Ann Van Hoey is an accomplished artist who began her ceramic career later in life (at age 50). She has enjoyed remarkable success, and when you take a look at her work you’ll understand why. Ann has a deep respect for material. She also has a remarkable way of fusing simplicity with complexity, and extracting grace and beauty from the combination.
JW: You became a ceramic artist later in life. Can you tell me about your decision to make that “leap”?
AVH: I was a rather scientific person, interested in math and science at school. At university I studied something called economical engineering, but never used my diploma. The rest of my family were sales representatives for furniture companies, and I also started as a sales rep for furniture companies. I did that for almost 20 years, and then did some other commercial jobs. Just after university, I had taken a ceramic class in a night school. That’s where my love for ceramics started, although it was a full diploma program in ceramics and I didn’t finish the course. In my late 40s I went back to the school and completed the diploma course in ceramics. Around the age of 50, I found I wasn’t very happy with my professional life, so I decided to make my hobby my profession.
JW: Based on your experience, do you have any advice for people who may be interested in transitioning into a ceramics career later in life?
AVH: At school I focused on throwing because I said to myself, “You’re not an artist, so you better make something you can use.” So I set up a studio, bought a kiln and a throwing wheel, and began my new career trying to throw table ware. I went very enthusiastically to my studio every morning. But it was not very easy for several reasons. First, it’s difficult to distinguish yourself in this area. Second, I underestimated how difficult it would be to work alone all the time. And third, with my economics background I found myself thinking about the costs of materials and labor in making an individual object to make this a viable career. It was all very “counter-creative.” After a few months I stopped going to the studio – it almost turned into a failure. Then my husband said, “Come on, go back to the studio. Enjoy yourself making your pieces like before. Don’t count, and aim as high as possible.”
He also told me, “At 50, you’re much too old to have a little exhibition here in our town this year, and then perhaps next year in the little town next to us. You have to aim as high as possible right now because you don’t have time to build this up gradually.” Normally, I’m not like that. My training is to see if I can do something on a small scale, and if that works then try the next thing, and so on. I don’t like to show off. But I said, “Okay, I’ll try.” It was really liberating.
I left the idea of making table ware and started making larger vessels not really for use. I decided to apply to the biggest international ceramic competitions such as the World Ceramic Biennale in Icheon (South-Korea), the International Ceramics Competition in Mino (Japan) and the Taiwan Ceramics Biennale to name the Asian ones. In Europe I applied, amongst others, to the International Biennial of Contemporary Ceramics in Vallauris (France) and in Faenza (Italy). To my big surprise I was accepted at all the competitions and even won several awards. Then the galleries came. It was the start of a fantastic adventure.
JW: You must have known your work was very good to make this jump into “the big leagues.”
AVH: The moment that I began to believe in myself was a turning point. It didn’t happen immediately. I still have doubts. But at a certain moment I thought, “Gosh, I have something here. I really have something.” From that point forward, I decided to do things professionally. I use a professional photographer. I have someone help me write about my work in a professional manner. Fortunately I have a good husband for that! But before that moment I couldn’t convince him. My confidence and belief in myself convinced him to help me write about my work.
JW: Switching to your work itself, you originally created work that focused on the material of clay itself and how it can be shaped – no glazes, engobes or decoration. What was your source of inspiration for such simple forms?
AVH: When I was in ceramics school I discovered this dark earthenware clay from the south of France. I love the material itself after it’s been fired. I decided I wanted to work in that earthenware. I know in the United States when you talk about earthenware it’s a little…. I don’t know. But I truly love this clay.
JW: Do you think there are different perceptions of clay in different cultures?
AVH: I had the impression when I was in the United States when I spoke about the type of clay I used and the temperature I fire at, well, they said [dismissively], “Oh, well then it’s really low-fire.” I felt a little bit, well, I don’t know. And, for instance, in Asia I have the impression that if it’s not porcelain, well, it’s not worth anything. It has to be porcelain. But I really love this earthenware clay. You can’t fire it at higher temperatures. It has a beautiful, smoother look than stoneware.
Now I’m working with stoneware. I just had a show at Lucy Lacoste Gallery near Boston where much of my work is stoneware finished with an engobe.
JW: Do you sketch out and plan your designs before building them in clay? I see references to mathematics and geometry in your work. Or is your creative process more spontaneous?
AVH: Yes, in the first year I was measuring everything. It was purely mathematical. Now I’ve left that a little bit and my process is more intuitive. I know now when I make a certain type of cut or work on a particular shape or alteration, I know what I can achieve. I’m more working in the moment and not measuring everything anymore.
JW: Do you see your work changing in any new direction?
AVH: Well, it has changed some. My evolution is slow, but there has been an evolution in my work. I am simplifying my shapes.
I always make a basic shape in a mold (spherical or elliptical mold). For that I work with paper templates and thin clay slabs. When I have the perfect shape in clay, I cut triangles and then alter the form by folding in order to obtain a new strong shape.
Now, when I cut out the triangles, instead of folding them I leave the edges alone.
For my last solo show, all those pieces sold very well. Also, now instead folding the triangles over each other I’m starting to butt them together, as in this photograph.
JW: I also see a few pieces with texture.
AVH: The textured bowl you may be looking at on my website was part of a social project called A+A. I designed a collection of textured stoneware bowls, which were then used to make plaster molds. People who aren’t able to work in traditional job settings, such as people who have had a stroke or injury or that type of thing, use the molds to produce bowls. Since I have worked with Serax, I introduced that company to the A+A project participants. Serax packages and markets the bowls and the people making the bowls are thrilled to see their work in museums and galleries and design shops. They also make money in the venture.
I also work as an industrial designer for Serax, a major ceramics firm, designing table ware. I just finished a big project for Serax and the products will be available in 2023. Serax also operates in the United States, so hopefully my table ware will be available there.
I’m also interested in bringing texture into my personal work.
JW: Are you doing work in other media?
AVH: I’m currently testing some new work in leather for a big design company from Madrid, called Loewe. They came across my work because in 2018 I was in the selection of the Loewe Craft Prize, organized by their foundation. This craft prize is really worth applying for. The first prize is Eur 50,000 (apx $60,000) – which is much more than most prizes.
Loewe has contacted me and asked if I would be interested in creating some objects in leather. The idea is very agreeable and adventurous.
JW: I also see some bronze work. Is that a new direction you are pursuing? What does bronze offer that clay does not?
AVH: I like my work in bronze but it’s difficult to sell it in ceramics galleries. Up to now, galleries have contacted me. I haven’t searched for gallery representation. Perhaps I should for the bronze work.
This past summer something interesting happened. I was in 2 group shows. I sold a lot of these bronze sculptures. A company contacted me and told me they absolutely want some of my bronze sculptures for the new Henge showroom in Milan. I didn’t know the company but they are a large Italian furniture firm. So I’m excited to explore this area.
More of Ann’s work can be seen on her website.