fecundity of swine. Rand disliked the hardness of the wood and the fact that he had to carve the piece, releasing the hidden form from its confines. The splits in the wood, poorly masked by the subsequent use of fillers and oil staining, much displeased him also. However such setbacks served only to nurture his deeper understanding of the properties of wood as a medium.

 

Pig, Vessel, painted laburnum wood, 43.0 x 16.0 x 16.0cm (approx), 1983

The catalogue which accompanied an exhibition of sculpture, including works by Rand, at Sherborne Old Castle in Dorset in 2000; notes;

Keith Rand extends the sculptural possibilities of his material through an approach that develops a process of deconstruction, and is informed by our dependency on the natural world. A perennial theme is the sculptural harmony of space, mass, surface and line. Refining traditional woodworking techniques such as splitting, carving and pairing, he reconstructs elements of the timber to create sculpture that is contemplative, reconnecting human experience with the natural world.

This was Rand’s very clear response to the restrictions he felt with Pig. From this point forward, firstly using copper wire to recreate the original profile of a deconstructed sculpture, and latterly relying on the wood itself to retain the shape invisibly, Rand would tease his sculptures into being.

Sculpture is traditionally viewed from the exterior. Rand, in contrast, regarded the total sculpture as an entity, almost a living form. To him the treatment of the inner faces of his deconstructs was as important to the overall feel of the piece as that on its outer faces.

Rand learnt how to source his timber – pre-selecting trees to be felled, and while the wood was still green, splitting the bole into triangular sections. This provided for irregular shaped pieces following the natural cracking line of the tree, an effect not achieved with a chain saw.

 

Keith Rand working his way through split sections of a tree trunk

Rand started by roughly marking an outline in pencil on one of the selected wedges. Referring to his sketchbooks for an ‘essence’ rather than a prescriptive model, he would transfer his idea free-hand. He would then work away, cutting and shaping using a plethora of tools, many salvaged from second-hand dealers or purchased on eBay, others adapted or made from scratch by Rand.

 

Display of Keith Rand’s hand-made tools  at Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art 1540 to Now, 2017

Rand explained the process in an exhibition catalogue for a solo show at the John Lacey Gallery, his first London promoter, in 2002;

I often start from a single drawn line on the timber, carving towards that line more or less, exploring the space in between the edges. Establishing movements, shifts and planes across the surface, responding to the wood as I carve…… Although I find myself drawing certain shapes, distillations of observations from plants, landscape, the figure – it’s difficult to know where the ideas come from. The carving and assembling process brings them out – but you can’t be fixed on them…

The other pertinent contribution to Rand’s mature practice is the importance of landscape, and in particular the boundaries between lowlands and uplands (or high lands), first explored during his time in Lumsden. Apparently abstract forms, such as Parsonage Down II, executed after he had settled in the South of England for example, are mature examples of sculptures informed in their structure, surface texture, and patina, by a sense of place.

 

Parsonage Down II, bleached lime, rust, boxwood ties, 86.0 x 22.0 x 16.0cm, 2004

Rand was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Scottish Academy in 1996, in which year ironically he left Scotland to take up the post of Artist in Residence at the River Parrett Trail in Somerset.

With studio and workshop provided, at Cannington Agricultural College he worked with students exploring sustainable and ecological practices to create a series of public landforms and structures. These include marker posts, gates, stiles, foot bridges, and benches, constructed mainly in wood but including metalwork. Subtle, understated but beautifully designed and crafted these sit comfortably in the landscape. Whilst at Lumsden, Rand made a piece for the nearby Tyrebagger Sculpture Park; creating a new crown for a storm-damaged spruce tree. Segmented Sitka (1994, sitka spruce wood, steel and copper), is made of steam-bent sections joined together in a form evocative of a pinecone or bark. It sits high above viewing height and thus blends masterfully with its setting.  About the same time, Rand was asked to make a piece for Grizedale Forest in Cumbria. Visiting the site he came across a fallen tree. Rand retained the tree in its entirety, building a house-like pod around its roots and thus created a work at once distinctive and arresting.

