For My Husband, Alan Lees: Ayrshire, Art and Opportunities

End of Shift

For a part of Scotland that is the birthplace of Scotland's greatest poet, as well as the other 'two Roberts' - artists Colquhoun and MacBryde - we do seem to treat our contemporary artists pretty carelessly, here in Ayrshire. If a career as a visual artist is a struggle in most of the UK right now, it sometimes seems to be beyond difficult in this beautiful, historic and generally fascinating part of the world. Mind you, all three Roberts left. So, much as we love this place, I often find myself wondering if we should have done the same.

Tam O' Shanter
Scotland's finest woodcarver.
For some years, my husband, Alan Lees, made a reasonable living as a full time woodcarver. In fact he has been called 'Scotland's finest woodcarver.'

Rocking horses were one of his specialities - big, beautiful, sculptural rocking horses. He must have made dozens of them over the years, all of them with star names like Arcturus and Zuben'ubi, all of them with a time capsule which the client filled with a little parcel of personal documents.

These originals were supplemented by some fine restoration work of antique horses made by companies such as Ayres, the 'Rolls Royce' of rocking horse manufacturers. He would never over-restore, but often a horse had been so badly damaged that only full restoration could save it.

Gorgeous restored antique horse.
Sad old horses.
Sometimes a sad old horse would arrive quite literally as a bundle of sticks in a box.
Occasionally, we would have to pick up hideously damaged and even more badly restored horses (no ears, broken jaws, legs replaced by broom handles, gloss paint, string tails) from inaccessible places.

I remember two of us struggling to carry one large beast down a narrow spiral staircase in a castle. Another owner burst into tears when he saw his old rocking horse miraculously restored to him, as a birthday gift, recreated from the box of charred sticks that had been brought to Alan's studio. Somebody had put it on a bonfire and it had only just been rescued in time.

Outdoor carving.
Alan also used to make huge, monumental outdoor carvings, sometimes from fallen trees that were still rooted in the ground. Examples of his work can still be seen here and there throughout Scotland.

Alan in more active days, with one of his smaller outdoor carvings :
an otter waymarker outside Straiton.
Arthritis strikes
All of this may help to explain why a number of years ago, he fell victim to severe and chronic arthritis, both osteo and inflammatory. So he had to find something else to do, something that didn't involve lifting and walking and hauling large lumps of wood about.

St Patrick and The Snakes
He painted.

He had always done sketches for his carvings, and had attended life drawing classes among other things, so it wasn't too big a leap.  But he was never going to want to paint your average small, safe, rule-obeying local landscapes. He loved colour and he has a vivid imagination.

His art is, I think, extraordinary. Of course I'm biased but I've never seen anything quite like it. There are names for his style of painting - folk or naive art - but real popularity of this kind of work usually comes out of left field, whereupon the critics will jump on the bandwagon and talk about bold colours and child-like vision and so on.

Pictures telling stories.
Alan's work is narrative art too. Many of his pictures tell a story. The colours are vivid, luminous, striking, while the detail is often precise and fascinating. These canvases, some of them quite big, are full of movement and emotion and atmosphere. Sometimes they are nostalgic, sometimes that nostalgia is mingled with an element of hard hitting social observation as in 'Hope' below, which sold almost immediately to an elderly man who told us it reminded him of his own childhood. The same interesting combination can be seen in Alan's paintings of fishing boats, farming and village life.


I love them and many people who see them seem to love them too. He has sold a surprising number of pictures, when he can show them, when he can get the footfall, when the kind of people who might appreciate them are able to see them. But most of them, alas, don't seem to live here in Ayrshire.

Tattie Howkers
Extending the range.
Of course his physical health means that big city fairs are beyond him. And sadly, we're forced to the conclusion that Ayrshire is just not ready for this sort of thing yet, even though it has provided him with so much of his inspiration.

In an effort to extend his appeal, last year, he painted a range of paperweights and doorstops on Scottish cobbles. I think they are very appealing too, although they don't have the huge 'statement' effect of the big canvases. But then again, they don't have the same price tag either. He has also tried his hand at a bit of 'upcycling' going back to his first love of wood, and painting scenes on small wooden items such as trays and boxes.

