Celebrating the art and inspiration of the Suffolk coast

It may be a cliche but Felixstowe artists Pat Todd and Verena Daniels can’t avoid saying it: “Time flies when you are having fun.”

Ten years ago, two old school friends decided to go for broke and open a gallery not only to promote their own work (ceramics and glassware) but to raise the profile of other artists working in Suffolk – particularly those living in the Suffolk coastal area.

Ten years down the road, they are delighted that not only is the gallery weathering the current financial storms but has also expanded considerably.

“We have had quite a bit of work done over the last couple of years,” says Verena. “We’ve turned the upstairs flat into additional gallery space where we can show work by emerging artists and we have opened up the courtyard for coffees and for businesses to hold meetings away from ringing phones in the office.”

To mark their tenth anniversary, Pat and Verena, along with their husbands Mike and Dick, who carry out all the behind the scenes work, have pulled together a celebratory exhibition which showcases the work of some of their favourite artists – including Jazz Green, Pippa Darbyshire, Richard Kimmerling, Alison Malcolm, Colin Slee, Ivan Quarton, Honor Surie and Wendy Brooke-Smith.

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All the artists featured in the exhibition have strong links with Suffolk and have exhibited with the gallery in recent years. The exhibition was designed to be diverse but also to reflect the on-going priorities of the gallery – namely to promote local artists and artistic excellence.

Both Pat and Verena said that they were delighted with the way that the exhibition reflected the work of the gallery while still offering visitors something new.

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“It hangs together very well. Mixed exhibitions can be notoriously difficult to get right. Styles can clash – mixed media and mixed subject matter can make an exhibition difficult to hang but this has a wonderful cohesion to it.”

Pat said that one of the reasons that they chose to have a long-running exhibition featuring ten different artists was in response to people coming into the gallery and saying: ‘You had an exhibition here last week/last month with such and such a picture, did you sell it, where can I get more of their work?

“It’s a bit like the children’s book The Magic Faraway Tree with that ever-changing world up above the clouds. If you didn’t get there fast enough that particular world had gone. Exhibitions are bit like that, so the tenth anniversary was a

perfect opportunity to revisit the work of some of our favourite artists.”

The final ten artists invited to take part were drawn up by the four partners sitting down and listing their favourite exhibitions of the last ten years.

Verena said: “It was a fascinating exercise because we all like different things. We then found what was common to all the lists and we voted.”

She laughed: “We were so busy deciding who to invite to take part that we almost forgot to include ourselves.”

But the exhibition is only part of the anniversary celebrations. Pat said that the structural changes to the gallery and the introduction of a second exhibition space upstairs was also a way of marking their tenth birthday. She said: “We wanted to push the boat out a bit. We wanted to inject new ideas into the gallery, re-introduce people to the gallery. We wanted to encourage people to go upstairs and experience a different space but we couldn’t think of how to do it – we spoke to the architect and he said: ‘You expose the stairs, it’s as simple as that,’ and off we went.”

She said that with the addition of a upstairs gallery space, the downstairs area has become more like a London gallery with a featured exhibition while the upstairs gallery celebrates emerging artists along with work from recognised artists who are experimenting with new ideas or trying a change of direction.

Verena said that they hoped to keep the upstairs gallery lively and constantly changing. “We want to create an atmosphere of excitement here. When you climb the stairs to the new gallery you should never be sure of what you are going to see. There is a constant demand for gallery space for local artists and that has always been part of our agenda and the best artists will be able to move downstairs and have a full-blown exhibition in the main gallery.”

They described the success of the gallery as a series of happy accidents and both they and their husbands being in the right place at the right time to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to them.

“The children were grown , so it was less of a risk financially and both Mike and Dick were at a stage in their careers where they were looking for a new challenge.”

Mike Todd threw himself into a graphic design degree while Dick Daniels enrolled on a web-design course.

Pat and Verena had their first exhibition in what would become the Reunion Gallery in late 2001 when it was just a space for hire.

“At the time it was an empty shop which you could hire out for however long you wanted it. We were working in the studio on the otherside of the courtyard and wanted somewhere to show our work. The shop had been a mobility centre and I don’t think the landlords knew what to do with it,” Verena said.

“Then in 2002, the premises came up for sale and we had a hurried meeting and agreed that we would be crazy not to go for it. It was a now or never moment and I am so glad we did. Even when we were hiring the space it felt like ours, so in some respects it was an easy decision to make.

“Originally they asked us if we wanted to hire the space but we thought they were asking too much money and if it ever changed hands then they could get us out. We felt we needed security. After a while they put the whole complex on the market and we panicked a little bit because we thought we were going to have the whole complex taken out from under our feet.

“We had a couple of meetings in the pub – all the best meetings are held in the pub – and the deal was done.”

Verena said that the timing was such that they had the money to invest in a new venture.

“It was pure luck that at that time both Dick and myself and Pat and Mike had money available to invest in the gallery. It was as if it was meant to be.”

