Makers working in many different disciplines ask about exhibiting and selling their work abroad. Here Dutch potter, Toon Thijs, talks to Angie Boyer about his work, which he has sold in the UK at Pottery and Ceramics shows for the last 10 years.
Toon, it's ten years since you first came to the UK to sell your ceramics, perhaps you'd like to tell our readers something about you and your work?
I was born in 1948 in the south of the Netherlands. After my secondary school I studied Art and Art History at two different Academies of Art, where I specialised in working with wood and ceramics. I started my professional life not as a potter, but as a teacher in Art and Art History, which I did for 15 years. Then, in 1988 and forty years old, I started my Ceramic Studio, trying to become a professional ceramist.
In my present work you can still find a strong influence from my education at the Art Academy. That education was strongly influenced by the principles of the "Bauhaus" that famous Art College in Dessau (Germany) before Worldwar II. Like in the Bauhaus-philosophy, I often start designing with primary forms as spheres, cylinders, cubes, cones or parts of those. They should be clear and simple. The primary form for example of all my bowls and "plateaus" is a segment of a sphere. Then I try to change those geometric forms by attacking them or by perforating them. Sometimes they burst open and then more organic elements made out of clay are added, like pebbles, small shells, small mushrooms or seeds but also small turtles, lizards or a dead bird.
A distinguishing feature of my work is also the use of colours. I like bright and clear colouring with strong light-dark differences, resulting from glazing in several thin layers. The colours should be primary, light and related to the shape of the objects, another Bauhaus principle I still follow.
What made you decide to come to the UK to sell your work and where did you first sell it?
I was a student in the late sixties and seventies, the times of democratization, attacking the bourgeoisie and the establishment and searching for alternative ways of living. Artists did join political movements and found alternative places to exhibit and sell their work; no longer just in established galleries and museums, but also on the street, in a meadow, in a factory or demolition site, close to the community, trying to meet the common people more directly. In the Netherlands in those times the art libraries started and the art bus (like a biblio-bus).
It was my deliberate choice to start showing and selling my work in those kinds of places. In a few years a new international network of ceramic shows arose and I stepped in. When I first started I did shows in the Netherlands, not too far away from home, but Germany was not far away for me. So more and more I became interested in going abroad, not only for doing shows and selling ceramics, but also to see other countries and meet other people.
In 1998 I really had bad luck with my applications for shows on the continent, so I decided to extend my options. From a Belgian potter I had heard that there was a guy in the North of England - Geoff Cox - organising a ceramic show in a cattle market. That sounded very interesting, but was very far away; it would take a lot of time and I was not sure if I really could take money there. I did not think it was a good idea to go alone, but I found a mate to go with me to Potfest in the Pens and Potfest Scotland. Together in one van, sharing driving, costs, pleasure and problems - after a short time Willy and Toon became a well-known duo on the UK shows!
Have you experienced any problems with selling in the UK?
The first time I arrived at that cattle market, I was shocked: everywhere cow shit and that smell....!
(Ed: don't let that put you off attending, it's all clear for the show!) But I got used to it and the rest was much easier than I had originally imagined. Of course there were all kinds of problems, but we learned quickly by experience and could handle them. For example: I did not know the Scottish had their own banknotes, but after some enquiries it turned out to be real money! TakingEnglish cheques would cost a lot in changing currencies. An English bank account could be a solution, still better would be if organisers arranged mobile cashpoints on the site. Some Dutch shows offer this facility to customers and potters.
English shows are more expensive than continental ones and I also have a lot of extra costs for traveling and accommodation. So it is important to find cheap possibilities: surfing the internet helps but cooperation with others is also a good thing!
In the beginning everything was new for me and often a problem, but after some time the advantages became bigger than the disadvantages. Doing English shows really did bring me money, new customers, new possibilities to exhibit and a lot of positive PR. On the personal level it brought me new friends, a wider view - and it made me more of a European.
How do UK pottery and ceramics differ from those on the continent? How does the UK public respond to your work?
In the first years I went to the UK shows I had no idea about the ceramics scene. I hardly knew potters, galleries or organisations. I bought the CPA potters book and some copies of Ceramic Review, but then I was disappointed, the people in there did not show their work in the cattle markets or on the grass. That has changed in the past ten years! Now you can find in those places high quality ceramics from several countries.
I also had the impression that a lot of UK pottery and ceramics was very much in line with tradition, like in Germany and France. Quite a number of people made tableware, often in the tradition of certain "schools" of famous potters, like the slipware tradition, the Leach or Lucie Rie tradition or with Chinese and Japanese influences.
Nowhere else have I seen so many people making ceramic animals!
In the first years I found UK ceramics expensive compared with the continental prices. At the moment it is a bit better thanks to the stronger Euro, but on the continent you can still buy, for example, high quality mugs for £6 to £8. It is much more difficult to find such prices in the UK, but on the other hand, everything is more expensive in the UK, so....
When I first came to England, in my opinion the displays of the English potters were sometimes very poor. Very often two or three potters shared a stall in the cattle markets, so each had very limited space to exhibit. Pots were displayed like books in a library. I used mirrors and glass showcases to display my work. Mirrors reflect light and that has a positive effect on the colours of my work. My mate Willy and I had often a display that looked like one stand: same colours of cloths, same kind of display. It made 1+1 = more than 2. Sometimes several continental potters an the same show made one bigger stand together, a kind of continental unit. The public, and also English potters, found our display amazing. For my mate and me it worked! We did sell! A lot of English potters learned fast and now the differences are minimal; display is better and there is more high quality ceramics at the shows.
Still spaces for stands in the UK are often very limited. With 2.70m. or 3.00m. like in Rufford or Denbigh, Wales, space is too limited to make a good display. But space is money, so there you have a conflict between quantity and quality, between business and art.
What about the future?
I have been doing shows now for over 18 years all over Western Europe and 10 years in the U.K. Except in the work of individual potters, I hardly see any development in the way ceramic shows are organised. For a few years every market wanted to have a "guest country", but there are not enough guest countries and when all the markets are working with a guest country.........More and more markets now present a side-program: demonstrations, building and firing kilns, lectures, organic food stands and so on. It is education and that is OK, but does it also bring sales? Thats very important, because sales are essential as they fund the making process. And what happens when you see raku-firing everywhere?
The established big markets attract lots of people every year, but the fundamental problem for the second generation and new markets is getting enough visitors and buyers in. A much discussed exhibition in a museum is no longer only 20 paintings on a wall, but ceramic shows are still individual stalls in a line. It is no longer new or special to have high quality ceramics on the grass. Sometimes I am afraid the markets will decay because there is not enough development. The only one I know who is trying to find new ways is Geoff Cox (with Potfest as a ten-days festival). I don't have the answers, but I am absolutely sure development is a vital interest, also for the markets. One possibility could be achieve more cooperation: trying to make 1+1 = more than 2. Also the continental potters in the U.K. did conform: doing shows is again having your individual stall on a market. Another development could be: arranging thematic parts and try to create units with a special atmosphere, a special "color".
Of course individual potters should renew their work and use their creativity to find new, surprising ceramics. But individual potters can not change the markets; for that organisers are the primary people. Individual potters can only help with brainstorming. I think it is really time for the discussion to start!
Which shows are you doing this year in the U.K.?
Toon will be exhibiting at the following shows in the U.K.:
Ceramic Studio Toon Thijs
NL-6541 PP Nijmegen
T: 0031 243778832