Paperweights and doorstops.
Fairs and shows.
We used to do numerous fairs and shows with the woodcarvings, and although Alan sold very little on the day, he did get a great many subsequent enquiries and commissions from people who had seen his work, or even seen him demonstrating, so it was well worth the effort and expense. But craft fairs in this part of the world are not what they once were, and artists definitely struggle. We took part in the very worthwhile Open Studios events here in Ayrshire for a few years, but as exhibitors started to drift away from their own houses and studios, concentrating instead on a series of mini art fairs, it become more and more difficult - and less worthwhile - for Alan to participate.

The Slip

In the teeth of adversity
It has to be said, too, that we have had some challenging experiences while attempting to place his far -from-conventional work in shops and galleries in this part of the world. These include the grumpy gallery owner who when Alan, unable to bend and propped up on crutches, dropped some of the work, stood back with arms folded and watched him struggle. Few were as nasty as that, fortunately, but there are a great many proprietors who shake their heads and say 'Lowry' in slightly patronising 'if you like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing you like,' tones.

Lowry? Fred Yates maybe. Grandma Moses too. A touch of Bruegel perhaps. Or the brilliant Bill Brownridge in Canada. But Alan's pictures are not really 'Lowryesque'.

Dawn Watch
Damned with faint praise.
We've been sent packing because a gift shop (in Scotland) didn't 'do' Scottish things. We've been told, when attempting to display a couple of pictures locally, that it would cause jealousy among other local artists. We've been asked for exclusivity by businesses that have no intention of placing reasonable orders that would make that exclusivity worthwhile. We have been tutted at, and frowned at, and smiled pityingly at, and damned with faint praise.

Novel inspiration.
I personally have also been put very firmly in my place by an ultra posh young 'expert' at an auction house (not our lovely local one, I hasten to add. They couldn't be nicer.) who rejected Alan's work as 'unsuitable' even though it had been recommended by a very well regarded Scottish artist. 'We get so many requests' he told me. 'We can't take just anyone you know!' I've filed that encounter away under the heading 'inspiration for novels' and since I'm working on a new series of books involving art and antique dealers, it will probably come in very handy at some point.

Alan keeps reminding me of how little Van Gogh sold in his lifetime. He isn't comparing himself with the master, of course, but just pointing out that attempting to sell any kind of art or craft can be a wearisome business and his experience is nothing new.

Coo Tray
I know that a single word in the right ear, a single purchase from the right 'celebrity' would change everything. But I'm also frustrated. Alan can sit and paint, is still bursting with ideas and inspirations. What he can't do is trek about the country to fairs and shows, hauling pictures in and out of cars. And with the best will in the world, I can't do it for him. I have books to write - a new novel before the end of summer, and another project to finish in draft form before the end of the year - as well as book events to attend, proofs to read, Etsy shops to keep up to and blog posts like this one to write.

Arts on Etsy
I have, however, set up an Etsy Shop for him, called Arts of Scotland. At the moment, it's mostly stocked with prints, a selection of his paperweights and some of his upcycling, but when I have a bit of time, I will add the full range, plus all the original art we have here at home. We're very happy for prospective purchasers to make an appointment and come here to view his art. Most of his originals are available as very high quality digital prints too.

One thing we no longer do is 'sale or return' although Alan would be happy to mount an exhibition in a gallery. We used to lend out one of the rocking horses until one came back with a coffee cup ring on the polished wooden stand, while another big, valuable horse was almost spirited away by a shop owner, and would have disappeared for good if we hadn't mounted a complicated 'sting' operation to get it back.

Other than that, though, I don't know what else to do apart from pray for a sudden miraculous 'discovery' with Alan as the discoveree. Stranger things have happened!

Meanwhile, if you know of anyone who you think might appreciate Alan's weird but very wonderful pictures, do send them the link to this blog, or to Alan's own website also to the Arts of Scotland Etsy shop where you can browse a few more images and where a lot more will be coming in due course.

The Lighthouse and the Netmender


gz said…
It isn't easy..and Ayrshire isn't the best of places to sell art and design...or even books,looking at the paucity of bookshops....