Andrew Vickers is a stone sculptor who has transformed an area of woodland near Sheffield into an outdoor gallery for his work. Daniel Dylan Wray went for a look around. Pictures by Gary Longbottom.
Andrew Vickers has had a lifelong love of stone. So much so that he’s known more as ‘Stoneface’ than by his own name. “I’ve got a massive fascination with stone,” he says. “I just totally love it, the touch of it, the feel of it, everything about it.”
Over 20 years ago he began working as a dry stone waller. “I thought that would fulfil my love of stone,” he reflects. “But it just didn’t scratch the itch.” When he was taking apart walls that needed repairing, he noticed something that stuck out to him. “I never once found a signature of the person that had built the wall in the first place. So I thought: ‘I’m going to sign my walls because I’m proud of these. At that point I’d never carved a piece of stone in my life. So I took a piece of stone home and carved a really basic face into it and the next day I put it in my wall. So I went from being Andrew Vickers, a dry stone waller, to ‘Stoneface.’”
People began requesting his walls specifically and this ignited a love of sculpting in Andrew who then continued to work with stone outside of placing his trademark faces in his walls. “I used to be a landscape gardener and then sculpt when I’d earned some money,” he says.
“I’d go out and earn some money and then when I’d have some in the bank I’d go down to my yard and sculpt and then when the money ran out I’d go back and do some more landscape gardening. So after a while I had a yard full of sculptures that nobody ever saw. But also at that point I wasn’t really confident enough to show people my work either.”
Fast-forward to today and Andrew has turned his passion into a profession as a stone sculptor whose work is bought all over the country. In 2011, he purchased Storrs Wood, about 20 minutes drive from Sheffield city centre, which today has become a kind of part public nature space and part outdoor gallery to display his works.
“One night I bumped into the lady who owns these woods at the shop and I asked if she would sell me them and she said ‘yes’. It was as simple as that, I just bought them.” What followed was a huge amount of work, however. “It was really overgrown,” he remembers. “We went to the Woodland Trust and got a management plan devised. Eventually I started to put these paths in so I could share it with the public. It’s such a beautiful space, it’s absolutely magnificent.”
However, that was never part of Andrew’s initial plan because he didn’t really have one. “You might not believe this but I didn’t have a plan. Much like I had an urge to work with stone, I had an urge to buy a wood. I really didn’t have a plan and I never intended to do this. Ironically, I’m a really shy person so the last thing I want to do is invite people over. It was never an intention to open it up but I think the woods took me under its wing and showed me the way. I’ve become absolutely besotted with this place – in this day and age when kids are stuck in the house playing computer games you really need to come and experience places like this.”
It’s a space of about 10 acres and is a beautiful and serene spot that feels like a secret garden of sorts. Andrew’s work, which varies in style enormously, pops up all over the place: in the water, the trees, even buried in the ground. He has his workshop here and during the week it’s open to the public to pop in and wander around, but the wood is also home to a growing number of events. Sheffield music and film festival Sensoria recently hosted an outdoor film screening of Robin Hood here, in September there was a blacksmith demonstration and workshop for kids, people can hire it for weddings and there’s a two-day Halloween event on October 26 and 27, as well as Christmas ones on December 14 and 15, all before it closes for the harsher winter months.
It’s become the kind of space that even Andrew can’t quite put his finger on. “I haven’t got a clue what I’d call it,” he laughs. “I don’t like putting titles on it. It’s just a beautiful space. I don’t invite people here to see the work, I invite people here to see the wood and the work is in the wood. It’s not about saying ‘look how marvellous I am’, it’s about saying ‘look how marvellous nature is.’”
Andrew’s work is a big part of it, though, and his love for stone has certainly not dwindled over the years. “I’m absolutely prolific, I cannot stop. My mind never switches off. As soon as I started carving one thing, another starts coming into my head. Some of it I sell, which keeps us afloat, and then other bits just get dotted around the wood. I only sell them because I have to - I’m not really big on selling things. The plan is to push some more tracks through the wood and then we’ll have to find more things to put on them – so it’s just an ongoing process now.”
As for the people he does sell to, it’s an incredibly mixed bunch. “There’s no such thing as a typical buyer,” he says. “Our price ranges are massive – the cheapest ones we do are between £60 to £100 and the dearest are tens of thousands. We have collectors who come from estates and buy lots in the small price range but equally we have rock stars and really famous people coming here to buy pieces. I think art has to be accessible to everybody because you don’t know whose life you’re touching, do you? And you only need to touch one person’s life and that can change the world.”
It’s something of a full circle story for Andrew who grew up playing in these woods as a child and would have loved to have had access to such a space. “As a kid I wasn’t involved in art and I wasn’t encouraged. I was only ever encouraged to get off my backside and work; which gave me a good grounding.
“If you can bring art into people’s lives from an early age then life is much better. I would have loved to have come somewhere like this as a child and I could have never dreamt that I would have somewhere like this. I went to school with holes in my shoes, no coat in winter and an empty belly, so this is fantastic for me. I’m very grateful for what I have.”
It’s become more than a passion for Andrew and his only real aim is to share that love and passion with other people.
“I work here seven days a week and during the summer I’ll work from 4am until it goes dark. But you have to understand that for me that’s not work. You get up here with the sun rising in the morning and the sky is bright red and you think why is nobody out of bed yet? It’s no hardship at all. This is my life really – this place has really grounded me and given me a sense of purpose. I love it.”