In The Studio: Nicholas Pope, artist

'I don't regret going to Africa. It gave me much more than just my illness...'

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The Independent Culture

Nicholas Pope was a successful artist; in 1980 he represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, making sculptures that "filled the space".

In 1983 he visited Africa to study the Mbawala carvers in the Ruvuma Valley, where he was bitten by a mosquito that gave him a rare form of encephalitis. Since then, his working life has changed. He chose to leave London and has adjusted his working practice to the short spells of time that he is strong enough to work – something he says artists have to do "even if you don't know what you are doing".

Pope was born in Australia in 1949, although he trained in Bath. He and his wife, Janet, a botanical artist, live in a farmhouse in the Hereford countryside, nestled behind a topiary hedge carved in sculptural shapes. When I arrive, the house is filled with the scent of medlar pastilles that are being prepared for the nearby annual apple festival.

His studio across the short driveway is light and bright. Pope has been knitting, and spools of bright pink mohair wait to be used. Behind me, tall bronze sentinels of faceless figures lean against a wall. Pope is not happy yet with the patina on them, saying that he is wondering whether to make them spotted, like a small test work nearby. He laughs at my horrified expression, saying, "at least I got a reaction".

Two hanging knitted pieces swing nearby. They are Mr and Mrs Pope, knitted, shrunk and hung. "They are the 9th version in the Mr and Mrs Pope series over 37 years of married life. I knit them and then wash them in the extra hot cycle of the washing machine and that is what happens." The portraits are achingly sad. I point at Mrs Pope's pendulous breasts and he responds, "look at my cock and her vagina."

No holding back here.

Pope knits while watching television, before shrinking and knotting the final works. He fits it into a schedule of self-hypnosis and exercise that take up much of his day, to try to control the Parkinson's that he now has added to his previous health issues. I ask if he makes all the knitting himself and he says, "yes, why make it if I don't make it?" He does admit, though, that he is getting better at letting assistants help him in the process, "now that I have learnt how to give that person their fair share in the making."

Does Pope regret the trip to Africa? "No, it gave me much more than the illness." Recently he has been looking at his old work, mining some of the vocabulary. If there is one thing this illness has taught him, he says, it is "fuck it; why worry about it; just do it!"

Nicholas Pope will be showing in the New Art Centre, Roche Court Sculpture Park, near Salisbury (01980 862244) in the autumn