The last house…on the right of the main road. No, really…that’s Tom Hickman’s address right up at the north end of New Tolsta on the road from Stornoway towards the ‘Last Bridge’ and Lord Leverhulme’s unfinished dream of an island circular road to Ness.
And Tom Hickman is an artist whose work is worth travelling up this road to see…combining skills and talents in different spheres of artistic endeavour to create complex artworks in paint, wood and textiles.
Over the decades. Tom’s studio has been wherever he happens to be; on a long haul flight to Western Australia where he has many friends; camping in the cramped confines of his car in the wilds of Scotland; in the calm of his 17th century Breton farmhouse or – now – in his newly created, but ancient-feeling studio, amidst the stone buildings of a croft.
He worked with locally-based builder Steve Adams to take the new studio through from conception to completion, slotting it in between the remains of a former blackhouse and the former lambing shed, both of which have been partially rebuilt by Tom. Tom bought the house in 2005 and over the years has moved between his homes in Brittany and Lewis as he created his new artistic base.
Living without television, internet connection, and telephone means his time is his own. If today’s idea of luxury is having time to oneself then Tom is living a charmed life. Creating has become a way of life from dry-stone walls to wool-work pictures and everything in-between.
As a self-taught artist he has followed his impulse to capture the whimsical, embellish the practical and express the emotional. “I have in my time followed many threads including several that have led to little more than a nasty knotted mess but rethreading a needle with wool was one of my better moves.
“Spending spring through to autumn up on the Isle of Lewis each year over the past decade has meant that the seasonal rhythm of croft life brings sheep and wool into the foreground of a creative mind.
“Working on scraps of Harris Tweed fabric I amused myself in creating folk art images of these black face ewes and rams both clipped and with full fleece. Being very familiar with sheep from my earliest childhood days on the Mull of Kintyre there seemed endless possibilities in portraying these iconic emblems of the Scottish hills. “
Tom’s parents were a farming family who moved from Gloucestershire in England to the Mull of Kintyre where they ran a mixed farm that forms the background to Tom’s earliest memories. On some of the land, the crops had to be sown by the oldest methods, scattering seed by hand. His father also travelled widely in Scotland even after they returned to live in England – in Burford, Oxfordshire – when Tom was nine. After buying the New Tolsta house, Tom found that his father had left amongst his photographs, an image of the same building taken many years earlier.
Art has been part of his central existence from being very young. He did not learn to read or write until he was aged nine, finding that he could communicate with and relate to the images which he developed himself. Tom spent years dealing in antique country furniture in Cornwall and Somerset which led on to an appreciation of folk art, as well as a love of old ruins and vernacular architecture. He moved to France when he was 40 in order to pursue his own artistic ideas directly. Inspired in his oil painting by the Newlyn and St Ives school of art he never lost sight of the charm and artistic innocence of the naïve. He says: “Folk art is simply art that is uncluttered by academic skills coming direct from the heart.” In Brittany, these feelings combined together to involve him in community-wide attempts to preserve a cultural heritage that was fast disappearing, as well as collecting authentic Breton furniture for his own house.
But never having severed that Caledonian umbilical cord of what he calls “his idyllic childhood” and early years spent on the Davaar Island farm in the mouth of Campbeltown Harbour, the passion for living on the edge returned when he made his home in New Tolsta. This came after Tom returned to Devaar Island to scatter his father’s ashes and carried on north following one of his father’s tours, to see the Hebrides for the first time. On landing in Tarbert, Tom says he was completely overwhelmed by the beauty of the island, and had to stop on the road and walk across the hills to take it all in. “I was going too fast into it. I burst into tears. I thought I can’t cope with this. So I got out of the car and I walked and I walked all over the hills and I thought OK, it really is real, it is this beautiful.”
His studio is tucked neatly behind the original Old Tolsta farm barn, a long-inhabited site which following Tom's find last summer of a Neolithic axe head (declared treasure trove by Stornoway Museum), is now known to date back some 6000 years.
The "tools of his trade," bobbins and discarded yarn fill the shelves along with shells, animal bones and feathers. "There is a history of nothing being wasted on the islands," he says, "where drift wood was used as roof timbers, and even the dead dog was skinned and inflated to serve as a float." The scent of peat and the rasp of Harris Tweed enhance his folk art images of sheep while the intricacy of his stump work leaves one speechless. His skill with a needle will remind visitors that he is now part of that noble tradition of embroiderers that stretches as far back as the Middle Ages.