North East Connected

What happened following my Degree Show was like a dream come true

Michelle Castles could quite easily be in a classroom teaching schoolchildren had it not been for her University of Sunderland Degree Show.

As this year’s shows prepare to get underway, artist Michelle tells how her final year exhibition changed her life forever.

Today, Michelle has gained an international reputation for her stunning sculptures which beautifully capture the human form.

The 43-year-old’s work has been exhibited across the UK, from Harvey Nichols in London, to Haven Point leisure centre in South Shields. The University of Sunderland’s Industry Centre still proudly displays her sculptures.

Now, as hopeful students from fine art and photography to fashion and graphic design prepare to show off their final work, Michelle recalls how her Degree Show set her on the road to success.

“I had done three years on an Art and Design course at Sunderland,” recalls Michelle, who is originally from Prudhoe. “I’d always wanted to be an artist but in my final year I was unsure if I was going to get a job.

“So, I applied to do teacher training and even got offered a place for when I graduated.”

But it was an offer Michelle never took up.

“What happened following my Degree Show was like a dream come true,” said Michelle.

Artist ‘scouts’ from London had been going around the country checking out the different Degree Shows from university students. It was then that Michelle received a phone call.

Michelle said: “They’d seen my work and said they wanted it to be part of a new contemporary show in London that they were putting together for graduates.

“To be honest, I felt saved. I was shocked, surprised, I felt like this was my chance, my opportunity to be an artist.”

One of Michelle’s first commissions, ‘Descent’ – a series of wire sculptures based around Dante’s Inferno, was bought by the University and remains on display at the Industry Centre.

After graduating in 1998, Michelle got herself a space in a building in Pilgrim Street, Newcastle, while she had secured an agent thanks to the London show.

Michelle spent the next couple of years building a name for herself, determined to get her work on show in as many places as possible.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s been hard work,” she said. “The highs have been incredibly high but the lows, pretty low. The hours are tough and I spend many nights working right through, trying to meet the deadline for a commission.”

And the work is pretty physical. Michelle’s creations examine anatomy of form; her wire mesh human sculptures are inspired by a moment in time in dance or sport.

For her commission at Haven Point in South Shields, Michelle had to create 10 life-size figures from stainless steel. Work that required brutal physicality to complete.

“But I love it,” she adds. “If I take a week off, I’m itching to get back to it as soon as I can.

“To me the human form has always been the ultimate challenge, I look at lots of images, models on social media and I get inspired. I like to create figures that are often in a sequence of movements.”

Currently, Michelle is working from her studio in Dockray, Cumbria, where she produced her unique sculptures that have adorned galleries and spaces around the country.

Her work starts with initial sketches, before 3D models and then the final life-size sculpture. The result is as impressive as it is resilient. Powerful and expressive, the creations look equally at home indoors and out.

Today, Michelle wished the latest cohort of Degree Show students the best of luck as they prepare to put their work on public display at the University of Sunderland.

Michelle said: “This is a time to feel proud of your achievements and for all of the hard work you have put in. But a time to realise too, that, as well as being a conclusion, it is more importantly a beginning from which to launch.”

Degree Shows 2018: When and Where: 

The shows have their launch night on Friday 15 June for invited guests.

They officially open on Saturday, 18 June (10am to 4pm) and run until Friday 22 June (weekdays 10am to 5pm). No shows on Sunday 17. 

They take place at:

Priestman Building: Fine Art and Photography

CitySpace Studio: Animation; Advertising; Games & App Design; Fashion, Product and Promotion; Graphic Design; Illustration. 

National Glass Centre: Glass and Ceramics.

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