Esther Lafferty talks to an acclaimed Oxfordshire sculptor and gallery co-owner

Andrew Harrison grew up in the small northern coal mining town of Wath-upon-Dearne, where the options for youngsters were limited.

It was generally expected that he would end up down the pit like many of his peers.

Although interested in sculpture and art, they were not considered to be a realistic career ,but no one would ever have foreseen that one day Andrew would be a famous sculptor, running his own art gallery in the Cotswolds.

As a boy in the 1970s in deepest, darkest Yorkshire, the most obvious escape route from the mines was to join the Army.

Andrew’s parents weren’t keen on him signing up to the forces but agreed on the proviso that he took an army apprenticeship, which he did, and he spent the next two years in Chepstow learning carpentry and joinery, his introduction to woodworking.

Five years as a combat engineer with the Royal Engineers followed, until an unfortunate accident brought this chapter of his life to an abrupt end.

“It’s a funny story really,” laughs Andrew. “I used to throw the discus and was at an Amateur Athletics Association event at the Cwmbran Stadium in Wales in 1995 as part of the army team when the pole-vaulter didn’t show up.

“My teammates nominated me to stand in for him, and on the very first attempt to use the pole, I slipped sideways in the air and landed on the running track, breaking both my ankles.”

This injury, and the slow recovery from it, was a career changer.

Recuperating first in Wath-upon-Dearne and then spending nine months in Headley Court, a military rehabilitation centre in Surrey, led to a change of tack for Andrew, who became a diplomatic courier travelling all over the world.

He spent six months at a time in some wonderful, varied and interesting places including Jamaica, Belize and Oman, and others which were rife with conflict at the time (Bosnia and Kosovo).

It was, however, the West African country of Sierra Leone that stole his heart.

“It was mind-blowing,’ he enthuses.

“I’d been all over the world but nowhere were there friendlier people, and it’s absolutely stunning.

“You should see the beaches there.”

Andrew spent 18 months in Sierra Leone, having volunteered to be part of an international team that were restructuring and retraining the Sierra Leonian army after the civil war that ripped the country apart between 1991 and 2002.

“There wasn’t much to do there in your down-time,” says Andrew, “so when I had a little time off, I explored the surrounding countryside, got talking to people and discovered lots of artists and craftspeople who were highly skilled.

“Prior to the civil war, Sierra Leone was a popular destination for tourists for whom they’d crafted top quality souvenirs and giftware.”

It was from these local artisans that Andrew learnt how to carve wood.

Arriving back at RAF Brize Norton where he was based, via a stint in Nepal, Andrew bought a lathe and started wood turning.

From the beginnning, his work had a sculptural flavour and Andrew then took his art to the next level, taking a series of sculpting courses as part of a resettlement package.

“I was the first person ever to leave the forces to retrain as a sculptor, and had to persuade the resettlement officer that it was a viable life choice rather than a whim, although when I travelled over to Aldershot to show her one of my sculptures, she was instantly convinced and bought it on the spot,” he chuckles.

Andrew loves working with wood, as each type of wood works in different ways and has different patternation and textures.

His passion for wood as an artistic medium is clear.

“When you start work on a new piece you never quite know what to expect, what you’ll find inside, what patterns will reveal themselves.

“I choose each piece carefully for its colour and detail, and I prefer to work with wood that has cracks or knots. It’s these flaws that adds the character,” he smiles.

To highlight the wood’s natural features, Andrew uses a combination of staining and burning to darken and blacken some of the pieces.

Andrew’s work is created using naturally distinctive wood and ecologically-sourced timbers from both local suppliers for the English woods, which are from Oxfordshire where possible, and importers of more exotic woods.

“It takes more time to source my timber, but the results are worth the extra effort, and then the pieces almost create themselves,” Andrew explains.

“I never really know exactly how a sculpture will turn out. I have a basic plan in mind and then I follow the wood’s own contours so the final shape is a true reflection of the character of the original living tree.”

Now Andrew is a keen and engaging member of Oxfordshire Artweeks and the Oxfordshire Craft Guild.

He also co-owns the SOTA art gallery in Witney with his long-term partner Jennifer, with whom he is tying the knot later this year with a characteristic flair that they are keeping under wraps.

The gallery opened in Langdale Court, Witney, three years ago and is going from strength to strength, having fast developed a reputation as being one of the most friendly and approachable in Oxfordshire.

Andrew, a straight talking northerner with a military background, may seem an unlikely gallery owner.

But the passion he has for art and for the local artists whose work the gallery promotes is clear in his shining eyes and infectious enthusiasm.

“It’s great seeing visitors take the time to enjoy what we have in the gallery, and I love that many come back again and again to see the new art we have on show and linger for a chat.

“It’s a world apart from the life that I was expecting to lead, but then life is like a piece of wood – whatever you set out to do, it follows its own lines and throws in unexpected surprises.”