Fergus Stewart: Pots, people and pounds

25 Jun 2010 in Highland, Visual Arts & Crafts

MANDY HAGGITH investigates potter Fergus Stewart’s views on arts, economics and community in the Scottish Highlands

FERGUS STEWART makes wood-fired pottery: graceful bowls, palm-hugging drinking cups and distinctive teapots. He has an international reputation as a ceramic artist and teacher, yet his talent is under-appreciated at home in Scotland. He uses strong forms and has an exquisite sense of colour, using a range of delicate glazes to emphasise those forms to best effect.

His ceramics studio is at the end of a mile-long road at the back of Lochinver, and the drive there is one of the most breath-taking in Scotland. Around the first bend, Suilven looms up out of the heather-clad gneiss and around the second it is mirrored in Loch Druim Suardhalain. The third curve leads into the mature woods that surround Glencanisp Lodge, former sporting lodge of the Vestey family, now owned (since the community buyout in 2005 of Suilven and three other mountains) by Assynt Foundation.

Fergus Stewart at his studio outside Lochinver

Fergus Stewart at his studio outside Lochinver

A stable around the back of Glencanisp Lodge has become Fergus Stewart’s studio. His story of the conversion process gives a sense of his community-minded style. The building is shared with Assynt Youth Action’s music project, so they were able to split the costs and help each other with the work.

“I’ve always been drawn to community initiatives,” he says. “Pottery has always been about community, every since the earliest agricultural people made pots. The first wood kiln I built (in Perth, Australia) became a kind of meeting-place for all these people from opposite ends of the street. They’d see the flames coming out of the top and just turn up. I found that people were talking to each other who in some cases hadn’t spoken for years.”

He learned his craft in Dumfries, Glasgow and the Borders, but his career has been strongly influenced by economics, which drove him to Australia in the 1980s, away from financial misery that was Thatcherism, to an economy where the arts scene was flourishing.

“I basically moved from a draughty bothy in Peebles to a beach-side apartment with a car in Perth, Australia, and became a real person!” he says. Later, after the right-wing Howard government in Australia slashed arts and brought about what he describes as the ‘economic trainwreck’ of the early noughties, new opportunities took him to Denmark and thence back to Scotland.

Fergus came to Assynt because of Highland Stoneware, with whom he established a relationship in the late 1990s, after a period as artist in residence at the Glasgow School of Art. He brought some new design ideas and technical skills to the company, which is an important source of jobs in the area.

“Being part of Highland Stoneware, having a valued role there, and having a real social and economic impact here in Assynt, has given me a new view of the relevance of my skill,” he says. He still does some work for Highland Stoneware, as part of a work portfolio which includes teaching at the prestigious Bornholm School of Glass and Ceramics in Denmark and running his own ceramics business.

Fergus Stewart pottery for schnapps

Fergus Stewart pottery for schnapps

His ceramics studio was one of the first businesses to be established at Glencanisp when it was bought by the local community in 2005. One might imagine that this kind of enterprise would be trumpeted as an example of successful rural development in a remote area, but among the ruins of Lochinver’s fishing industry, most of the attention of the powers that be is focussed on new social enterprises, and the role that the arts are playing in keeping the local economy afloat seems to go largely unnoticed.

Yet, between Highland Stoneware, the biggest single employer, and Assynt’s many freelance writers, artists and craft makers, the arts may be second only to the tourism sector as a source of local livelihoods.

Fergus is interested in the ways that small rural businesses can be mutually helpful. One such example is the Village Green, the fair trade shop in Lochinver, run by Irene Mackenzie, where a wide range of his pots are for sale. “Irene’s and my business support each other,” he says. “I make the tableware for her, her window-display supports me. It’s a very simple connection, but it’s the kind of thing we need to really foster in our remote location.”

Living in Assynt is also a source of new ideas and inspiration in his work. A new range of garden ware is under development, with wild bird feeders in organic shapes that are pleasing to the eye, and each experimentally designed to feed particular sizes of birds while protecting them from their predators. These, Fergus says, “fit in with my changing philosophy of what I’m doing. Being in this community it feels right to be making something that has a deeper meaning, helping wild birds while also enhancing our own aesthetic environment. They’re durable, natural products, sustainably wood-fired. They’re a real eco-product.”

As a director of Assynt Foundation, Fergus is involved in local efforts to develop an arts programme and improve arts facilities, taking inspiration from other areas of Scotland, including Dumfries and Galloway and Orkney, and from further afield, such as Australia. “I’ve seen remote communities really benefit from arts programmes. People find a new vocation or a second career and are able to set up businesses they wouldn’t have thought of before.”

He is hopeful that a more active and co-ordinated arts scene in Assynt will help more of an enterprise culture to develop and encourage young people to stay in the area. If the government could do just one thing to support this effort, what would it be? With no hesitation, he says, “Grants for workshop-based training.”

Fergus Stewart - Teapot Yunomi

Fergus Stewart - Teapot Yunomi

He is not impressed with the trend for government training schemes to focus on short-term support. “There is a time and commitment gap, both in the way government looks at it and the way young people do. When I started I knew it would be a minimum of three years before I was fully trained. Now they all expect faster educational results; they expect to hot-bed for 18 months and that’s it. But it just doesn’t happen.”

Recalling the government-funded traineeship that gave him his first job, working with a potter called Nancy Smiley in Glasgow, he says. “That scheme is something that should be looked at again. It helped young people train in studios of their chosen discipline, but it also helped support little businesses. I worked there under this assistant scheme, which paid 100% of my wages the first year , 60% the following year and 30% the year after that, and it also gave Nancy a lump sum at the beginning to cover her time, materials and so on.”

Perhaps Creative Scotland should look to the past for inspiration in how to support the small arts and craft businesses that are so important to remote communities in the Highlands and Islands. It should certainly be listening to experienced practitioners and teachers like Fergus Stewart.

© Mandy Haggith, 2010