Sticks In My Mind

The Walking Stick as Inspiration and Emblem

Sohrab Crews

July 2013

Artists are well known for their constant enquiry and analysis of life and the world. Each and every waking hour a process of observation is taking place. Everything is considered and assessed for potential inclusion within an artwork, or for its possible connection to existing ideas, aesthetics, memories  and histories. But how does an artist  select an idea or object? What are the qualities or attributes an object must have for it to be considered to be of special significance? When examined, everything has the potential to become art; but how does an individual begin to discriminate between what might be relevant and what might be redundant? Perhaps it is one’s intuition, born from life experience, that must be allowed to lead the way. 

Clockwise from bottom left hand corner, sculpture: Statue Party, 2011, 28 X 33  X 28 cm, Sycamore tree trunk, ceramic figurines, plastic, adhesive, oil paint, painting: Grow Mask, 2011, 60 X 80cm, oil paint with walking sticks on aluminum on panel, Hit Mix, 2011, 60 X 80cm, oil paint with walking sticks on aluminum on panel. Central figure: Old Mix, 2011, 153 X 76 X 27cm, Gentlemen’s wool coat, styrofoam, papier-mȃché, gravel, glue, wire, coat hanger, turtle shell, oil paint, End Web, 2011, 60 X 80cm, oil paint with walking sticks on aluminum on panel, Old One, 2011, 60 X 80cm, oil paint with walking sticks on aluminum on panel



I became interested in walking sticks as a young child, even carving away the bark from a short branch and creating my own infant’s walking stick, which I used to aid myself in my youthful patrol around the house and garden. My fascination with sticks grew from a traumatic childhood experience. An ancient, embittered and terrifying woman chased me from the corridors of a block of council flats, wielding a stick above her head. This was certainly not the grandmotherly association that I had fixed in my mind, that those with walking sticks were kind, wise, and loving of the young. Learning that some of the old resented the young for being young, was a profound lesson in acclimatizing from the spaces of childhood naivety to the ways of the adult world. From then on I felt a combination of terror and intrigue as regards walking sticks. Without being able to articulate my discomforts and anxieties, I was able to recognize the haunting, existential qualities inherent in walking sticks. I recall an early walking stick conversation; following on from the corridor “trauma”. When asked about the stick’s use and function, my mother warned me “One day you’ll need one of those”, to which I immediately replied “`Oh, no, I won’t”. I soon realized that indeed one day I might have to walk with a stick. 


I spent the largest part of my childhood living in a Georgian street in central Bath, where I entertained myself by rehearsing skateboarding routines outside my mother’s flat. The neighboring terraced properties contained several pensioners’ homes. I was surrounded by the elderly, not by those of my own age; an only child, I feel this geriatric environment certainly contributed to my awareness, sensitivity to, and interest in, the old.


Another strong memory from this time is that of an angered, care home-bound pensioner throwing sugar cubes at me from a top floor flat as I  pounded the pavement below, performing ollies, shove-its and grinds. This experience underlined to me, the impressionable young skateboarder, that the old may despise the young. It is arguably better to be young than to be old, those long in the tooth will never jump or grind again, though they can still sling small arrows at the annoying young miscreants that have inherited the earth. 


From a formal position, such sticks are walking, hunting, and catching tools that aid mobility and journey-making. They function as a wooden scaffolding to our Homo sapiens bodies, transferring weight through the user’s wrist. Unadorned walking sticks hold many associations, those of physical suffering, disability, memento mori, vanitas emblems, and the autumnal years, are balanced by the fact that the sticks are enablers, and objects of life support. The positive benefits are perhaps best seen by those with an understanding or first-hand experience of living with a disability. Walking sticks allow their users to complete tasks and journeys despite the restrictions that life imposes.


Walking sticks are doors to our external domains. Negotiating human pathways and realities may not be possible without the aid of these earthly, humble tools of time and wise resilience. Walking sticks indicate weakness, frailty, and vulnerability. Life’s survivors carry these personal crutches to indicate to the world that they are fragile. Those new to carrying a stick witness the changes in people’s street behavior. A pensioner recently explained to me that students now get out of his way, whereas without the stick’s signals he found people inconsiderate and unsympathetic to his age and impeded ability. 


Egyptian kings, such as Osiris, were represented in statues bearing the ruling insignia of the shepherd’s crook, the hook-handled relative of the walking stick. Canes are known to assert the authority of teachers or dandies, while white canes are specifically for the visually impaired. The bulkier sibling is the “Zimmer” or walking frame, which varies in design, some with two wheels and two ferrules, some with four ferruled legs. A recent addition to this band is the “walker cane hybrid”, a device with two legs that can be adjusted into various configurations to aid side-to-side support or the climbing of stairs.


