Simon Gudgeon may not have meant to kick off a thriving artistic career, but his work on the Sculpture by the Lakes park speaks volumes about his talent

Looking at the striking sculptures surrounding us as we chat, it’s hard to believe that Simon Gudgeon started his art career quite by accident.

“My mother bought me some paints in my mid 30s and I started painting and thought ‘I want to be an artist’,” he says. “I had done O-level art. But I went to school in Yorkshire and there was no career path to becoming an artist, so I went and did law and quite a few other things as well.”

Once Simon started painting, he developed a newfound passion for art, and gave up hislaw career to become a house-sitter for four years while he “just painted all day”, then began exhibiting his work. The move into sculpting was, again, almost accidental, when Simon came across some clay he had bought previously, and stashed away in the corner of his studio.

“I was tidying up and came across the clay,” he says. “Never looked back – absolutely loved it. The intention was to paint half the time and sculpt half the time. But after a year, I realised I hadn’t painted at all. It wasn’t a conscious thing.”

Simon continued exhibiting his work until, in 2007 a desire to buy some property led to a life changing career move.

“We were renting a small cottage in Wiltshire and my studio was an old piggery – quite cold and damp,” he says. “We thought we would look to buy something, something we could really make our own. Everything in our budget was the otherside of Exeter, because we wanted a house, a couple of acres and some outbuildings for studios.

“We were searching and this place came up.” “This place” was the 26-acre Pallington Lakes, near Dorchester, which has now been transformed from a fishery into the beautiful Sculpture by the Lakes sculpture park.

“I had a couple of big sculptures in storage, because there were not many galleries that could exhibit them because of their size, so I brought them here,” explains Simon, who usesthe Egyptian “lost wax” process in his work.

“After a couple of months, my wife Monique and I thought ‘why not make a sculpture park’ because it was a great place to show clients a sculpture in an outside setting. Some of them, in a gallery, look absolutely huge and daunting, but here it’s in context and scale.

“So we initially started it as a place where clients could come and see art. We developed it more and more. We planted 6-7,000 trees and shrubs when we moved here and everything has been transformed dramatically.”

In 2009, Simon and Monique took the decision to open to the public, giving themselves 18 months to completely transform the space and create more sculptures.

“We opened in 2011 not knowing quite what to expect at all,” he says.

“We opened for two weeks and donated all the money to Help for Heroes.

“The response was overwhelming. The first morning, people were coming in and getting on the phone to their friends saying ‘you have got to come out here’. It just got bigger and bigger and bigger. So we thought ‘this is it’. It has evolved from that.”

Over the years, more sculptures – there are now more than 30 dotted around the lakes – and areas to explore have been added, as well as a cafe, and a kitchen garden, with a view to making the venue self-sufficient.

The setting has also led to something of a transformation in Simon’s work. “Before I moved here, I was doing primarily wildlife sculptures,” he explains, “I had started to abstract it more and more. Now we are here, it’s very different in that if I want a new sculpture for an area, I think ‘what will work there?’

“My style has become very diverse, and the subject matter. I do wildlife, figurative, kinetic, abstract – so there’s a bit of everything around. It’s fascinating. By doing that, I don’t get bored.

“I don’t do commissions. I would rather create something I have a good idea for and produce it to the best of my ability and hope somebody likes it. For me, commissioning is slightly prostitution, in that you’re doing something for the money rather than for the passion.”

The stunning location means Simon is also never lost for inspiration – although he often struggles to find the time to bring his ideas to fruition. “I’ve got so many ideas of pieces that I want to do,” he says enthusiastically.

“The evolution of a sculpture, it can take days, weeks, months, years before I get in the studio and start making it. You get a twinkling of an idea in your mind and keep developing it until you can see it. That can take a long amount of time.

“Running a sculpture park takes a huge amount of time anyway. Up until December I hadn’t been in the studio for six or seven months. I was back in the studio in December in a creative whirlwind. So in the next month or so I will have a dozen new pieces out.”

Simon is now planing to run workshops with other local artists, and the park will be opening some areas for exclusive hire this summer. It may have been an accidental career, but it’s clear Simon has found his niche.

“I didn’t start sculpting until I was 40,” he says. “I always thought, in my late 20s, I didn’t know what I really wanted to do in life. I was doing quite a few other things. You think you can’t chop and change – but you can. Always keep looking.”

Sculpture by the Lakes, Pallington, Dorchester

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