There are a number of exquisite pieces of work at Watermark that instinctively make you want to reach out and touch – although you probably shouldn’t. Key among them are the natural-world inspired forms of Inverness-based Ceramicist Michele Bianco.
In collaboration with fellow artist and friend, Pascale Rentsch, Bianco will take centre stage at the Gallery in March 2022, with a perfectly-titled ‘Off The Beaten Track’ exhibition.
Bianco is the type of creative practitioner that most of us could only dream to be. As a child, growing up in Stokesley, North Yorkshire, she loved to draw, write and illustrate stories. She explains she “was always an ‘outdoors’ child too and spent a great deal of time creating hideaways and secret dens out in the woods with my older sister”. The natural forms, patterns and textures of nature, that were her playground then, are a clear influence on her work. Bianco’s inspiration is linked directly to being outside in wild and empty landscapes, “I always take my backpack containing sketching materials with me on my walks”.
“I sketch outdoors in any weather and am inspired by nature – the patterns, the textures, the colours. From my studio, I can look out onto the amazing landscape and translate my sketches, ideas and impressions into three-dimensional forms. The process is intuitive and very absorbing.” Bianco is fascinated by the world around her – the intricate tracery of winter trees, the texture of weathered objects that she finds on the shore. The delicate forms of plants, seed pods and flowers, the rhythms of the natural world. She also enjoys considering the passage of time and the way changes occur and are evidenced in the geology and forms of the landscape.
I wonder if Michele Bianco is the prodigy of a great artistic dynasty? “Not at all – I don’t know where it came from! My dad’s a businessman and my mum was a secretary. I think neither could really understand why I loved to get so dirty all the time! I was encouraged to follow a more academic path, which is why I chose to study Architecture at university. I quickly realised that it wasn’t ‘hands on’ enough for me though and after graduating went back to art college.”
Bianco confirms that although Architecture was a slight diversion from her eventual choice of career, she recognises that it taught her to think in a structural way (and it has been widely noted that her ceramic work is quite architectural). Her interest in the built environment and in natural and man-made structures continues to inform her work.
After study, Bianco established her own gallery: “I set up and ran it for 10 years, showing work by emerging and nationally renowned artists. I gradually became more and more interested in the ceramics and sculpture that I was exhibiting and started doing various courses in those disciplines.”
Constantly developing and evolving, Bianco then went on to gain a Diploma in Glass and Ceramics at Sunderland’s National Glass Centre. This led to the eventual decision to close her gallery, to allow more time for her own making, before setting up her own ceramics studio and becoming a full-time artist.
Although there is arguably an ‘ancient’, fossilistic (that may not be an actual word – I apologise) quality to Bianco’s pieces that suggests she has always understood and excelled at working with clay – this is surprisingly not so: “I actually never used clay creatively until I was in my 30’s. The school I went to had no pottery or sculpture facilities, so it took me a long time to realise what a great material it is! I originally made small sculptures from board and paper and then moved on to carving in wood and stone. Eventually I started using clay to cast in plaster and realised what a wonderfully versatile material clay is.”
Predominantly using stoneware clay, Bianco hand-builds her pieces using a range of techniques. The form is made initially by pinching and coiling the clay, then refined as it dries, by beating, smoothing and scraping. Once happy with the basic form, she hand-carves into it – and those shapes are informed by the curves and outlines of the form itself. “I love clay because it is endlessly challenging and so versatile. You can use it in so many different ways in terms of the physical making techniques and then there is the added interest of firing and glazing. It seems like there is so much to learn about clay that I’m constantly finding new possibilities and creative processes.” Bianco also experiments with different clays and glazes. “In terms of clays, I enjoy earthiness and roughness and prefer to use a more textured stoneware to a smooth porcelain.”
She explains that coming to clay from a sculpture/architecture background, she’s much more concerned with making visually interesting objects, than with functional items. She also likes to work slowly – and hand-building lends itself to that. “I started carving into my forms at the beginning of 2018 and this has become my principal way of creating my finished forms. It is slow, delicate work which I find totally absorbing and allows me to become completely focussed on my work.”
