In anticipation of her upcoming online ceramic workshop (11/08/2020 from 10am-4pm) and re-release of her book (now available in softbound), I have decided to detail the life and work of the stunningly talented sculptor, Michelle Gregor. Check out the links to learn more about these upcoming opportunities. -Tahlia Aghily

Michelle Gregor’s colorful, abstract figures are revelations of beauty that manifest in myriad ways, ranging in size from a few inches tall to architectural-scale bronzes. What unifies these sculptures is their sense of calm, mass and balance, simultaneously suggesting motion and repose. Perhaps best known as a colorist, her painterly, multi-layered and multi-fired approach to surface endows her sculptures with a sense of depth and the passage of time.After receiving a Bachelor of Arts from UC Santa Cruz, Gregor gravitated to an MFA program at SF State where she worked with her mentor, Stephen DeStaebler. Here she was deeply impacted by the work of DeStaebler and other artists of the Bay Area figurative movement like Manuel Neri, David Park, and Richard Diebenkorn. 

During her time at SF State, Gregor worked a day job as a production potter in the East Bay. She harnessed her ability to throw large cylindrical forms as a means to “get large masses into space quickly,” and then would apply human or animalfigures to these non-functional pots. Eventually by the end of her graduate school period, she had left the vessel behind as an elemtn of her sculptural work,choosing to fcus exclusively on the body. 

The wheel remained an essential part of her sculptural process since Gregor’s large-scale works were often built from wheel-thrown pieces. The multitude of cylindrical forms in her Hands series reflect their origin on the potter’s wheel. This incorporation of wheel-thrown pieces creates a dynamic and poetic association between vessels and the human form. 

Michelle Gregor, Scout, ceramic, 36″ x 16″ x 18″

Michelle Gregor seated in front of hands sculptures

Michelle Gregor, surrounded by her sculptures of hands.

Michelle Gregor, Euphrates, ceramic, 2016, 33″ x 27″ x 24″

The vivid, multi-hued surfaces of these pieces are achieved entirely with glazes and usually require multiple firings. Still, there is no suggestion of laboriousness in the end result.” -Maria Porges, Art’s Avatars and Angels, 2013

Gregor spent time teaching at Touchstone Art Center for developmentally disabled adults, the San Francisco’s Boys Club, and with the San Francisco Unified School District as a resident artist, before becoming the head of the Ceramics Department at San Jose City College in 2002, where she continues to teach courses in sculpture and design.
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It was during this time that Gregor got to work adding to her repertoire and finding her style. Her signature figures find themselves somewhere between representation and abstraction. She continually reduces the shape of the human figure to its essential elements then imposes a unique, free-spirited application of color. These characteristic swelling shapes are a product of Gregor’s  preoccupation with sculpting the female form- the vast majority of her subject matter. The result is a body of work that feels both familiar and stunning.  What Gregor does so beautifully is get across the idea of the immensity of the female form, the rhythm of its curves and grandeur.
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Part of what makes Gregor’s work so striking is its texture. The artist sculpts a perfect canvas of both smooth and jagged surfaces that depict the meandering landscape of the human form. Gregor’s use of glaze and firing result in a intriguing surface that compels the viewer to reach out and touch it.  In this way, Gregor’s work reminds us that all art, especially sculpture, exists for all our senses.  Our consumption of these forms is largely a mixture of visual and tactile experiences.
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The sensuous figures involve a conversation between their lively muscularity and soft areas of repose. From this work we do learn about roundness, and about materiality, form, space and many other formal, tactile things. But we also learn something more important: something about the profound interconnectedness of strength and weakness, of power and vulnerability.

Michelle Gregor, Avalon, 22″ x 25″ x 18″, ceramic

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Michelle Gregor, Deep Water, 2009, 13″ x 6″ x 9″, ceramic

Michelle Gregor, Adriatic, 28″ x 13″ x 25″, ceramic

Michelle Gregor in studio

Michelle Gregor’s list of early influences is seemingly endless: Indian, Cambodian and Balinese figurative sculptures largely inform her early work. Three months traveling in Indonesia deeply underscored Gregor’s sense of connection to spiritual art. Gregor also taps into the interconnectedness of all art forms, describing dance as “moving sculpture”. She says seeing the work of others is like a “free coupon for new interest… There is no reason to ever lack inspiration in this world.” 

Gregor has always been a proponent of creating drawings in addition to her sculpted pieces. Her wonderful works on paper provide a guide for the sculptures they precede. They are a playground which give the artist a platform to more easily and readily explore color palettes before they reach clay. By refusing to ignore two-dimensional mediums, Gregor yet again proves herself to be a well-rounded artist.

2011-2015

It is evident in Gregor’s nuanced work, she has spent time with important work from periods and cultures that historically support sculpture, especially the figure. On a three month sabbatical from San Jose City College, Gregor travelled throughout Europe, closely studying the classical tradition at European museums from Naples, Italy to the Louvre. Well-versed in art history, Gregor is also inspired by the urban diversity of the San Francisco bay area and previous travel to Bali and southeast Asia.

This time abroad inspired her work for the Transcendent exhibition in partner with Don Reitz and her former mentor, David Kuraoka. Gregor’s foray into life-size work grasped the attention of audiences for this show. The work’s large scale accentuates their sense of motion and power. Billowing drapery flows to the ground, creating Gregor’s signature silhouette. The figures are subtly expressive in their gestures and have a raw, unfinished quality. The rawness and missing limbs seem to suggest ancient artifacts  or Greek statues where the paint has worn and limbs have fallen off. The intriguing sculptures reward close examination; subtle layers of color and uneven surfaces reveal a nuanced figure.

The freestanding figures sit perched on their bases. Facial features are often blurred or completely indecipherable; sculpting them is often left for last touches, although the process can take many work sessions. The faces of her earlier work suggested self-portraits, but the details have since been reduced and draw upon a broader expanse of influences and sources.  while details of clothing and decoration are added in paint or scratched in with sculpting tools. The figures are timeless and simultaneously remind the viewer of both Greek antiquities and modern magazine photographs.  In a 2001 interview, Susannah Israel posed the timeless question, “Why make art?” Gregor responded, “Art is a spiritual necessity. The creative spirit is the best a human being can reach for. It connects us to people in the present, the past and the future.”

Michelle Gregor - Mykonos - Figure & Ground - 2018 - Ceramic - 18" x 18" x 9"

Michelle Gregor, Mykonos Figure Ground, mixed media, 2018

Michelle Gregor, Girl on Plinth, ceramic