Conjuring Goddesses and Nymphs

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Exhibition at the John Natsoulas Gallery circa 2013

The Neo-Classic Womanist Art of Michelle Gregor

Not that long ago I thought of clay – in the rare instance when I thought about it at all – as toys to be manipulated and twisted into fantastic shapes by curious children, or as a medium for modeling the work of sculptors for works to be cast in bronze.  This view was fashioned from watching two great New York based artists – Vinnie Bagwell and Gabrielle Koren – who create heroic sculptures in bronze.

However in the San Francisco Bay Area I discovered a community of sculptors for whom clay is the material of choice: ceramic artists.  These sculptors have developed a series of techniques that enable them to produce art objects whose beauty and intricate design place them among the first rank of fine artists.  Professor Michele Gregor is one of the leading lights in this vibrant and growing artistic community.  Mention of her name among colleagues, critics and gifted up-and-comers elicits a torrent of panegyrics.

Her colleague Susannah Israel, herself an outstanding ceramic sculptor and college teacher, wrote of Ms. Gregor’s work in an essay titled Transcendent: Michelle Gregor, David Kuraoka, and Don Reitz – published in Ceramics Art and Perception, Issue 88, 2012.       “Michelle Gregor is a neoclassic ceramic sculptor with a contemporary flavor,  inspired by the urban diversity of the San Francisco Bay Area and informed by previous travel to Bali and Southeast Asia…(she) distills the best of figurative art traditions world-wide, mixed with contemporary influences, to give us the personal expression of an artist whose first allegiance to beauty.”

The recently mounted exhibit at the Natsoulas Gallery, located in the bucolic University town of Davis, set in the heart of Northern California’s agricultural region, was a praisesong to beauty.   Whether we look at the exquisitely executed forms and finishes of the sculpture, or the pathos, pain, wisdom and gravitas on the faces of Ms. Gregor’s women….. everywhere we witness revelations of beauty manifested in myriad ways.  Her sculptures are full figured voluptuous women that radiate an aura of strength and sensuality, no bulimic babes or anorexic Annies here; Professor Gregor is clearly no slave to au courant notions of feminine beauty.

There is also a generous dose of truth in the emotions with which Professor Gregor has invested her sculptures, for it accurately reflects the predicament of women in the world at the dawning of the 21st century.   Whether we take our cue from the dastardly machinations of the Republican Party’s attacks on the rights of American women – at present one of the freest and most empowered groups of women in the world – or women in the Islamic world, who are the most oppressed, we see the rights of women under attack everywhere.

I advance these views as speculation only.  Alas,  it is a risky business attempting to read the minds of artists, since their sensitivity and imagination often operate on a different frequency from the rest of us.  Yet if the artist offers the  work for public exhibition without instructing us on how we should view it, then we must assume that they intend us to make of their offering what we will.  That is what I have done with Ms. Gregors’ splendid show.

Fascinated by my discovery of what great ceramic artists can do with clay, which is a fancy name for special sand, I have sought to learn how these latter day alchemists turn clay into timeless art treasures. Looking at the delicate colors in the sculptures of Professor Gregor in the photographs below, they remind me of impressionist paintings about classical myths.  The question every thoughtful observer must ponder is: “How is it possible to heat an object to over 2,000 degrees and it not turn out charred?”

The answer to this lies in the fact that great ceramic artists must know something of science, because in ceramics art and science merge.  Professor Israel, who can go seamlessly from discussing techniques for glazing and firing sculptures in a wide variety of kilns, to the chemical uniqueness that distinguishes clay from mere sand, is a classic example of this merger.

In discussing the techniques Ms. Gregor employed in producing the beautiful sculptures in this exhibit,  Israel tells us “Gregor emerged early on as a particularly fine colorist, and her subtle brush work shows the unmistakable evidence of originality and dedicated practice.  Her figures wear colors as subtle and sophisticated as an oil painting, but here, these effects depend upon intensive thermochemical changes occurring within molten glass inside the kiln.  Calculated to a nicety, she layers raw glaze, so delicately positioned that it melts and flows, to create the convincing illusion of a silk garment over skin.”  There are several sculptures in this exhibit that demonstrate this technique.

A splendid Example of Professor Gregor’s Technique
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Turning Clay into fine Art

Fortunately, it is not necessary to possess even a small fraction of what Professor Israel knows about ceramics in order to be edified and spiritually elevated from experiencing Ms. Gregor’s art.  Many of these works possess great spiritual power, and the messages they communicate are as universal as the poignant portraits of human character painted by Shakespeare.

The power of Ms. Gregor’s art as womanist propaganda was succinctly explained by Chairman Mao Tse Tung, leader of the largest mass transformative movement in history.  In his famous Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, held in his mountain hideaway during the heat of a revolutionary war, Chairman Mao observed: “All art is propaganda but not all propaganda is art….in order for art to succeed as propaganda it must first succeed as art.”  Hence Professor Gregor’s power as a propagandist for universal humanist values lies in her spectacular success at producing great art.

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Pictures From the Exhibition

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Nineth Choice

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Edit - (2)

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I Loooves Michelle!

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Cried John Natsoulas, Gallery Director

A Deep Communion

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Between Art and Artist

Professor Israel Droppin Science!

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Offering an impromptu disquisition on the elements of great Art

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Professor Gregor
Michel the Artist
Hangin with her Peeps

Note: I first met Michelle Gregor – Professor of Art and head of the Ceramics Program at San Jose City College – in September while she was working on this exhibition and I found her to be very well informed on the major issues that converge to shape the human condition in our time.  She was not only knowledgeable but committed to adding her voice to those calling for the elevation of humankind.  Hence it comes as no surprise to me that her work mirrors this concern; not as mere agitprop but as fine art achieved on the highest level.  Thus she is a paragon of what the French call the “Engaged Artist.”

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For a demonstration of how ceramic artist work their magic…
http://youtu.be/8XfczswBjJc
…double click to see master potter David Mcdonald
 See Professors Gregor and Israel conduct a workshop
http://youtu.be/cSzZFTaRpRw 
Double click on link above
Text and Photos by:
Playthell G. Benjamin
San Francisco, California
January 2014

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