Obituary: Fred Stiven

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The Independent Online
It is difficult to place Fred Stiven in any straightforward classification of Scottish artists. He worked simultaneously in the three areas of sculpture, painting and design.

A Fred Stiven "Box" is a remarkable art work; it could be described as a "boxed relief". His boxes contained a form of three-dimensional still- life, exuding calm and order and a spiritual dimension. This could also be regarded as a form of landscape, focused on the tidal space of the shoreline. Looking carefully you could discern, in the carved wooden forms, the shapes of pebbles, seashells, driftwood and all manner of flotsam and jetsam.

The boxes are exquisitely crafted; their surfaces lovingly worked upon. Colour is used sparingly - occasionally a metal object adds tension. The forms are so interrelated that together they suggest the curve of a sand dune, a breaking wave and effects of wind and tide upon rock pools reflecting sunlight and shadow. They celebrate the artistry of the shipwright.

Stiven was one of Scotland's very few true modernist artists. He effectively resisted the repressive forces which have long bedevilled Scottish artists in their attempts to find recognition within the history of international 20th-century art. The fact that Stiven did not have the opportunity to live or work outside Scotland makes his achievement as a full- blown modernist even more remarkable.

Like Ian Hamilton Finlay, Scotland's most famous contemporary artist, Stiven derived inspiration from the seafaring cultural heritage of the Scots. His father was a sailor who regarded the shorelines of Fife as a place of homecoming. Stiven himself was born and bred close to the southern shorelines of the Firth of Forth. He made good use of the Design School of the Edinburgh College of Art, benefiting from the teaching of two quintessentially English artists, John Kingsley Cook and Leonard Rosoman. Stiven, with a fellow student, George Mackie, went on to be employed as a teacher at Gray's School of Art, in Aberdeen.

In the Sixties Ainslie Yule, an outstanding Scottish sculptor, taught alongside Stiven in the special experimental General Course in Design, working along similar lines to artists in Bucharest. When, for the first time, in 1968 Romanian artists were able to exhibit in Britain, they were warmly welcomed in Aberdeen, and artists of the calibre of Paul Neagu, Ion Bitzan and Horea Bernea entered into fruitful dialogue with Stiven and Yule.

In 1968 Stiven also made a commitment to the interface between the worlds of art and science, confident that his art students would benefit from a deeper understanding of science. He collaborated with John Holloway, a lecturer in Chemistry at Aberdeen University (now Professor of Chemistry at Leicester University), to create an exhibition they entitled "Integration". Together they wrote an introduction to the exhibition catalogue. The first paragraph has the ring of a manifesto about it:

The eye rarely encounters any natural object of phenomenon which is visually displeasing. Each line of the grains in a wooden plank seems inevitable, and in perfect harmony with every other line. The variety of arrangements of strata in a cliff face is endless, and yet each layer seems to belong to its neighbours. The arrangement of a bird's feather, and the interrelation of forms in a cloud bank reveal similar tendencies. Even when the scientist's tools are used to examine the natural world beyond the realms of ordinary sight the same underlying harmony is revealed.

Together they built 41 "boxes" containing the exhibits, on a limited budget of pounds 300 made available from the university. The boxes contained a wide variety of imagery ranging from a model of the structure of sodium chloride and a wasps' nest (cut away to show the construction of the honeycomb) to a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's drawing A Deluge, photographs of Antonio Gaudi's Sagrada Familia Cathedral and diagrams revealing the basic engineering structure in the ceilings of Gothic churches.

Throughout the Seventies Stiven participated in the Demarco Gallery's experimental Summer School and expeditions exploring the origins of Scotland's cultural heritage. One of the highlights for students was to be made welcome by Fred and his wife, Jenny, in their Aberdeenshire cottage at Wester Tillyshogle, close to the great prehistoric fortified settlement on the summit of the Hill of Echt, and the standing stone circle of "Sun Honey". The cottage was a total art work, and contained ample evidence of Stiven's extraordinary draughtsmanship and his work as a book designer and illustrator, typographer and printmaker.

Stiven succeeded George Mackie as Head of the Design School at Gray's School of Art in 1981. It was with great reluctance that he took early retirement due to a debilitating illness in 1987. Common sense, wisdom, and a wry sense of humour were the essence of his successful teaching methods. He leaves behind many artists who were privileged to know him as their teacher, including Will MacLean, who has achieved international recognition.

Stiven's election to the Royal Scottish Academy as an associate member and as a member of the Society of Industrial Artists reflected his capacity to focus his energies upon fine art whilst remaining dedicated to the task of educating his students to fulfil a useful role as designers in industry.

Stiven's boxes were displayed as an integral part of an impressive collection of art held at Gray's School of Art. In 1976 his first one-man exhibition in London was held at Paul Neagu's Generative Arts Gallery. The following year his work was exhibited at the Galleria del Cavallino in Venice alongside the "cutting edge" of Scottish contemporary artists, including Jack Knox, Ainslie Yule and Iain Patterson.

However, such was Stiven's humility that he did not seek fame or fortune; he was content to work steadily and quietly, gaining the respect of fellow artists. Just six weeks ago, he was eager to participate in the exhibition and conference on the theme of "Bridging the Gap between Art and Science" planned for the 1997 Edinburgh Festival.

Frederic William Stiven, artist: born 25 April 1929; married 1951 Jennie Paton (two sons, two daughters); died Dundee 1 April 1997.