With an important and influential art history spanning two centuries, Cornwall is regarded as one of Europe’s most important areas for the arts. Known particularly for its social realist and modernist painting and 20th Century ceramics it has its fair share of galleries and world class art venues including Penlee House, Tate St Ives and the Leach Pottery. But the real vibrancy in the Cornwall art scene has always been in the area’s myriad hidden studios and potteries, where talented independent artists continue to direct the shape and feel of contemporary art and craft. One such artist is Michel Francois, a potter whose background, creative experience and current work encapsulate the pairing of local and international influence that have always defined Cornish art.
Born in Munich in 1976 and raised in France by his French father and American/Canadian mother, Michel dodged the career in international marketing and finance for which his parents intended him, and at the age of 19 took up an apprenticeship in sculpture. He then enrolled on a foundation course at Camberwell College, London before moving to Edinburgh to train in figurative ceramic sculpture.
Ultimately enrolling on the Ceramics course at Cornwall’s Falmouth College of Art in 1999, Michel also took on a work placement with respected sculptor Tim Shaw, whose impressive sculpture The Drummer famously graces Truro’s Lemon Quay.
“I try to make beautiful, functional pottery rooted in the ancient and modern tradition of ceramics that will hold its own in today’s world”
From then on Michel immersed himself in the creation of inspirational forms, making public sculpture and even exhibiting outside the Pompidou Centre, Paris before finally settling in Cornwall for good and raising a family. Why Cornwall, with so many artistic connections in Europe? I ask. “Cornwall just felt like home” he tells me. “Things run more slowly here. This place has a timeless quality. It’s safe and peaceful and the perfect place to raise kids, to create works of art. To make pots that were both graceful and useful was the key challenge, and that idea has stayed with me ever since.”
In 2010, after a year at the Leach Pottery, Michel set up his own pottery studio near the West Cornwall town of Helston with the aim of making high quality tableware for sale direct through his pottery and via a handful of exclusive retailers. An initial and ongoing supporter of his work is Postcard Teas in London’s New Bond Street. Specialists in fine teas and Asian craft, they sell a range of Michel’s simple and elegant tea bowls and jars to London’s discerning buyers.
In 2011 Eden Project commissioned Michel to make a range of functional tableware for their onsite café. In collaboration with friend and fellow Leach apprentice Jacob Bodilly, Michel designed an exclusive range, hand-making almost 2000 individual pieces for the café, which are now in use and on sale in the Eden shop. Michel’s alma mater, now University College Falmouth, were very supportive of the project, with the Academy of Innovation and Research (AIR) giving the pair a £5,000 grant to help develop the range.
Acclaim for his work at Eden led swiftly to a commission from Falmouth’s artisan coffee house Espressini, who commissioned a collection of stylish salad bowls and coffee beakers based on the traditional Japanese Yunomi cup. He continues to be in demand for various forthcoming collaborative projects.
At his rural studio, Michel continues to produce high quality porcelain tableware and one off sculptural designs, exploring purity and simplicity of form through his unique and beautifully handmade work. “I try to make beautiful, functional pottery rooted in the ancient and modern tradition of ceramics that will hold its own in today’s world” he tells me in conclusion. And certainly his work is establishing its place in the respected ceramics scene of West Cornwall.
Whilst making ceramic sculpture at his West Cornwall studio he was introduced to, and fell in love with the refined, minimalist forms of traditional Korean pottery. “The Korean aesthetic is gentle and unpretentious and at the same time very spiritual. There is a remarkable purity to it” he explains, “and it has an incredibly warm, human quality.” Inspired to become a potter, a final decisive change of direction was needed, and in 2008 he became one of the very first apprentices at the newly reopened Leach Pottery in St Ives.
“Training at Leach was a phenomenal experience, but it was also humbling to have to learn a new skill from scratch. And it was pretty tough learning to throw! The potter’s wheel can be very unforgiving and I had to work hard to better myself every day.” He quickly developed a relationship with his fellow apprentices and found the Leach studio the perfect place to share ideas on art and philosophy. “Naturally our discussions, training and work were driven by the creative principals of Bernard Leach – by the idea that it was possible to make stand-alone works of pottery that are both beautiful and functional. I learned to draw on ideas of art in order to make craft, in contrast to my previous experience of employing craft in order
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You can also visit and buy pieces direct from the workshop:
Wheal Vor, Helston, TR13 9NW