Weaving His Way

Gilles Sias transforms strands of clay into striking ceramic basketwork

"What I do has nothing to do with traditional pottery," says Gilles Sias, 45, as he ushers me into his small atelier just inside the beautiful old mas, or farmhouse, where he lives with his wife and two children. "I love to tinker, and in a way I'm like a primitive African; I use what I find around me in nature to satisfy my needs."

He gestures to the gas-fired kiln that dominates the room—a kiln he built himself out of bits and pieces of scrap metal. "This oven can achieve almost blast-furnace temperatures," he continues, "which are very important to my work. In mixing traditional pottery, you enamel and burn red clay. I mix red clay with an elastic white clay, then enamel and burn it twice. And I do ceramics upside-down. Traditional potters begin shaping objects from the bottom. I start from the top."

Sias lives and works in his hometown of Séguret, the enchanting Vaucluse village of 800 about 45 minutes northeast of Avignon. (His father was the postmaster; his mother now sells his pieces in the front room of her house.) Until 15 years ago he was a highly paid munitions and arms technician, with a specialty in fiber optics. He says he "dared to be simple" and gave up his Porsche, villa, and job to do what he loves most. Often staying in his studio late into the night, he uses only his hands to work one medium, clay, according to the rules of another, basketry. He is spontaneous—rarely sketching his pieces in advance, but rather rolling out slender strands of clay, then flattening and shaping them as he goes to see what will become of them. The final forms are traditional, but the natural lightness and dexterity of what would normally be willow, cane, or straw change completely when rendered in ceramic.

At the heart of Gilles Sias' work lies the gorgeous visual conundrum that comes from forcing clay to look woven. "I've been doing ceramics for ten years, and I work the earth like iron," Sias says. "I want it to perform like metal." This is the genius of his work—the idea of teasing, sometimes even torturing, the strength out of an element that is frequently fragile. "In everything I make I'm solving a challenge to myself," Sias explains. "With my ceramics—where each piece requires days and days of work—the slightest error can ruin everything." This page: The latticework cover of this 20-inch-diameter bowl is designed to hold flowers. "It was inspired," says Sias, "by one of the large, round stones which you can find in our brooks."

"I love to take walks and work with nature," explains Sias, who has had no formal artistic training. "I collect shells, feathers, and twigs and place them in front of me until one day, looking at them for the hundredth time, I find an emotion, a feeling, and something comes out of it."

"My biggest nightmare is the Louvre," says Sias. "You see all those beautiful objects that are isolated from life. I want my work to be a part of people's lives."

Gilles Sias' showroom is on the main street of the village of Séguret, near the fountain. Tel/fax 4-90-46-97-20.