Photograph Fred Shively
Michael would say that he was born an artist. However, his long and varied career has included working not only as a sculptor, but as a cattleman, shepherd and as a landscape architect.
Michael was born in southern England and was christened Charles Gilmour Alexander.
Michael’s DNA is 99% Scottish. Unlike his name, this has not changed over time. The DNA result was no surprise to him considering his mother, a Mitchell, was born in Glasgow and his father’s family were Alexanders from Aberdeen - all migrants, as in the case of many Scots. Michael continued the migrant tradition by living and working for extended periods in Australia and the USA, followed by southern Spain, where he currently lives with his holistic physical therapist wife, Beata Thana.
If asked the question, "why does art matter", Michael would quote the painter Sean Skully, who said: "never underestimate the cultural power of an artist.” This statement is reinforced by the fact that artists are frequently the first people to be shot by totalitarian regimes!
Continue with Artist's HISTORY
‘The Ice Box.’ - Materials: steel, rust, fibreglass, wax, Perspex, formaldehyde, railway sleepers, bricks and a deep freeze unit. Size 5.5m x 2m x 2m
In 1974, Alexander was the youngest artist invited by the ‘Artist Information Registry’ to submit a piece for a British Council sponsored group exhibition, which appeared at the Finnish Academy of Arts. 'FRAN BRITANNIEN 75', was a showcase for established and emergent British artists. For this exhibition Alexander constructed a large piece, ‘The Ice Box’.
One reviewer commented: Alexander's sculpture looks like a vast, rusted-iron storage tank which holds (if you can summon the courage to look inside) a life-size, fully frozen merman. Pandora’s Box, an earlier piece, also needs opening and looking into…The impact of these formidable objects is as involved as their construction. 'I have a natural distaste for purism', says Alexander. Antony Caro’s advice to him, apparently, was to leave sculpture well alone…. which was at least a back-handed recognition of the way these works avoid the conventional art-network and get across to the most varied audiences.
When the viewer opened the door of 'The Ice Box' door, - large structure requiring two hands - some frozen fog flowed out of the interior, revealing the large merman. The interior shelving featured smaller containers filed with formaldehyde and various highly life-like human figures made from wax and hair.
I WANT TO BE A ARTIST
In 1955, when he was aged four and unable to understand the finer details of grammar. Alexander was asked the perennial question. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” He replied, “I want to be ‘A' Artist.” He says he can remember this moment as clearly as if it were yesterday: "I think it must have been my soul talking." However, being an artist was not encouraged.
1958, when he was seven, Alexander was sent to an English boarding school. He hated what felt like a "10 year prison sentence" and rebelled by all but failing every subject- except art.
I AM GOING TO BE A FAMOUS SCULPTOR
In 1968, at age 17, Alexander was accepted into art school early on his portfolio alone, without completing the final year of school. He says: "I felt as if the doors had flown open and my life had begun."
1972, when he was 21, he was questioned by his girlfriend-of-the-time's parents. “What are you going to do with this art degree?” He 'reacted' that he would be a famous sculptor. The next year, he gained a first class BA Honours degree in 'Fine Arts' and moved into his Greenwhich Studio overlooking the River Thames. For the next three years, he single-mindedly worked toward his goal.
THE LONDON GROUP
‘The soap man.’ - Materials: bronze and plastic coated steel. Size 60cm x 8cm x 6cm
In 1973, aged 22, Alexander was invited to be a guest artist at the 'London Group' biannual exhibition. The piece he exhibited, ‘The soap man,’ was a playful observation of the passing of time and the impermanence of the material world. He captured a novelty soap policeman at various points of dissolution and caste it in bronze at each stage. He then made a multi-section soap dish to hold the four sculptures. Previous works: ‘Do not leave your luggage unattended,’ ‘Pandora’s Box’ and ‘The Tent’ - had also played with familiarity or possible unfamiliarity, of everyday objects.
At this time, Alexander felt that ‘Minimalism’ was at its peak of ascendancy and artists of his acquaintance had become solemn to the point of absurdity. During the selection process for the 1973 London Group show, his sponsor was asked, “Was Alexander making fun of the selectors by offering ‘The soap man’ for exhibition?” The answer was: “No, on the contrary, Alexander was very serious.”
THREE STEPS TO HELSINKI
STEP ONE: ‘Do not leave your luggage unattended.’ - Materials: tartan holdall, wired glass, mechanical parts, clay and mirrored glass. Size of mirror: 50cm x 80cm. Size of the bag: 25cm x 35cm x 10cm
From a distance, ‘Do not leave your luggage unattended’ looks as if a bag has been left next to a mirror, which is leaning against a wall. On closer inspection, the reflection in the mirror reveals the interior of the holdall, as seen through the wired glass window on the hidden side of the bag. A whirling tachometer, curling coloured wires, and what looks like Semtex explosive can be seen. This sculpture was made in response to the Irish Republican Army’s London bombing campaign.
