Sara Walker talks to artist and sculptor Michelle Pearson Cooper about travel, learning to sculpt and the inspiration for her work.
“I never really thought of any other career but that of being an artist,” says Michelle, who lives in Oxfordshire. “When I was seven years old, I was drawing with the other children and my headmaster took me to the window and asked, ‘ Where does the sky end? Paint what you see….’ It was a ‘Eureka moment’ for me, and I realised I should be painting what I saw for myself – not what everyone else was doing.
“I was the youngest in my year and took my A levels at just 16, and my parents decided I was too young to leave school. I was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Millfield School in Somerset, an independent school which focused on pupils with different talents rather than just on academia. Although I had to study academic subjects, I was also given extraordinary freedom to focus on my art.
Afterwards, I went to Italy to study for three months with Nerina Simi, who we called ‘La Signorina’. She was an artist and teacher, and taught Pietro Annigoni who was later commissioned to paint two portraits of Queen Elizabeth II. Signorina Simi trained our eyes. We spent three hours every morning studying a nude life model, and three hours every afternoon studying the same model clothed. Signorina Simi not only taught us draftsmanship, but also that the creative process is an intense and intellectual one.
“When I came back from Italy I took a ‘proper’ job to pay the rent and painted in the evenings. I gradually built up a portfolio, and then had a stroke of luck. A friend who owned a London art gallery offered me an exhibition, and it resulted in 40 commissions! I never looked back from that, it gave me so much confidence. I rented myself a little studio and became a painter!
“After meeting and marrying my husband Justin, I went on a walking tour to Jordan with some friends to raise money for charity. We walked 100km in a week. The scale and silence of the place was so inspirational, the geography was just incredible. For the first time in a while I had time to think and reflect, and inspiration was everywhere. From the white camel we saw at Little Petra to the dried river beds of the Wadi Rum desert, it all had a profound effect on me and gave me an enduring love of travel.”
Animals are a strong recurring theme in Michelle’s work, and her own dogs, Labrador Kilo and cheeky lurcher/deerhound cross Wizard can often be found keeping her company in her studio.
“I do have an affinity with animals, and often feature them as the subjects of my work,” says Michelle. “We’ve always had dogs, and I think it’s such an important partnership and one where both sides need to respect each other. I was pleased that a with a recent comment that I was ‘unique in making the dog walk out from the painting’.”
Michelle is unusual in that she works in a wide range of media, including oils, watercolour, charcoal, clay casting in bronze.
“My sculpture was a bit of an experiment to start with!” she laughs. “You begin with an armature – a skeleton framework made from wire – and then build up the sculpture itself with layers of clay. I’ve taught myself how to do it through trial and error, and with the help of the craftsmen in the foundry, I’ve learnt that it’s very important to get the proportions of the armature right. I use the ‘lost wax’ process to cast the sculpture into bronze which is a process used since the time of the Ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago. A negative rubber mould is made and a hollow wax replica is produced to be signed and editioned – the wax is then covered with a mixture of clay and plaster, fired in a kiln and the wax melts out as the resulting space is filled with molten bronze to give a cast.”
The finished sculptures are extremely detailed and intricate and capture the fluidity of movement and energy that are hallmarks of Michelle’s work.
Michelle’s latest exhibition, appropriately called Reigning Cats and Dogs, runs from 21 October to 21 November at the Osborne Studio Gallery, London. To find out more about Michelle and her work, visit her website at www.michellecooperpearson.co.uk.
All images (c) 2020 Michelle Cooper Pearson. Main image shows Michelle with her own dogs Kilo and Wizard.