Passed/Failed: An education in the life of David Mach, artist

'I was dopey until I was at least 30'

David Mach, 50, is a sculptor and professor at the Royal Academy whose work, shown worldwide, includes head shapes constructed from matches and coat hangers. His Polaris, a submarine made from 6,000 car tyres, was exhibited on London's South Bank but was set on fire by an objector who suffered fatal burns. Forthcoming sculptures include an 80ft-high female figure at the University of Dundee.

On my first day at primary school in Methil, Fife, I caught sight of my teacher, who had red hair, and made up my mind that she was French. I thought, "What am I going to do? I don't speak French!" It was rough, at school with seven-year-old major thugs. I liked primary school but they thought I was thick. I was shy and quiet. I was a dopey laddie until I was at least 30.

At five, I wanted an E-type Jaguar and decided that I would be an architect, and then I decided that I wasn't bright enough and that I'd be a lorry driver. I remember long division - the books would give an example with the answer. I always divided by the figure in the example. I must have passed the 11-plus. The first couple of years at Buckhaven High School were great, but the rest weren't, because of the confidence thing. I never joined any clubs. I remember a teacher saying, "You're not a member of anything," as if to say, "You'll never amount to anything."

These were the best of the last years of Scottish education. It was such a high-powered school, I almost believed that I'd go to university, but I always sat at the back of the class and didn't put my hand up.

I spent a lot of time in the art department, where there were four hot teachers. They changed my life. You had no sense of the possibility of being able to do anything with art. I didn't know anything about an art world, but Mr Barclay, who was the careers officer as well, said, "Why don't you go to art college?"

I got four O-levels and three "Highers" [A-level equivalent]. I struggled with and failed my applied mechanics O-level. I use applied mechanics all the time now and never have to struggle. In a gallery, they say, "That sculpture won't stand up," and I say, "Yes, it will." I know I'm right. I worked once with an engineer for a piece at the Venice Biennale; we used his calculations and it bloody fell down. In my foundation year at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, Dundee, we did painting, drawing, sculpture, design and textiles. When I was drawing my first picture, the guy next to me said, "Christ, that's like Leonardo da Vinci!" Unfortunately, my drawing went downhill after that. I specialised in sculpture, because it seemed to be the most demanding, intellectually and physically.

The teaching was fantastic: I don't think you would get a better education anywhere in the world. In my third year, I began to think, "Now I want to be an artist." I was in there from nine in the morning to nine at night, every day.

People moved to different courses. I was on my tod in third-year sculpture. You got a lot of attention, so much that I got my own studio in Dundee for a bit of space. I was so shy that I would come in early and work right through, but I was hiding away. I remember weeping and thinking, "I can't even speak in front of more than four people." I changed. I became much more confident.

I did a postgraduate year in sculpture. Then I got a scholarship to an art college in Warsaw (my dad was Polish and had been in a labour camp in Siberia), but martial law was declared in Poland and they advised me not to go. Bryan Kneale, our external examiner, said, "Come to the Royal College of Art." It was where he taught. I didn't even have an interview for the three-year MA course. Lucky me.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR and Payroll Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This dynamic outsourced contact...

Recruitment Genius: Production & Quality Control Assistant

£19000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity for a ...

Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor - Kettering - £32,000

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group HR Advisor with an established...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Generalist

£40 - 50k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking a HR Manager / HR Genera...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor