What I've Learned: Sculptor Sir Antony Gormley

Life-improving wisdom from the man who designed the 'Angel of the North'

More From What I've Learned
20 articles
Paul Smith: What I've Learned
Alan-partridge-what-ive-learned-43
Alan Partridge: What I've Learned
Karl Ove Knausgaard
What I've Learned: Karl Ove Knausgaard

On the whole, we all depend on women as our mothers, but they're more balanced and have less obsessive-compulsive tendencies — which is probably my default setting. I think I'm a bit manic and the women in my life manage to make me less so. My life is entirely run by women. Emily and Kerry are the registrars, Tamara is the studio manager, Alice is my PA and Briony is my projects coordinator. They keep the structure and do a bloody good job, I have to say.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

I was brought up Catholic, in a very disciplined family, and when I lost my faith at university, I suppose there was this thing: "What is true and where can I look for it?" I guess I'm still on that journey, if that isn't a cliché beyond all clichés.

I went to India first in 1969 and returned in 1972. Second time, I stayed a couple of years, a lot of it in Buddhist studies, practising meditation. The answer to where can you find truth, is you have to find it, as it were, in yourself. You need time, silence, a degree of stillness. The last expedition I made was to Sri Lanka and I stayed in a monastery with a silent begging order. We'd start the day at 4.30am with walking meditation, sit for six hours before having something to eat and going out with the begging bowls. I decided I had to answer the vocation of a maker and take whatever insights I might have had back home and try to make something worthwhile.

More From What I've Learned
20 articles
Paul Smith: What I've Learned
Alan-partridge-what-ive-learned-43
Alan Partridge: What I've Learned
Karl Ove Knausgaard
What I've Learned: Karl Ove Knausgaard
The Wisest Quotes Of 2016
Tom Ford
Tom Ford: What I've Learned

If you get a low-melt glue gun and satay sticks, you can, pretty quick, build nearly anything. Have a go.

When a person stumbles across one of my iron body forms, they say, "What is this thing doing here?" Then I hope the question is returned to the person: "What are you doing here?" It's an encounter with mortality, I suppose. And that's what it is for me as well. I'm making these things that are an acknowledgement of the fact I will be here less long than these objects. They are going to have a relationship with people I will never know.

On my last birthday, we had lots of old friends over from university, 22 adults and 10 children. We were camping for the weekend; we've got a bit of land. There's something lovely about that sense of continuity and connection. "When we are no longer children we are already dead," as Brâncuși said.

I can't imagine being married to anybody else but another artist [Vicken Parsons], because who would understand what being an artist is? Everything for us is a studio, with the potential to generate new forms. You have babies and you are also making other things that haven't been in the world before, just like the babies. They all become part of the same project.

Vicken did all the early moulding [of Gormley's body, to make sculptural figures]. That is a real relationship of trust. To be entirely encased in plaster from head to toe and maintain a position and trust that you are going to be let out. It's a form of imprisonment that is absolute. No eyeholes, just a hole for the mouth. I never bothered with that business of straws up the nose. You've got your eyes closed, you're wrapped up in cling film and you're then covered in hot, wet plaster and scrim. You have to stay there for an hour, an hour-and-a-half. I couldn't have done it with anybody else. I think for me that's the proof of our relationship, really. She was not only the mother of my children but also the midwife of my work.

I believe what Joseph Beuys said — we are all artists. We are all keen to talk to each other, and what do we talk about mostly? Our experiences. We make stories out of what's happened to us and offer them to each other as a way of making the world bigger and more interesting. Art isn't any different. Art is a conversation and it's very peculiar not to recognise that's what it is. Art is an inanimate thing that can change the way people see the world or change people's minds. That is the alchemy. That's the potential.

The extraordinary thing about being an artist is that you decide, from moment to moment, how to use the most precious resource you have, which is time.

I'm relatively tall [6ft 4in] and backs are always a problem. I used to have a trainer once or twice a week give me an exercise routine. Now I do it for myself. I've had to have both feet reconstructed because they were flat. What was great was the physiotherapy guy from the hospital taught me how to do press-ups on one leg. It's really simple; you hook the bad foot on top of the ankle of the good foot and carry on as normal.

Last October, Vicken and I did a ceramics course. It was absolutely great. I was extremely bad. Vicken came out with 12 plates we still use. I came out with two egg cups that were pretty wobbly but I've got better since. I think it was 12 Mondays, 6.30 until 9.30pm. Our classmates were very discreet and polite. It was just lovely. Typical evening class thing, where you start with 18 eager people; midway through the course you're down to about 10.

I'm not very good on clothes. Vicken says, "Look, you're an artist. It matters the way you look. You enjoy looking at other people when they're dressed well," which is absolutely true. I just cannot be bothered with the time it takes. Basically, I wear a white T-shirt and chinos. Both from Gap. It all has to be cotton and it might as well be white because then you can tell if it's clean or dirty. Practical. I always wear boots. Because of the flat foot business and the operations, I need the support. Scarpa mountaineering boots, which are light and strong. I've worn them for years.

I do have a suit. Vicken's present on my 65th birthday was my first tailor-made suit. In a strong Worsted wool, blue. It does feel special when I put that on. Mine is Richard James. Putting it on is like getting on a really nice bike: I feel I can go places I wouldn't be able to without it. I do have a really nice bike. Beautiful, classic, a Merlin. Lovely, lightweight, beautiful thing.

I'd love to think I've gained wisdom, but I'm not sure. I'm looking forward to that.

Portrait by Carol Sachs.