Focus on Cornish makers: Michel François
Photographs John Hersey
There’s something in the air in Cornwall. It was the chance to journey through this ancient, inspiring scenery that prompted our road trip – to discover and celebrate its craftsmanship, from the famous Leach Pottery to today’s emerging talent. Each of the makers featured here reveals not only the poetry of the landscape – ‘but also the stillness, the solace’ Ceramic artist Michel François explains his methodology…
What do you do?
I am a French artist-potter working in porcelain. My studio is based in Falmouth, Cornwall where I studied Studio Ceramics at university after training in sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art and in at Falmouth University. I have been an artist in residence at the Leach Pottery in St Ives, and have 25 years’ experience in the Arts, selling internationally.
What materials do you like to work with?
Previously as a sculptor I used many different materials, both traditional and new materials. But I found that I connected to more ‘noble’ materials –particularly stone, glass and clay. They seem to carry a memory, a character: they spoke to me. Later I discovered porcelain. It is the most demanding material as it remembers every touch; it has the shimmering magnificence of marble, the translucency of glass and the sensual plasticity of clay. But that is just its naked state, in the firing it will interact with the glaze and that is where the alchemy begins…
Your practice uses ‘ancient, timeless techniques’ – why do you prefer working in this way?
From an early age I was drawn to museums – I understood that great art carried an ‘essence’ that reveals itself to those that are receptive to it.
My early ceramics was all about the form. My contemporaries used modern glazes with often very strong colour and texture – and although I appreciated their work very much, it did not fit my expression. I despised using glazes, thinking they covered and smothered the form. I kept looking back to the Sung dynasty and realised that the Sung potters achieved a unity of the essentials of the ceramic art that has never been surpassed. It clicked: there is mystery in the simple.
I wanted my work to be sensual, enticing and reflective of my philosophy for life – to combine my artistic passion with nature’s voice.
I started my journey making my own glazes crafted using Feldspar, Cornish stone and ash from local trees such as chestnut, ash and beech. By starving the kiln of oxygen, I draw minerals and oxides from inside the clay to the surface. There they react with the ash glaze, combining to act as prisms that filter and reflect light. This process ensures that each piece is unique.
Do you think in this digital age it is important to have handmade, tactile objects in our lives?
It’s important to me, but then I’m an artist-potter! Only a couple thousand years ago, humans would be buried with their baskets, jewellery and pots – they defined us. We as humans are cut off from our natural habitat and purposely cut ourselves off from the ‘Source’. It is connection that enhances our lives. The digital age is efficient at ‘connecting us’ in one sense – but there is a danger, it is all too easy to disconnect even more from ourselves and from each other.
Do you sense that people’s attitudes towards mass-produced objects are changing?
I think everyone who reads this would like me to say yes! But I would have to say no, not really. In my town I get extraordinary compliments everywhere I go, even the cashiers at the bank – but needless to say my demand for a loan was turned down! People are on autopilot – they think ‘why go out of your way to buy a handmade pot that’s more expensive?’ We like the idea of it, but sadly reality is different. We are still rather imprisoned by our mindset.