How we met: Delfina Entrecanales & Mark Wallinger - 'I don't know anything about art. But he explains it to me, and then I get it'

 

Mark Wallinger, 55

The sculptor first gained prominence at Charles Saatchi's 'Young British Artists II' show in 1993. He came to the fore with 'Ecce Homo', his statue of Christ for Trafalgar Square's fourth plinth in 1999; in 2007, he won the Turner Prize for 'State Britain', a recreation of Brian Haw's war-protest camp outside Parliament

Space and time are the two hardest things to find as an artist, especially somewhere as expensive as London, so I will always be grateful for Delfina['s patronage]. I had been in a studio building on the New Kent Road in Southwark for eight years or so when I had to evacuate the place in a great hurry, in 1996. I had friends at her studio and they told me there was a vacant space in her complex at Bermondsey Street. I'd heard great things about the place, so I moved in.

Delfina was like this beneficent spirit floating round the place and I hit it off with her. There were some great independent older women in my family and I recognised that in her: she was charismatic, straight-talking and feisty, peppering her sentences with colourful swearwords, which I found rather enjoyable.

I put everything I had in storage and because I now had an empty studio, it felt like an opportunity to start again; I'm still grateful for that fresh start.

Artists can keep themselves to themselves, so it was a wonderful idea of hers to have a very nice canteen there offering lunch for £1: at 12:30pm every day hungry artists would pile in, sharing ideas, gossip and regurgitating Fast Show jokes, and I started meeting her for lunch there too. She has a fascinating past, with her family's involvement in the Spanish Civil War and how she came to be in Britain.

Delfina's a religious person and during that period we talked a lot about the approaching millennium. She had a sense that people were being evasive of the meaning behind it – like it was simply a matter of so many zeros rolling over a car's mileometer – just don't mention the "J" [Jesus] word, we joked. So she liked the fact I was approaching that issue with Ecce Homo, and she encouraged me to do it. It's a part of the human condition to need to be nurtured and Delfina made me feel special, which is indicative of the kind of woman she is.

I've never been happier than the time I spent at those studios, but by 2005, it was time to make way for others. I'm a trustee of her organisation now, and I love how, when we meet up, she still gets exercised by other people's complacency, that they waste time; she doesn't understand why people in the art world don't just get on and make something.

What I love about Delfina most is that she collects artists, not art: unlike some patrons, she's interested in art as a human thing rather than a commodity. She's still relatively unknown because people are known by their works; her works are the artists themselves – and she's enabled hundreds of us.

Delfina Entrecanales CBE, 87

Born in southern Spain in 1927, Entrecanales was sent by her father to Oxford to learn English, and escape the Franco regime. For the past 40 years, she has helped the careers of more than 500 artists, including Mark Wallinger, Tacita Dean and Martin Creed, by creating spaces for them to share and debate ideas

I remember Mark was here in my studios, but I don't remember exactly the first time I met him. There were so many artists! There were 34 studios, and all these [visiting] foreigners as well, so I would run around all day. I used to go to the studios practically every day, and I'd meet them all for lunch [at the Delfina Café].

Mark was quite quiet – he was very clever, but quiet, and he was friendly and warm. He was also quite tidy – I was like a hawk [about tidiness], I would walk around and tell them all off. Inside the studios, they could do what they liked – but outside, no. I was always very neurotic about not having mess.

I don't know anything about art. I don't understand it even now, so while I was very impressed by what Mark was doing, he had to explain it to me. My first impression of things is, "I don't get it!" But then he explains it to me, and then I get it.

One day I went into Mark's studio and there was this work called Angel [a film work Wallinger made in 1997] – it is on an escalator, and it was about angels, and about St Peter. I was a very lapsed Catholic, but at that time I began to go back to church, and I remember going in and talking to him about it. People could never understand how I had gone back to God, but at least with him, I could connect.

I haven't been to his [current] studio, but I sat next to him when I went to Buckingham Palace [at the lunch after she was awarded a CBE in 2012], and we reconnected then. My daughter is very keen on what he does, and she was talking to him lots.

I have seen him a few times since – he's one of my advisers at my foundation now – and we talk mostly about the past. When Mark was here the other day, we looked at the list of people [who had been at the studios at the same time], and I think I remember more people than he does! When I see their names, I remember them. Jane and Louise Wilson, Tacita Dean, Gary Webb, Mark Alexander, Glenn Brown… That's what keeps me going – all the artists! Meeting inspiring people, and inspiring other people. My relationship with the artists is why I've done it; all the other things, I don't care about it. I am like a grandmother, to all of them.

The Delfina Foundation re-opened in January after expanding to become the largest artist residency provider in London. Its inaugural exhibition, 'The Politics of Food', runs until 27 February (delfinafoundation.com). Mark Wallinger is participating in 'Real Feelings: Thinking in Film' at the KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, from today to 27 April (kw-berlin.de)

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