What I learned watching Phyllida Barlow create a funny, majestic work for morally shabby Brexit Britain

<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Phyllida Barlow was a great sculptor whose massy, messy, overwhelming artworks were funny, threatening, intelligent, theatrical and addressed – elliptically and slyly – the historical and political moments in which they were made. She was also an unforgettable presence, always the smartest person in the room, able to nose out bullshit at 50 paces. Her irreverent, ever-youthful laughter was one of the most joyous and mischievous sounds on Earth.

There are some artists who articulate what they want to say through their work, and find it hard to verbalise or explain their approach. There are some whose very articulacy seems to outpace the work, or push it into the background. Barlow had it all. Her art, rooted in the rough and tumble of the streetscapes of her traffic-ridden, busy patch of north London, makes you see and feel the world differently. It is compelling, mysterious and full of strange atmospheres that can’t ever be quite pinned down by talking about it.

But she was also one of the most articulate people you could hope to meet, and to spend time with her was to encounter a thrilling and enlarging intelligence. As you listened to Barlow, you began, just briefly, to see the world in her way – a world of jeopardy and beauty, in which objects like a simple set of steps or the pitched roof of a house or a set of scaffolders’ planks were understood in all their strangeness and sculptural qualities.

She taught for decades in London art schools – her pupils included Rachel Whiteread – and her clarity of mind and curiosity had been honed not only by her natural fierce intelligence, but by years of thinking and talking patiently to students. I learned more about sculpture from three hours speaking to Barlow than over the whole of the rest of my life.

For years, Barlow worked alone and unrecognised, making sculptures while her beloved children were at school, that no one would ever see, out of binbags or whatever she could find, often treating her materials with a certain fury. “There was a lot of binding and tying and dipping and crushing,” she told me. It was only after her retirement from teaching that she was “discovered” by the fashionable art world, and picked up by a large commercial gallery. Invitations to exhibit and commissions flooded in.

She grasped these late opportunities of her 60s and 70s energetically, producing work on a gloriously massive scale, work that was unabashed, anything but polite; work that prodded and argued with and pretty much elbowed aside the graceful patriarchal sculpture halls in which she built it. I’m thinking particularly of one of her finest works, dock, at Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries in 2014, with its tottering piles of timber and ramshackle columns, and her forbidding, mysterious enclosure, set, made for the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh the following year.

Related: Defying gravity: Phyllida Barlow’s Tate Britain takeover – in pictures

I spent many hours with her in 2017, the year she represented Britain at the Venice Biennale. She was working in a large, freezing studio on an industrial estate in north London, and wore a paint-and-concrete-caked anorak and scruffy trousers. With the help of an army of assistants, mostly young artists, she was working against the clock to make the components of her Venice installation – work that seemed to have much to say (though as ever, indirectly) about the morally shabby post-Brexit Britain in which she found herself.

What she produced somehow managed to seem simultaneously melancholic and joyful, abject and majestic, grim and terribly funny. In one corner she had a place where she’d make things on a smaller scale, just for herself, tying and shaping and slapping and bashing things together. She worked then and always, she told me, “as if a storm were coming”. How lucky for for us that she did – but oh, how she will be missed.