Felixstowe’s champions of Suffolk art decide to pursue new horizons
- Credit: Andrew Partridge
Felixstowe’s Reunion Gallery, one of Suffolk’s most consistently interesting galleries of the last decade and one rooted firmly in its community, has just opened a dazzling exhibition bringing together some of the leading names from the Suffolk coastal area.
The gallery has been run as a labour of love by working artists Verena Daniels and Pat Todd and that shows in the thoughtful and eclectic nature of the work they have shown.
As well as a vehicle for their own work they have spread their net wide, taking established names like Pippa Darbyshire, rediscovering “forgotten” artists like Sonya Todd (no relation), promoting people like print-maker Clare Curtis, who they feel should be better known, as well as emerging artists discovered at their annual visits to the Ipswich Art School exhibition.
This latest collection is a startling testimony to the contemporary work being created on the Suffolk coast and, sadly, it is also the last. This is their swansong exhibition and brings together some of the people who have helped make the gallery’s reputation.
The closure at the end of March has been brought about by a mixture of timing and circumstance.
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The gallery was originally created as a 10-year project which was always going to be reviewed at the end of that time. The gallery opened in May 2002 but it was also a collaborative venture between the two artists and their husbands.
Pat and Verena have always praised their respective other halves, Mike Todd and Dick Daniels, for toiling away with the administration and keeping an eye on the business end of the operation, allowing them time to create; but with the death of Mike last year and the arrival of grandchildren, the dynamic in their lives has changed.
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“We have loved the gallery,” said Verena. “But life changes; nothing stays the same. We were always going to sit down and take stock after 10 years. We didn’t set out to close after 10 years but our situation has changed. We don’t want to be tied to the gallery. We would like a bit of lee-way – a bit of family time.”
Pat said they felt the success of the gallery had also curtailed the time they had available to spend on their own work. However, she was sad this would be the last exhibition. “It’s a particularly strong exhibition. The work is very good and provides a very good representation of what the gallery has had to offer over the last 10 years.
“I will miss meeting people and talking to people. It has become a meeting place for like-minded souls, which has been fantastic. We were really well-supported at the private view, when it was so busy that I had to struggle to get from the stairs to the other side of the gallery to talk to someone.
“Mike had a saying: ‘It’s full to the point of enjoyment’, and that certainly reflected the bustle of last Sunday night.”
She said that during the past 10 years they had staged more than 80 exhibitions and special events showing the work of 500 artists – all having some link either to Felixstowe or the Suffolk coastal area. Because of their own roots, they were determined the gallery would reflect the talent in the area, rather than just being another shop window for artists from all over.
“A sense of community was very important to us,” said Verena. “We always knew that there were a lot of artists like us doing great work in and around Felixstowe. We always said, half-jokingly, we were going to set up shop in the artists’ quarter and this actually turned out to be true. It’s not just the names of the roads – Gainsborough Road and Constable Road – there are an awful lot of artists and crafts people living and working all around us. We hope that the gallery has acted as a hub to the arts community.”
Verena said they have always taken part in Suffolk Open Studios, the month-long event where artists opened their studio doors to allow members of the public to take a peek behind the scenes at work in progress.
“One of the things I am really looking forward to is having the opportunity to go out and visit other artists’ studios – because for the last 10 years we have been minding the gallery we haven’t been able to go out and see other people.”
Community has played a big part in their programme. They supported Art On The Prom and worked with the Seafront Gardens Project and Verena’s own favourite event, Art on the Docks. For Pat, she thought the Cotman Walks were a different and rather special event – providing visitors with a walking tour of the town, taking in the spectacular and dynamic architecture designed by local architect Thomas William Cotman.
Cotman designed a multitude of buildings during the Victorian construction explosion, including Bawdsey Manor across from Felixstowe Ferry, the Fludyers, Harvest House and The Great Eastern Hotel (now the Elizabeth Orwell). Pat said the buildings are so distinctive and so full of detail that they are works of art in themselves.
