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.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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