The artist readily admits that her practice is one of constant evolution: “I think I tend to work quite intuitively and I’m not sure I’m really organised enough to have themes as such. My work does tend to evolve quite quickly and really is just a natural process of development. My early work was quite architectural. I made geometric shapes, burnished them and used smoke firing techniques to create interesting surfaces. Subsequently I started making vessel forms with surface decoration made by hand cutting intricate stencils and developing glazes and slips to layer colours. These pieces were very much inspired by nature and in some ways the work I do now is a more three-dimensional development of that work.”
Currently Bianco is investigating different clays and mixtures of clay to alter the colour and surface texture of her ceramics, and she’s developing new glazes. “I’d like to do more work on some textural, lithium-based glazes.”
The individuality of each Michele Bianco piece must create challenges? “Each piece is different, but the initial making process usually takes place over 2 or 3 days. On day one I form the shape, usually using a mixture of hand-building techniques. Then I allow it a ‘controlled-dry’ overnight. The following day I draw onto the surface of the form to indicate the shapes or patterns that I want to carve. The initial carving is done usually using a ribbon tool and then the carving is gradually refined over the next day or so, using various tools – metal ribs and metal sculpture tools. As the piece slowly dries, the carving can be refined by degrees. After drying, pieces are fired to 950C. My pieces are often only partially glazed, so I apply latex resist to areas I don’t want glaze or slip before dipping in glaze. Once dry, the pieces are again fired to around 1200C (depending on the glaze used).”
It seems almost pointless and slightly insulting, to ask an artist such as Bianco, who she might cite as inspiration. But she readily answers: “My sculpture hero is Eduardo Chillida. I find the positive and negative spaces in his work intriguing. I also love the wood sculpture of David Nash. Wood carving is a big influence on me, because the material lends itself to carving and creating wonderful textures. In terms of ceramics, I’m in awe of the amazing sculptures of Dorothee Loriquet – both for the wonderful shapes and subtle surface textures and colours – and the work of Annie Turner is endlessly fascinating to me. I’d love to watch her work!”
Bianco goes on: “I also love the Japanese aesthetic and the more sculptural Japanese ceramics, such as those by Kayoko Hoshino, Yukiya Izumita and Mihara Ken for their interesting forms and surface textures. The textural, sculptural work of Claudi Casanovas and Paul Philp are also strong influences.”
Although based in her studio in the remote Scottish Highlands, which is beautifully constructed from Torridonian Sandstone and Charred Scottish Larch, (with studio dogs – Foxy, a very naughty Romanian rescue dog and Flora, a German short-haired pointer, who belongs to Bianco’s sister, but spends her days with Foxy and the artist) – Michele Bianco remains at the epi-centre of current creative thinking: “I think the most important element of the outside world in my creative process is Instagram! It’s such a positive creative community and particularly during the pandemic has been a wonderful way to stay connected with other creative people and see what is going on around the world creatively. It’s also a great way to get feedback on ideas or technical issues.”
About her location, the artist is clear: “It is an astonishingly beautiful place. There’s also an immense sense of peace and a very humbling feeling of being very small in such a big and enduring landscape. The mountains have such a feeling of strength and power and the rhythm of the tide gives a sense of continuity which I find very calming. I also love the extremes of weather – it feels like a very vital place.”
Bianco believes that ceramics generally are now getting more attention as an art form, which is very positive. “I think ‘craft’ should be considered of equal artistic value to ‘fine art’ and I’m really encouraged by the interest that there currently is in all forms of making.”
Characteristically humble, she says: “I think I’m just trying to make work which expresses in a small way, the beauty that I see around me in nature and the way it makes me feel.” She is certainly doing that.
Again with Pascale Rentsch – Michele Bianco is currently exhibiting ‘Winter Light’ at Edinburgh’s Birch Tree Gallery. She also sells her work through her own web site. “I feel very lucky to be able to sell my work around the world – it’s a wonderful feeling to send pieces off to people in far flung places.”
In addition to preparing for our 2022 Watermark exhibition, Michele Bianco is currently making ‘50 walks/50 works’ – to celebrate a rather significant birthday. Her beautiful accounts of the journey which will ultimately take her from the North-East coast to her Inverness studio are a joy to read – and further reinforce the creative credentials of this extraordinary artist.