The pair said they were very pleased to have been able to support emerging artists recruited from the Ipswich Art School degree show. The Graduate Impressions exhibition offered young artists an opportunity to take their first steps into a professional world.
“The standard was always very high and for us that was part of the fun – going out there and seeing what was new, what was exciting, persuading them to exhibit at a new gallery. Now, it’s all changed and people come to us and we have three or four submissions every week and there is no way we can show them all. So a little bit of the fun has gone out of it – that spirit of adventure – never quite knowing what you are going to find.”
Other highlights include an installation created in the window of the gallery, surrounded by layers of paper and thread, which took all night to construct and allowed visitors to look into the very heart of the sculpture.
“Every time the door opened there was a mad scramble to get the people into the gallery and the door shut again so the paper wouldn’t blow away. That was a fantastic show – not necessarily a money-making one – but certainly a boundary-breaking one and showed that we could do something different.”
Running the gallery has seen two school friends meet up and completely change the direction of their lives.
The pair knew, but didn’t particularly like, one another at Westbourne School in Ipswich. Verena thought that Pat was “a rather wet flippertygibbet”, while Pat regarded Verena as a “stuck-up snob”.
Thankfully these opinions were revised by the time they bumped into each other again on Felixstowe beach in the late 1980s.
They had lost contact with one another. Verena had stayed at Westbourne to do A-levels while Pat had gone to Suffolk College.
Both loved art and did it at A-level, but at first didn’t think they would ever earn a living from it. Pat worked for Pauls on Ipswich Dock before moving to Anglian Water, while Verena spent 10 years in Nottingham before returning to Felixstowe and working in Abbeygate Lighting.
After their initial meeting, they stayed in touch and one day Verena suggested they revisit their youth and enrol on a City and Guilds ceramics course which was in danger of being suspended because not enough people had signed up.
From 1995 to 1998 they studied for their City and Guilds, which led them on to a degree course at Colchester Institute. They graduated in 2001 and immediately set about looking for a studio and a gallery, which they found in Gainsborough Road, Felixstowe.
They both recognise that this dream-come-true adventure was potentially a huge risk for their families and required a lot of support.
Pat said: “I think that many people do now have two or three careers in their lifetime, and certainly more will have in the future.
“Becoming professional artists was a risk, but with the children grown up, it was certainly a risk we were both willing to take.”
Verena added: “Both our families were extremely supportive, even though I think they thought we were a little bit mad, but they could see that we were determined to make a go of it.” Even though the pair share studio space at the side of the gallery, they pursue their own creative path. Verena works largely with glass, while Pat prefers ceramics.
While each has her own take on the world, the pair agree that having someone to bounce ideas off has been invaluable.
Pat said: “Because we worked together, I don’t think we ever felt isolated. It’s very easy for artists to feel trapped in their studios because they often work alone. I have enjoyed working with Verena because when we have had low times, or times of blankness when one of us has been struggling for ideas, the other will go: ‘How about trying this?’ or ‘Try doing that’.
“There’s always been that brilliant two-way traffic. One of the reasons of moving back into Felixstowe is because I feel I need that contact; I need to be part of an artistic hub, now I’m not going to be sharing a space with Verena.”
And what of the future? Dick and Verena are going to convert the gallery into a family home, which will include a studio, while Pat is going to be moving into Felixstowe and will be looking for studio premises and exploring the possibility of creating some pop-up studio events.
“We are not walking away completely. We will still be working and still be exhibiting, but it’s a case of not being tied down. It’s having the freedom to go off and do things.
“The idea of creating pop-up galleries for specific events is rather exciting and is very up-to-the-minute.”
Among the artists showing in the Reunion Gallery’s Swansong exhibition are: Linda Kingsford, John Nichol, Ivan Quarton, Della Chapman, Alison Malcolm, Mary Wyatt, Kate Reynolds, Zoe Rubens, Peter Mason, Edmund Oxborrow, Steve Griffins, Liz Mason and Ray Hopkins.
The exhibition at the Reunion Gallery, in Gainsborough Road, Felixstowe, runs until March 23.