Maggi Hambling is standing in a Sussex churchyard and shivering. She’s got a fag in one hand and a phone in the other hand.

Even the nation’s foremost female sculptor and former National Gallery artist-in-residence can be relegated to second-class citizen in possession of a cigarette.

“The vicar doesn’t want me to smoke in the church,” she laughs, “so I’ve come outdoors where it’s civilised.”

She’s a member of an illustrious artists’ club who are the nation’s most celebrated smokers.

“David Hockney and I are both on the same committee to try to reinstate smoking everywhere and at any time.”

Well, everywhere except in churches?

“I’m sure God wouldn’t mind, but vicars have other ideas.”

She first started painting at 14, which was the same age she began smoking. Her teacher was to blame.

“I painted my first paintings in oils in the middle of a field and insects were sticking to the painting and sticking to the brushes and sticking to the palette.

“My art teacher wandered across the field to see how I was doing. I said, ‘What can I do about this? These insects are sticking to everything.’ She said there was only one thing to do and that was to have a cigarette.

“From the moment of having oil paint in my hands there was a cigarette. It’s fundamental.”

Hambling gave up puffing for five years. But big installations can be exasperating.

It was while watching a large bronze sculpture, The Rising Wave, being lowered into place that she cracked. The wave was made for a private collector in Suffolk near Hambling’s home.

“The wave was swinging backwards and forwards in a perilous fashion on a chain on the end of a crane and people were dashing about on ground saying, ‘This way a bit, back a bit,’ and it was a bit of a challenge.

“And it happened to be my birthday, so I thought flip all this – I need a cigarette.”

The Rising Wave was originally made for a green next to a church in Saffron Walden after an invitation from a volunteer organisation.

The Tory council in the Essex town objected on the basis she was not born there. It believed funds should be spent on a social centre and that her sculpture was unoriginal: Hambling had painted waves before.

“That’s like saying to Picasso, ‘Oh you can’t paint us a nude because you’ve done one before.’ That whole letter was straight out of Private Eye.”

Her newest (and fourth) public sculpture is in Sussex.

The Resurrection Spirit hangs above a new nave alter in St Dunstan’s Church in Mayfield.

The church received a bequest from Walter Podger, a sacristan of the church, in 2010, which Father Nigel Prior used to realise his dream of commissioning a sculpture of the resurrection.

Its unveiling has been timed for Easter.

“I had not been commissioned to make a piece of sculpture for a church before so it’s a first,” explains Hambling, talking of her motivation for the work.

“It may be the last but it is the first.”

Hambling first received attention thanks to her studies of Frances Rose, an elderly, working-class Battersea neighbour, which she made between 1973 and 1975.

A series of portraits of the British comedian Max Wall, made when she was the artist in residence at the National Gallery in 1980, cemented her reputation.

She turned to landscape painting and later took to painting the North Sea.

The first of her sculptures in public spaces was unveiled in 1998.

A Conversation With Oscar Wilde has the playwright rising out of a sarcophagus outside St Martin-in-the-Fields church, London.

Metaphor for hope

Scallop, an explosion of interlocking metal scallop shells which aims to mirror the feeling of Benjamin Britten’s music, was unveiled on Aldeburgh beach as a tribute to the composer in 2003.

The Brixton Heron, a weathervane on the roof of a pub in Coldharbour Lane, was presented in 2010.

Movement is a key theme running through Hambling’s work.

“The idea with The Resurrection Spirit is that it will take the eye from ground level where we all walk about and up into the sky.”

She adds it “is a metaphor for the hope, meaning and essence of the resurrection,” and it reflects everything in the church and the people around it.

“Marvellously, as I always hoped it would, it is visible and invisible at the same time. It is always changing as the light changes, so it is alive.”

One commentator called the Oscar Wilde work “wilful tat”.

Vandals took to making their own painterly responses to Scallop.

The Resurrection Spirit’s location off the beaten track might keep it from damage if not the critics’ eye.

“My sculptures so far have proved to be loved by some and hated by others.

“You make a piece of work and it goes out into the world – particularly in the case of a public sculpture – and it has a life of its own.

“To some it is an eyesore. To others it is an icon.”

She quotes Oscar Wilde, “When the critics are divided the artist is at one with himself.”

It takes a certain bravery to make public sculpture.

And Hambling, whose lover for many years was the bohemian whirlwind Henrietta Moraes, whose heavy drinking eventually killed her, is certainly bold.

She once jumped off a boat in Egypt because she saw a group of people torturing a cat. She hit them and took the cat away.

During an acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia, she changed her mind and turned it down on the grounds she could not accept an honour from the body that had closed down the old Ipswich School of Art. She studied at the school before heading to Slade School of Fine Art.

Still, making a physical manifestation of Christ’s resurrection is another feat.

She insists she had no other religious art in mind during its creation.

“This is about resurrection and life and death comes into it too. This is the spirit of being here and where we are going. Nobody as far as I know has come back yet.”

The sculpture is made of delicate thin-gauge stainless steel to mirror a mirror.

“It has a fragile nature by the way it reflects everything around it. It has life and is strong.”

She is a workaholic who never goes on holiday. She gets up early to paint the sea off Suffolk.

More than a day and a half off work induces madness.

“Work is what I do. It is my life.”

And does the success help?

“I don’t know about success. You live in doubt and despair most of the time. It’s why you need a drink in the evening.”

Before an exhibition of monotypes opens at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, there is more religious art to finish: an altar cloth for Winchester Cathedral.

“Suddenly two things in churches,” she cackles. “You can’t tell what life holds for you. It might be a nightclub next.”

  • The Resurrection Spirit at St Dunstan’s Church, Mayfield