Meet the Maker – Alicia French

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This article first appeared in the July/August 2023 edition of Style of Wight magazine. Words by James Rayner. Photography by Sam French (@samfrenchphotography).

Since first catching sight of Alicia’s impressive under-the-sea-themed sculptures in a pop-up exhibition window in Ryde, we’ve been meaning to get in touch with this inventive and talented maker to find out more. Now, with new summer exhibitions on the way and Ventnor’s Peer Studios showing and selling a selection of her unique one-off pieces, we borrowed a few minutes from Alicia’s busy schedule to get an insight into her world of unusual, slightly supernatural, artworks.

Isle of Wight artist Alicia French stood next to some of her sculptures
At the ‘Curious’ exhibition during the 2022 Ventnor Fringe Festival

Now known for your unique plaster and clay-based creations, how did you first get into sculpture and ceramics?

I’ve always been creative and loved art ever since I was little. I’ve also always carried a sketchbook around with me too. My granny would give me drawing challenges and got me into the habit (which I still have today) of writing the dates on all my works! I studied Art & Design and Textiles at Sandown Bay Academy, followed by a triple BTEC in Fashion Design and an A Level in Fine Art at the Island Innovation Sixth Form. All my teachers during these years were incredibly supportive and always pushed me to do my very best, which I will always be thankful for.

Following on from a Foundation Diploma in Art & Design I decided to follow the fine art route and enrolled at the Bath School of Art. Here my arts practice started to venture towards sculpture and ceramics, which I explored in workshops that the university offered during our first year. I started to find the things that most inspired me around this time too, spending lots of time in the library and archives to gather ideas for my new creations. One book I used to borrow constantly was Mike Kelly’s The Uncanny (which explores memory, horror and anxiety through a juxtaposition of objects and sculptures) as well as multiple books on the German zoologist Ernst Haeckel.

Sculptures by Isle of Wight based artist Alicia French as seen from above
Unknown Species – Alicia’s first solo exhibition at Arch Window Gallery in Ryde

Considering your arty interests from such a young age, were you surrounded by creative family members as you grew up?

I was born on the Island – with my family and generations before me being born here too. My family may not have been the most creative but they’ve always made sure there were opportunities for me to get involved in the art world on the Island and beyond. My older sister would take me on days out to art galleries and my mum and aunty would get me to enter local art competitions, so I’m grateful to them for opening up the art world to me. Currently, my younger brother Samuel French is studying for a B.A. in Photography at Bath School of Art and takes photos of most of my events.

Artist Alicia French stood in front of one of her artworks
Alicia French, during an artist talk at the 2022 Ventnor Fringe

How was your time at the Bath School of Art, and how has it influenced your work since?

I absolutely loved my time there, however, during my second year at university, my studies were unfortunately hit by the pandemic. It was incredibly difficult to study such a hands-on subject from home as I suddenly had no access to workshops or studios, hardly any materials and all lectures and tutorials were done via my laptop at home. Despite that, I tried to make the best of it and this is when I adopted sculpture techniques that I still use to this day. One of the technicians who helped me for my degree show was particularly inspirational and the materials, processes and techniques he taught me will always be a part of my practice, especially as I love hands-on, messy artwork.

When I graduated in 2021, everything still felt so up in the air. I was hesitant to move back to the Island as I wasn’t sure if there would be a creative career for me or a chance for my arts practice to continue. However, I wanted to give moving back a chance and work as hard as I could to make it work. I’ve been incredibly lucky in terms of job and art opportunities since, including a stint as an Industrial Sewing Machinist, an Art and D.T. Technician and now as an Arts Team Assistant at Quay Arts which I’m incredibly excited for! I’m currently based in Sandown, luckily close to the beach where I can go shell collecting with my sketchbook to gather inspiration. I’ve also been a part of multiple group exhibitions, held my first solo exhibition with Arch Window Gallery in Ryde and led ceramics workshops as part of the Dark Skies Festival. 

A sculpture viewed from above
Excrescence – one of the artist’s signature creations, made to look like animate life forms frozen in time

From all the pieces you’ve created so far, which is your favourite?

I’d say my degree show series ‘A Bag of Old Potatoes’ – inspired by a bag of potatoes I found sprouting at the back of my university house kitchen cupboard when I moved back after multiple lockdowns. They’d grown these uncomfortable, white and pink 30cm sprouts and at first looked like a monstrous spider in the shadows of the cupboard. I think it was this first instinct of fear which inspired me. I loved the process to create the sculptures too. I used real potatoes to achieve my moulds, with the moulds being made from alginate and silicone. Once the moulds set, I extracted the potatoes, poured hot wax into the silicone mould and then poured mixed plaster into the alginate mould. I kept the sculptures white to leave them open to interpretation as I like the way they look more like alien species than potatoes.

Isle of Wight artist Alicia French
A moment from Alicia’s very first in-person artist’s talk

We saw you had a pop-up exhibition at last summer’s Ventnor Fringe, tell us more.

I was invited to be a part of the contemporary exhibition ‘Curios’, which was curated by Joanne Kori. I was lucky enough to have a studio in the exhibition space for the months leading up to the show, giving me the opportunity to get an insight for the space first. I painted the walls with light yellow circles with blurred edges to mimic the holes and textures in my sculpture and ceramic works. When the exhibition opened it was amazing to be able to discuss my work with people on a daily basis and hold my first in-person artist talk, where I discussed the processes and themes within my works and brought along a selection of my favourite books to show and discuss my inspirations.

Materials used in the artist’s work include clay, plaster of Paris, papier-mâché, found objects, silicone, aliginate, wood, wax and plasticine.

And, what’s next for Alicia French?

Well, for summer 2023, I’ll be part of the Quay Arts’ OPEN Exhibition – ‘The Art of Sculpture’, as well as a few other exhibitions which I’ll be able to reveal nearer the time. I’m also going to be represented by Peer Studios in Ventnor where my work will be on display and for sale! I’ll continue to make work that has more of an interactive, sensory aspect, so everyone can be involved in the artwork, plus I’ll be looking into making outdoor sculptures using metalwork and other sculptural processes too.