 

Segmented Sitka, sitka spruce wood, steel and copper, Tyrebagger Sculpture Park, 1994, plus preparatory sketch

Although Rand enjoyed a number of solo exhibitions, and was a regular group exhibitor, his work resonated most powerfully when shown in non-traditional exhibiting spaces. These included National Trust properties as well as the outstanding exhibition Into the Light, held in Winchester Cathedral in the Autumn of 2011 just two years before Rand’s tragic early death. Winchester’s gothic architecture found a sensitive foil in Rand’s elegant large-scale tensile constructions. These included the haunting Silent Figure I which is evocative of an ethereal being.

In all these works Rand remains true to his medium; redefining form and deeply conscious of the play of light across the deceptively fabric-like folds. It is entirely apposite that the majority of Rand’s site specific works remain in situ, with a significant number to be found in hospital oncology units, yet his work remains less well-known than his technical mastery and poetic vision deserves.

 

Silent Figure I, carved bleached limewood, 244.0 x 27.0 x 16.0cm, 2001

In 2015, two years after Rand’s death, his partner, the curator Annette Ratuszniak, made the generous donation of the Keith Rand Studio Gift to the Royal Scottish Academy. The Studio Gift, the largest holding of Rand’s work in a publicly accessible collection, includes 103 sketchbooks and notebooks, several hundred drawings ranging from portraits and life drawings to studies of animals and preparatory works for sculpture. There are tools as well as completed sculptures and a rich group of maquettes and trial pieces. These include examples from all phases of his sculptural practice, from the early expanded and locked forms, through staved forms, original forms, and ridge forms, to the tensile forms of his late works. Project files, photographs, videos and exhibition catalogues complete the holdings.

The collection of sketchbooks cover all aspects of Rand’s career, from an early student one from his time at Dewsbury and Batley Technical College, to ones from the very end of his life. They are in a variety of sizes and formats, ranging from tiny cheap spiral bound general notebooks to larger artist’s sketchbooks. He worked mainly in pencil or in pen, with colour being introduced on occasion. The sketchbooks do not however provide a tidy chronological sequence. Whilst some like the student one can be very narrowly tied down to a specific time and place, others suggest that he would sometimes turn to whichever one was closest at hand, so an idea from several years later can be found lumped in randomly with those from an earlier period. And like many artists he used his sketchbooks not only to jot down and work out ideas, but to make notes, save contact details for friends, write poems, record his cancer treatment, or simply doodle.

 

Sketchbook page exploring pegged hollow forms and wrestling with the process of forming sculpture from ideas

When she deposited the Keith Rand Studio Gift, Annette Ratuszniak said of the sketchbooks that they are not places to go to find drawings per se. An examination of them certainly bears this out, and it would not be too outrageous to see them as very much another amongst his array of woodworking tools.

Rand would observe from nature, a farm animal, or a piece of landscape, and would make marks in his sketchbooks related to this initial observation. He would then work some of these into more abstracted forms – working out how best he might translate his ideas on the page into three-dimensional sculptural forms. The sketchbooks do not give easy to follow step-by-step developments, but rather provide a resource pool; they do not present the finished “picture” but rather a series of stages towards it. It may not be possible to find the original design for every known piece of his sculpture, but there is plenty that informs the thought process, and resolves the structural challenges of the different categories into which his sculptures can be classified.

 

Sketchbook pages working around representation and abstraction

The Keith Rand Studio Gift offers a rare overview of a sculptor’s practice and has already been drawn on to augment RSA Collections-based displays, most recently in the major exhibition Ages of Wonder: Scotland’s Art 1540 to Now – in 2017. It was also the subject of a paper given to the Scottish Society for Art History in 2019, and which was subsequently published in their Journal for that year. https://ssahistory.wordpress.com/

Most recently images and basic details of the sculptures have been submitted to ArtUK https://artuk.org/ where they are gradually being added to their sculpture database, and three of the sketchbooks spanning different decades of his career have been digitised and are available to view on-line at https://www.royalscottishacademy.org/collections-archives/rsa-bookshelf/keith-rand-sketchbooks/