Michelle Gregor is a contemporary figurative artist. When describing her work, it is easy to fall into a list of dichotomic elements. Her work exists in the borderland between representation and abstraction, with the figure as her main subject. Her sculpture has weight and scale that feels monumental, but it is also an expression of fragility and beauty. There is evident reverence for the work of artists that influence her, but she clearly beats her own path. She is grounded by her connection to the Bay Area and the relevance of the Bay Area Figurative Movement in her work, but her sculpture reverberates with international, particularly European, influences. It is her ability to weave these different narratives through her aesthetic that makes her one of the most highly regarded second-generation sculptors of the Bay Area Figurative Movement working today, and one of the most important women ceramic artists working in the US.
In examining Michelle Gregor’s work and career there are two strong narratives. It is important to recognize that they are not separate, but interwoven aspects of the artist’s life. Her connection to a chosen location and associated art community form the roots of the tree. This has fed into everything she has achieved but is not the whole story. Her love of museums, need to travel, experience, and learn has enhanced her perspective, and forms the architecture that supports the branches of the tree.
Michelle Gregor identifies strongly as a Bay Area artist. A third -generation San Franciscan, she received a liberal arts education from the University of California System during a time she describes as “golden age” for education in California. She began studying ceramics at the UC Santa Barbara, and transferred to complete her undergraduate studies UC Santa Cruz. Here she studied ceramics, printmaking, Eastern religion and French symbolist poetry. At the time she arrived at UC Santa Cruz, the ceramic department was in the process of closing, and she and small group of other students used two remaining old salt kilns, next to which they had to build a makeshift studio with the aid of a Chancellor’s Grant. This was a period that allowed a lot of self-direction and experimentation.
After graduating she moved back to San Francisco and found a place to continue working in Ruby O’Burke’s studio in Castro. This was a large Victorian house split into a labyrinth of 10 x 10 ft artist studios. It was here she first met working artists, such as potter, Tammy Burwell. At the time Gregor was still having to work another job to support her studio practice. The Castro in 1983 was vibrant and inspiring, and she claimed this colony of artists as her chosen family.
Feeling the need for better resources to develop her work she attended San Francisco State, where she earned her MFA. Here she was able to better focus her aesthetic approach under the mentoring of Stephen DeStaebler, and discipline of David Kuraoka. DeSaebler had a profound influence on the direction of Gregor’s work, as did other artists of the Bay Area Figurative Movement, such as Richard Diebenkorn, Manuel Neri and David Park.
When she arrived at SF State, she was mostly creating her sculpture from large wheel-thrown forms. She was also working to support herself as a production potter in the East Bay. She used these skills to throw large cylindrical pots, which she would manipulate, with the addition of human or animal figures, into non-functional forms. By the time she completed her MFA she had moved away from the thrown vessel in favor of solid-built sculptural work. This is also when the human form became the focus of her creative dialogue. She now reflects that, “The figure has served as the best method of transportation throughout my many years of practice…. As a source, it seems infinite”
Following graduation Gregor remained in San Francisco and began teaching, first at Touchstone Art Center, then as an artist in residence for the San Francisco Unified School District. She became head of the Ceramics Department at San Jose City College in 2002. Here she continues to influence future Bay Area artists, just as she was mentored by the generation before her.
Gregor acknowledges the legacy of the Bay Area Funk artists such as Robert Arneson, who pioneered the use of ceramics in fine art, and established California as an epicenter of that activity. However, she is different from other Bay Area ceramic artists in her painterly approach to form and surface. It is when we begin to explore the artist’s other influences that the narrative moves away from California.
A passion for art history and museums has led Michelle Gregor to travel widely in pursuit of experiential learning. She has travelled through Southeast Asia and takes an annual trip to Europe to visit museums of art. Armed with her sketch book she spends hours sketching the exhibits. Drawing is an important part of Gregor’s process, but there is a clear distinction between her activity of drawing from life and the gestural mark making she uses in her work. This sketching is an aide-mémoire and a mark of respect, rather than a collection of source material for replication. The experience of the artwork is what gives her energy. To return to the earlier tree analogy… the experience is absorbed much like a plant draws energy through photosynthesis of light.
This absorption of knowledge and experience is demonstrated through every aspect of her work. She uses large block shapes and tears and pulls the clay, preserving the cut of the wire and tool marks in the tradition of truth to materials, a belief that form should be inseparably related to the material in which it is made. This concept came to the forefront of aesthetic discussions in the 1930s and is particularly associated with Henry Moore. Her surface is then built up in soft washes of color with pops of color evocative of the impressionists’ pallet. The boldness of her application is influenced by abstract expressionism of the 1950s. There is a sensibility in her work that is reminiscent of classical sculpture. Her work is the synthesis of everything she has been taught, has learned and has experienced, and it has gravitas.