Green Head on Rock, sculpture by Penny Michel, guest artist at Wenaha Gallery

Ancient Art of Modern Day — The Clay Sculpture of Penny Michel

Green Head on Rock, sculpture by Penny Michel, guest artist at Wenaha Gallery. Photo credit Leaman Studios.

Green Head on Rock, sculpture by Penny Michel, guest artist at Wenaha Gallery. Photo credit Leaman Studios.

Childhood memories are powerful ones. Where we lived, whom we knew, the games we played — these shape our lives as adults in unique and characteristic ways.

For ceramic artist Penny Michel, the summers spent at the grandparents left a mark that touches the work she creates today.  Born in Tunisia, a former French protectorate located in North Africa, Michel  moved with her family to the United States when she was four years old, but visited extended family every year in an ancient land, with a history rich in venerable cultures.

Sitting Lady, Clay sculpture by Penny Michel

Sitting Lady, Clay sculpture by Penny Michel

“In Tunisia, we lived near Carthage on the beach, and we were surrounded by ancient ruins and different cultures,” Michel remembers.

“Often when houses were built or renovated, ancient artifacts were found. Archaeologists were always working in the area.

“Consequently, since a young age, I have been drawn to ancient art such as the art of Mesopotamia, Greece, Oceania, and the Ottoman Empire.”

With a B.A. in art from Western Illinois University, Michel focuses on clay in various sizes and formats, from wheel-thrown bowls to hand-crafted vessels, from small sculptures for the home to large scale, site-specific commissioned pieces, but before she really got into doing her art, she got out of it first.

“After getting my degree, I didn’t work in art for about ten years,” Michel says. “I didn’t think I was ‘talented enough,’ so I took a detour into banking for awhile.”

But the detour led back to the main road, and for the last 30 years, Michel has been fashioning sculpture that is redolent of those summer days of childhood. An homage to the past, offering hints and traces from another era, Michel’s work looks like something an archaeologist would excitedly find and remove — with great care and precision — from the dig. Surface design, multiple glazing, and texturized elements combine into exotic, willowy statuettes;  layered masks; primeval fish; and human faces — set upon armatures created by local Walla Walla artist Doug  Geise — that look like mummies.

They’re haunting, mystical, fascinating, and teasingly enigmatic.

Small Green Fish, Clay sculpture by Penny Michel

Small Green Fish, Clay sculpture by Penny Michel. Photo credit Jenna Gard.

“My art work definitely has another-world quality,” Michel says. “Like it was just dug out of the ground or found in the ocean and from another world or culture.”

Michel has shown and sold her work worldwide, including to collectors in Ios, Greece, and Brussels, Belgium, and in 2012 completed the Artist in Residency Program at the International Ceramic Studio in Kecskemet, Hungary, which houses one of her pieces in its permanent collection. Gallery representation has ranged from Chicago to San Francisco and embraces her present home, Walla Walla, where she is a resident artist at Studio TwoZeroTwo in downtown Main Street.

Ice Woman III and Ice Woman IV by Penny Michel

Ice Woman III and Ice Woman IV by Penny Michel. Photo credit, Wardell Photography.

One of her larger pieces, for several years exhibited outside the Sonoma Museum of Visual Art in California, is now part of the permanent collection of the Corliss Estates on Second Street in Walla Walla. A similar piece is in the permanent collection of the di Rosa Preserve in Napa, California, considered the most significant holding of Bay Area art in the world. Set in a 200-acre park-like setting, the collection houses more than 2,000 works of art by 800 artists.

“The di Rosa preserve is one of the most beautiful art venues I know,” Michel says. “I encourage art lovers to visit it.”

In addition to creating, showing, and selling her work, Michel offers regular ceramic sculptures classes in her studio, working closely with three or four students at a time. Many have been with her for awhile, finding in their own histories a connection to the past that ties in with the present.

Art, whenever and wherever it is, never goes out of style.

“My work is heavily influenced by ancient cultures and civilizations,” Michel says. “And while texture and surface are very important to me, I do not try and make a specific statement with my art.

“I want the viewer to get what they need out of it.”

Wenaha GalleryPenny Michel is the featured Pacific Northwest Art Event artist from Monday, July 18 through Saturday, August 13.

Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment. Visit the Wenaha Gallery website online at

Wenaha Gallery is your destination location for Greenwich Workshop Fine Art Prints, professional customized framing, and original fine art paintings and sculpture by notable Pacific Northwest artists.   Books, gifts, note cards, jigsaw puzzles, and more are also available. Visit at 219 East Main, Dayton, WA.

This article was written by Carolyn Henderson.