There’s a man sleeping wild in the woods. He has no shoes and swims in the rivers. In Scandinavia? No, right here, between Reading and Newbury!
The man in the woods is the sculptor in residence at the University of Reading’s Institute of Education department - an accomplished stone sculptor, often featured in the National and regional press (Craft & Design magazine and Berkshire Life magazine, to name but two).
So how does such an accomplished artist find himself in such extremity?
“It’s my earnest ambition to become the most highly accomplished portrait sculptor. My contention is that one’s subject matter must be studied with fresh eyes – not with eyes that have learned to gloss over that which they think they already know. For me it’s not enough just to study the anatomy and physiology of the face and head.
"To this end I am trying to put distance between me and my fellow human-beings by remaining as far as is possible, outside their environment; to share as little as possible of their lifestyle and to look back at them from the outside. I sleep in the woods and see the human population’s effect upon the land which supports it and hear the noises its settlements make at night. Arriving in town days later I see the mass of humanity with eyes that have not seen people for a few days. I pedal into town, accustomed now only to the smell of moss, mud, piss and sweat; foxes and ditch water; suddenly to be confronted by the whiffs and odours of townspeople and their machinery and buildings’ interiors.”
And what do you think of us when you return from the woods?
You’ll have to follow my work and see if you can work that one out yourself. My work is visual and should need no written or spoken explanation.
Isn’t there a simpler way? Better sculptors than you have achieved recognition without recourse to sleeping rough.
“This is the only way for me – I gave up my house because I can’t afford a house or flat or even a bedsit: not if rent payments have to be made every month. I make do with my very cheap sculptor’s studio and that’s all I can afford; that’s all I need to afford. I can no longer permit house rent and Council Tax and fuel bills to hold back my professional progress. I have to exercise the right not to earn money - often for long periods of time. This allows me to concentrate upon the commissioned work and my own agenda pieces. It frees brain-time from the mentally expensive activity of constantly grubbing around for £1000 each and every single month, just to live in a house. Instead my mind is now engaged entirely upon my work, all day long. The money comes in, in its own time and in amounts such as serendipity allows. Indeed when it doesn’t come in, the absence of money frees up huge amounts of brain time. When there is money in the bank, the mind finds itself considering what needs to be bought, when it can be bought, where it can be bought. It does this all day long even while I’m working. I’m quite sure you suffer the same. Shall I stop and buy a coffee? Should I have a beer? All day long. There’s a hole in my jeans, I need to go and buy another pair. Where money is not, Creativity can reside.”
So you suffer for your art? How banal!
“I’m not in the business of suffering per se; but I’m no longer prepared to allow the fear of suffering to barricade my way forward. Certainly it’s very cold at night in the woods at this time of year. And one does get tired of just rice, oats, beans and no wine. But there are times of plenty too. Gluttony and drunkenness and warmth can come then. Between times the chiseling of stone keeps me warm and less aware of physical want.
“I have noticed that my evidently difficult circumstances affect the way strangers, friends, clients and family behave towards me too. Their reaction to an unshod man helps me see a little more of the shape of human psychology.
“Ultimately a portrait of the human face is the result of the relationship and struggle between me, the stone and the sitter. Every one of these three components needs to be bared right back in order to fully contribute to the relationship with integrity.”
Who is sitting for you now?
“I am studying the face of a gentleman who sits on the floor in Reading’s Broad Street every day of his life, and has done so for more than a decade. Ostensibly he is a Big Issue vendor (but I’m not convinced he really is). He’s become very well known in the town. He is my ‘Face of Reading 2016’ (my contribution to the town’s Year of Culture that year). I had originally planned to make a bust of one of the town’s celebrities. But Reading is inundated with beggars and the homeless, and they are the people who are actually walking on the ground and occupying space here. I feel they represent the town more than do Kate Winslett, Mike Oldfield or Chris Tarrant (Reading-born celeb’s). I’ll make a bust of this man that is so technically accomplished that it could perch beside the RA portraits of the nation’s great and the good.”
The ‘Face of Reading 2016’ work in progress will be on display with other McAlistair Hood portraits at his exhibition in March at Reading University’s Institute of Education.
To become the finest stone sculptor is my most pressing ambition. To that end I endeavour to achieve the technical ability of the figurative sculptors of Classical and High Renaissance times.
I wish to be “Reading’s sculptor”, following the tradition of George Blackall Simonds and Eric Stamford FRBS.
I have noticed that Humanity is at its most noble when engaged in struggle.
Excessive comfort, wealth and ease therefore ought to be avoided more energetically than poverty, pain and hardship.
For this reason I want my sculpture to revel in the savage and spiritual aspects of human existence – to demonstrate how the raw experience of the world directly upon our senses and intellect (without the anaesthetic effect of an over-full stomach, cars, shoes or central heating) enhances our spirituality and physical well-being.
The artist must live the life that he endorses – which is why I always run barefoot, shivver, sweat and experience desperate hunger often.
Presently I am contemplating a large sculpture that shows what it should be to be a man - not a beautiful, nor necessarily a young man like Michelangelo's David - but a cunning creature that can run with the beasts; a being that is robust, combative, resourceful and whose ultimate quest is spiritual understanding of the universe.
And now that I have at last moved into a fine workshop/studio, just watch the work emerge!!