The symbolic power of walking sticks comes, perhaps, from their stark simplicity and similarity to the human figure. Three fundamental elements of the human body, the head, the limbs, and the foot, are all recognisable in the walking stick. Walking sticks are iconic objects of warning and hazard perception, like a portable lighthouse; they are helpful but they also signal our imminent end.


The walking sticks that find their way into my artwork are humble and cheap. Such old walking sticks are usually unwanted by the family relatives that inherit them. They resonate with the ghost spirits and last clutches of the recently departed, reminding survivors of the little time left to them. They are symbolic, second-hand tools; stoic fingerprints of forgotten, individual lives. Could the unassuming and primitive wooden walking device that emphasizes inertia, caution and consideration, be an antidote to our digitized, plastic world of speed and greed? That humans may not be long for the world is an adage that has been uttered many times; similarly the walking stick is the ubiquitous companion of those nearing the end of the road. Could walking sticks therefore symbolize human extinction? The great resilience of the wooden walking stick reminds us that our bodies are merely vibrating bags of water filled with a few chemicals, forever moving closer to their demise. 


From time to time walking sticks, usually those of a higher quality, are passed on through families. I am acquainted with a neighbor who detailed to me the personal history of his stick. Colin inherited his striking, black, knobbly blackthorn shillelagh from his father, who had it handed down from his great-uncle, who received it from its first user, Colin’s great-grandfather. Walking sticks are veterans, battle-scarred, blemished instruments, imbued with time, that long outlive most contemporary gadgets which suffer the stupidity of accepted built-in obsolescence. 

The truths of our inevitably short lives are reconfirmed in the immediately recognisable, stark and functional, melancholic handles of walking sticks. The arched heads of second-hand sticks are often polished by years of intercourse with the grasping palms of old hands. Such utilitarian handles resemble the heads of conscious beings. A profound intelligence is created by this one seemingly simple curving of a supple branch. A serpent’s head or a monkey’s tail, curls in just such a way, articulating a perceiving and primeval animal character.  


Handles also appear to be mighty hooks; death is certainly the hook that catches us all. Could a walking stick be considered the cousin of the question mark? Perhaps a question mark that has grown a spine? There is a surrealistic absurdity to this question and comparison, yet both walking sticks and question marks respectively signify the connected concerns of death and the unknown. A walking stick is a powerful statement, but does it also pose a problematic question? Do walking sticks invite us to question ourselves, to ponder the age-old human dilemma: “What is death?”


At the foot of the stick, we find the often well-worn rubber ferrule, an appendage containing an offensive, unpleasant, insulting quality of everyday struggle and geriatric journey-making. Concentric, target-like rubber mouldings provide traction, stabilizing the stick, particularly when used at awkward angles. Like the worn sole of a shoe that has touched so many surfaces, the hackneyed ferrule has an emotive quality that symbolizes life’s long haul and the expeditious passing of time. When stuck out, toward someone or something, the ferrule is discourteous and impertinent. As a school child might finger up the tip of their nose, exposing their gaping nostrils, so the upturned ferrule expresses a repulsive and disrespectful gesture. The worn out ferrule is a confrontational, biting, grey-haired full stop that is so intensely functional and unrefined it becomes strangely fascinating. This is the sole of the walking stick, a stirring and frightening occupational device that has softened the blows of a million steps. Ferrules convey the gruesomeness of our final years, as when we contemplate them, like contemplating a Smith & Wesson handgun, we stare death in the face. Old age is not for the faint of heart.


The discarded and lonesome sticks, held by the recently deceased undergo a process of alchemy and rebirth. From bedsits, care homes and hospital wards the sticks move into charity shops, then my studio, then into paintings and sculptures. Their separateness and uniquely worn individuality evoke the human condition, that of isolation and the individual, yearning to find meaning within an indifferent world. By hacking up healthy old sticks I rob them of their sacrosanct wholeness and utility. I ask my audience to focus upon parts of the sticks, their polished handles and tired feet.


Some sticks, particularly those used for hill-walking may display small decorative, often shield-shaped metal badges. These tiny plaques record the journeys and achievements, of both stick and owner; certifications of the stick’s authority, cub scout badges, notches on the bedpost. 


At my London studio I have built up a collection of around 100 second-hand walking sticks, including those that belonged to my American grandparents. The hefty pile of assorted sticks is substantial, throbbing with the idiosyncratic energies of departed souls, no longer worried by mobility or funeral arrangements. Collectively, such bundles of walking sticks create the association of mass murder, one thinks of mass graves or pits into which many human bodies have been thrown. Mountains of personal objects, spectacles, pocket-watches; the jewellery and shoes of the murdered show the horrific realities of genocide.