STEP TWO: ‘Pandora’s Box' - Materials: wood, mechanical parts, caste resin chicken heads and recorded sound of ‘caged’ chickens. Size: 152cm x 120cm 20 x 120cm
An article in 'Leonardo' (vol. 9 pp. 119-120 Pergamon Press) describes the piece: “Alexander’s ‘Pandora’s Box’ is a sinister-looking dark wooden chest with a wooden moulding at the top and bottom…in order to give the impression of a strong, solid piece of furniture (of the type in my grandparent’s house). At the top of the front face is a small door with a brass lock and key. Pandoras Box’s walls vibrate, one hears the loud hum of the enclosed machinery and of the recording of the screaming chickens…On opening the door, one sees 40 chicken heads made of fibreglass bobbing up and down in a cage illuminated by a dim red light.”
STEP THREE: ‘The Tent’ - Materials: steel tubing, welded polythene, Perspex, two microphones and the recorded sound of a bee. Size: 2m x 2.5m x 5m
‘The Tent’ originated from a newspaper article titled ‘The boy in the bubble’, a story about a child from Texas who suffered from "total allergic syndrome" and had to live in a sterile plastic tent from birth. However once begun, the sculpture assumed a life of its own. The experience, for the observer, began by walking around the sculpture and realising that it was essentially a hermetically-sealed, semi translucent oblong box, made of polythene. At one end it was possible to enter the sculpture by stepping over a threshold into a passageway (i.e. the observer was therefore able to enter the sculpture but simultaneously not to enter the sculpture). At the far end of a short, semi translucent, polythene passage, the observer came to a clear Perspex window. Looking through the window, they could see two microphones attached by long ridged leads, to a load speaker in the window. The sound coming from the speaker was of a pre-recorded bee. Although the bee could not be seen by the observer, it appeared to describe the interior space of the sculpture that the observer could not enter.
While building the ‘The Tent’ , Alexander was invited to be participate of 'FRAN BRITANNIEN 75' at the Finnish Academy of Arts.
A CHRYSALIS MOMENT AT HELSINKI
While standing in front of ‘The Ice Box’ for the press at the Finnish Academy of Arts, Alexander had a 'chrysalis moment': an overwhelming sense that his path in life would not be what he had planned or what it had been up to that point - i.e. an aspiring artist, dedicated to expressing himself through sculpture. He sensed that his life must have a much broader context.
Although this 'chrysalis moment' was intuitive, it had a rational basis. Alexander could see that the art gallery system was starting to promote youth and novelty over mature artistry and content: a trend that he believes exploded in the 1980’s. He says: "The monied class fully took over, artworks became part of an investment portfolio, and artists were promoted as pop stars to support those investments."
His intuition was telling that if his art was to have any cultural value, he needed greater life experience. For this broader view to feed into his work, he needed to move out of his Greenwich Studio - his artistic home - into a less comfortable landscape.
The pilgrimage of broader experience undertaken by Alexander lasted 40 years and led him through emotional times spent in the “slough of despond” and also to places of “peace that passeth all understanding”. Although during his travels, he was unable to create sculpture, he always made drawings.
Spiritually, this pilgrimage led him to be a student of a Nashbandi (the designers) Sufi Sheikh, where he trained for and performed the whirling dervish ceremony many times. However after 9 years, his spirit moved him beyond Sufism to the practice of the 'latihan kejiwaan of Subud', which he has practiced for the last 29 years.
Materially, his travels lead him to try various employments. He worked as a dishwasher; become the owner of a bakery in Far North Queensland, serving pies from a horse drawn pie cart; cared for stock as a cattleman and a shepherd in Tasmania - and more times than he cares to remember - work as a jobbing builder and house painter.
In 1993, Alexander gained a Masters in 'Landscape Architecture' from Edinburgh University, formed his own design company, and worked all over Scotland for 14 years, designing and overseeing the implementation of over 90 landscape projects.
In 2007, he moved to Portland Oregon to be with the woman he loved. From the start of their marriage, Beata persistently encouraged him to ‘come home’ and become an artist again.
In 2016, the Alexanders moved their joint home to Órgiva in the Alpujarra region of southern Spain. In the new home,Alexander is again working as an artist. Alexander says: "To travel light, I had to leave many things behind. However for 40 years, I carried with me two books: 'Lost Wax Bronze Casting' by Harry Jackson and 'Woodcut Printmaking' by Walter Chamberlain." These books remain with him today.