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.
Michele Bianco grew up in North Yorkshire and as a child, always loved to draw, write and illustrate stories. She explains she “was always an ‘outdoors’ child too and enjoyed 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 sketch outdoors 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 clearly fascinated by the world around her. She also enjoys considering the passage of time and the way changes occur and are evidenced in the geology and forms of the landscape.
Initially encouraged to follow an academic path, the artist studied Architecture at university. However she quickly realised it wasn’t ‘hands on’ enough for her and after graduating went back to art college.”
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.”
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.”
Coming to clay from a sculpture/architecture background, Bianco is 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.”
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!”
Although based in her beautiful studio in the remote Scottish Highlands – Michele Bianco remains at the epi-centre of current creative thinking: “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. It’s also a great way to get feedback on ideas or technical issues.”
Bianco believes that ceramics 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.
In addition to preparing for our 2022 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.
This article was written for Watermark Gallery by Colin Petch