Pat and Verena said that the gallery had always been a joint collaboration between the four of them. “We are the resident artists, toiling away in the workshop but Mike has been responsible for the design side of things when it comes to invitations and newsletters and Dick has run the IT side of the business and taken care of the pennies. So we all work well together. The men have always put themselves out to improve the face of the gallery.

“I think what is good is that we all have different strengths. There are some areas where we cross over but by and large we all have our own areas of expertise. That makes for a good partnership and as a result the gallery has grown like topsy.”

Pat and Verena describe their relationship as rather similar to that of sisters – sisters that get on that is – after working together for so long they can usually predict how the other will react to an idea or suggestion.

“We have a discussion, come up with a resolution and move on.”

They admit that they do have differences of opinion but remain good friends and work really well together – which is something of a surprise particularly as they didn’t particularly like each other when they first met at school.

Pat and Daniels first came across one another at Westbourne School. Their initial assessments of one another have thankfully been revised. Verena thought Pat was a rather wet flippertygibbet while Pat regarded Verena as a stuck-up snob.

Happily first impressions haven’t lasted and love sharing a combined workspace.

They specialise in different forms ceramics and glassware. “It’s good having someone to bounce off. Most artists work in complete isolation and it is very hard and we’ve known each other for so long now, that we do know one another very well and can work alongside each other day-in, day-out without committing murder.”

They said that going back to college as mature students gave them a helpful perspective on the world.

Having worked outside art for many years they know this is exactly what they want to be doing – and what the alternatives were.

But the journey from housewives and mothers to mature students to full-time artists has been a long journey. After moving away, starting families and new careers, the pair met up again in the late 1980s when they were both living in Felixstowe.

Verena explained that it was a chance meeting on the beach by Jacobs Ladder that brought them back together. “It was a total coincidence. We just happened to be on the same beach at the same time. I don’t think we’d seen each other since we’d been at school and we had drifted apart. I had stayed at Westbourne to do my A-levels while Pat went to Suffolk College.”

Pat said that although she enjoyed art and studied it at A-level, unlike Verena who was determined to make a career out of it, she initially was seduced by a more practical subject – biology. “I did biology, English and art at A-level but it was the biology that I thought would be really useful in terms of a career. I did a short spell working at the Ancient House bookshop in Ipswich before I went to work for Pauls, maltsters, in Ipswich in the labs working in quality control.

“From Pauls I went to Anglian Water working in their labs at Bucklesham.”

Verena went to live in Nottingham for 10 years and although she didn’t work directly in the art world she had access to a potter’s studio which kept the creative spark alive. After 10 years she returned to Suffolk and during that fateful walk on the beach bumped into Pat Todd. During the intervening years Verena worked in Abbeygate Lighting in Felixstowe while Pat, complete with a punk hair-style, worked in a Felixstowe pharmacy. Then Verena dropped into to see Pat one lunch hour and announced a discovery that would change their lives forever.

“When I got back to Felixstowe, having been away in Nottingham, I realised I missed having an outlet for my art. I then discovered a City and Guilds ceramics course at Suffolk College but there was a danger of it being suspended because not enough people had enrolled, so I went in search of Pat one lunch time and she immediately realised that here was a chance to do something different.”

Pat agrees that here was an opportunity to break out of a rut. “It was exactly what I was after and being on the course together really cemented our friendship.”

She also found that working with three-dimensional materials gave her designs more flexibility and more variety than she had bargained for. “I found very quickly that I really enjoyed playing with the spatial relationships of things. Working in three dimensions is very different from painting and drawing and, I think, more exciting.”

From 1995-1998 the pair spent studying for their City and Guilds, while Pat was also working as a classroom assistant at Amberfield School in Nacton. The pair studied for their degree at Colchester Institute from 1998 to 2001. Verena said that the course in 3-D design concentrated their minds on what they were heading for.

“Towards the end of the course we had to think about what we were going to do next. We were given guidance on the importance of building up professional contacts.

“We both knew that we wanted to carry on and make a career as an artist. We knew that working in isolation, which many artists are forced to do by necessity, just wouldn’t work for us. We enjoyed the camaraderie on the course and we felt that we both benefited from feedback. But the idea of getting our own studio was daunting.

“I knew I couldn’t go back to my old studio which was an old garden shed. But we didn’t want anywhere that was too expensive.

“We are quite disciplined. We still force ourselves to come in everyday and work a 9-5 day. There are days when we have our version of writers’ block but you learn to work through it. If something doesn’t come out quite as you planned you learn to adapt it into something new. When you are out there in the real world you have to be much more realistic, much more practical. You have to recycle materials if things don’t work out the way you want or you have to adapt the original piece into something new.

“That’s where there is an advantage with working alongside someone in the same studio because they can provide a new angle, come at a problem with a fresh eye.”

Verena said that there is a healthy sense of competition between them but there friendship is helped by the fact that they are not doing the same kind of work.

“We are very different in our outlook, which I think is helpful.”

n Reunion Refresh: The Tenth Anniversary Exhibition is an open ended event running throughout 2011 but with additional special events throughout the year.

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