Growing, exploding, breeding, flying, bending, swollen, contorted, fractured, energetic, deformed, bandaged and disintegrating walking sticks appear within my drawings. In graphic, monochromatic form the sticks become surrealistic cartoon characters, exploring the variables of what can be done to stretch, expand and abstract an object, whilst maintaining its recognisability.

“The Two Mothers”, 2012, formally presents a pair of sticks standing upright, each facing in an opposite direction, from the sides of these sticks grow parallel branches of autumn colored egg-like forms. The thin, elegant, vertical cavity central to the composition, reminds us that our brains are divided, that we are the sum of our left and right hemispheres. Consciousness and anxiety are contained in a sculpture that attempts to consider the roots of existence.


Within the large work “173 Jones, The Baby Moggy”, 2012, it is specifically  parts of walking sticks that the viewer is asked to focus on. The readymade sticks have been cut up, two worn handles and an objectionable ferrule protrude from the being’s head, a brightly painted Senegalese gourd. A manic collection of departed grannys’ precious ceramic kitties hovers upon and around the variegated skin of the Baby Moggy. 


Perhaps the most haunting and peculiar components within this sculpture are the unpainted plaster dental casts of the individual whose name and number are inscribed in felt-tip pen as “173 Jones”, possibly the 173rd Jones cast that the dental laboratory held. All of the readymade elements are connected by the fact that they are objects left behind by the dead. These second-hand incarnations survive their owners, finding their way to the suburban charity shops, where I look for walking sticks and china for my bricolage mosaics. This hybrid being dances with death and reincarnation, waving fat, swollen hands, accompanied by a dysfunctional tribe of lost cats, a celebration of the truth that life does not make sense.

The Two Mothers, 2012,

93 X 82 X 23cm, Walking sticks, birch tree trunk, armature wire, papier-mȃché, beads, styrofoam, plaster dental casts,

MDF, wire, adhesive, oil paint



“The Two Mothers”, 2012, formally presents a pair of sticks standing upright, each facing in an opposite direction, from the sides of these sticks grow parallel branches of autumn colored egg-like forms. The thin, elegant, vertical cavity central to the composition, reminds us that our brains are divided, that we are the sum of our left and right hemispheres. Consciousness and anxiety are contained in a sculpture that attempts to consider the roots of existence.


Within the large work “173 Jones, The Baby Moggy”, 2012, it is specifically  parts of walking sticks that the viewer is asked to focus on. The readymade sticks have been cut up, two worn handles and an objectionable ferrule protrude from the being’s head, a brightly painted Senegalese gourd. A manic collection of departed grannys’ precious ceramic kitties hovers upon and around the variegated skin of the Baby Moggy. 


Perhaps the most haunting and peculiar components within this sculpture are the unpainted plaster dental casts of the individual whose name and number are inscribed in felt-tip pen as “173 Jones”, possibly the 173rd Jones cast that the dental laboratory held. All of the readymade elements are connected by the fact that they are objects left behind by the dead. These second-hand incarnations survive their owners, finding their way to the suburban charity shops, where I look for walking sticks and china for my bricolage mosaics. This hybrid being dances with death and reincarnation, waving fat, swollen hands, accompanied by a dysfunctional tribe of lost cats, a celebration of the truth that life does not make sense.

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173 Jones - The Baby Moggy, 2012,

131 X 103 X 87cm, Armature wire, MDF, styrofoam, expanding foam, Senegalese gourd, ceramic cats, plaster dental casts, rubber gloves, gravel, foam core board, wire, walking sticks, papier-mȃché, wood, adhesive, brackets, string,

paint-collage and oil paint.


My exploration and examination of walking sticks nourishes my very human attempt to understand life and mortality. Walking sticks outlive the nonsense of human existence, and hold onto the experiences that they witness. In our brand-saturated universe, walking sticks could be looked upon as aesthetically refined, three-dimensional emblems, promoting and warning us of the danger and “invisibility” of old age. Walking sticks begin as living branches, on trees, within forests. They find man, or man finds them, he moulds them into functional objects of utility, meaning and significance. Roaming and adventuring through life history, they endure experience and environment; temporary, wise crutches, they soon find themselves lost and unwanted by the world, often left to give up the ghost at the city dump. This puts in mind, that even growth is death oriented. Walking sticks are the companions for the fierce last path to the silent tomb. They are the lonely, terrifying, seasoned branches that connect the dead to the living.