The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
Sheer excitement is the main driving force behind Derek Wilson and his approach to making his sublime pottery. This excitement also applies to the business of selling the artwork. The agile entrepreneur is just as happy working alone in his studio or taking on extra staff to tackle increased demand, something that many small-scale potters would not feel comfortable considering, let alone doing. He’ll also willingly travel halfway around the globe to show his unique work. “You’re always striving,” he smiles.
For Wilson, it’s the technical aspects of clay, the diversity of the material, and the variety of his work between utilitarian and sculptural forms that truly fires his enthusiasm. This technical variation spurs him on to produce his best piece, which is always the next one. “I am constantly learning,” admits the potter in his soft Irish accent. “It’s challenging, and there’s still so much more to learn.”
Wilson’s father was in the British Army, which provided “an interesting and very happy childhood with lots of adventures outside—all very exciting.” This meant that he grew up in Germany and England. “I wasn’t at a particular school for more than a year, jumping about quite a bit.” He adds, “I was always creative and interested in art.” His granddad in London has always painted, and he would get the young Wilson to indulge in this pastime as well. “I remember having paintings of his at home,” says Wilson. Early artistic exposure must have helped foster his creativity. “I initially wanted to study graphic design and was also interested in architecture,” he says. “I might have done a little bit of clay at school.” Wilson quickly discovered a passion for three-dimensional work. “It’s [a] much more touchy-feely aesthetic—the hands-on quality and the appearance of things . . . . I find the materials much more interesting,” he says, adding that he also likes metalwork. Wilson’s first introduction to pottery was in his foundation course at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art in Bournemouth, UK. “I was inspired by the possibilities available with clay and liked the sculptural approach,” recalls the father of three. His tutor encouraged him to sculpt objects.
From Bournemouth, he went to the Belfast School of Art to study and earned a degree in fine and applied arts, focused on ceramics. After his MA, Wilson took a residency in Denmark. “I visited Michael Geertsen’s studio. He produces compositions based on deconstructed objects, it was very interesting.” After the residency concluded, he returned to the Belfast School of Art as a part-time lecturer to share his knowledge with a new generation while also subsidizing his own practice. Wilson is inspired by American ceramic artist John Mason (1927–2019), who produced experimental minimalist work, and renowned abstract sculptor Sir Anthony Caro (1924–2013).
Collaborating with an International Business
“A few years ago I had a big project with Chloé, the high-end French fashion house,” reveals the unassuming Belfast-based ceramic artist. Chloé, headquartered in Paris, has stores throughout the world. It was founded in 1952 by fashion designer Gaby Aghion, who hired German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. He went on to become the creative director of Chanel until his death.
The Chloé project saw Wilson tasked with creating 1200 corporate gifts: single objects such as porcelain teacups and candle holders for their worldwide clients. Additionally, he designed and made around 1000 pieces of tableware. “As a result of these demands, I had no alternative but to employ three staff—a thrower, a glazer, and a general studio assistant—which was a complete contrast to how I usually run the studio because I have always kept it small.”
Perhaps surprisingly, he found scaling up his ceramics business a rewarding experience. He had to let go and hand tasks over to others that he would normally do himself. Having had this positive experience, he says that delegating tasks is something that he wouldn’t be averse to doing again. Wilson was pleased to be able to provide employment opportunities in his local area, which has struggled following Brexit, when the UK severed ties with the European Union, leaving Northern Ireland in a challenging trading position.
Finding a Balance
“Brexit is a disaster,” he says matter-of-factly. “We were sold the idea that there would be free trade with the UK and the EU, but it hasn’t been like that, and sometimes supplies can take longer to arrive. There’s not a good political atmosphere and there are issues with the border.” Irrespective of this, he believes that “the younger generation in Northern Ireland is more creative than previous generations.” Fortunately, Scarva Pottery Supplies, where Wilson gets his clay from is, like him, based in Northern Ireland. For his tableware, Wilson uses porcelain and stoneware clay, and for his sculptural work, uses heavily-grogged clay. He mixes up his own colored clay for the functional pieces and makes his own glazes, too. “When I started, I reduction fired, so [I] was involved in making grogs,” he explains. “I like muted colors and use gray, sandy colors, and greens. Mucky olive colors are probably my favorite.” He adds that he is fascinated by shadow and light, and the way that color absorbs light.
His self-described “restrained, functional, and sculptural approach” is about aesthetic quality, helped by an interest in graphic design he developed from an early age. Wilson’s practice is split between producing practical tableware and more artistically demanding sculpture, with prices ranging from £48 ($58) for a cup to £8000 ($9734) for a sculpture. “My practice as a ceramic artist centers on the making of a diverse range of contemporary objects from the functional to the sculptural. I always start with the same process, the potter’s wheel being my predominant tool,” says Wilson.
In 2023, Wilson’s striking ceramics were exhibited almost 6000 miles away at Idée in Tokyo. Idée opened its first shop in the 1980s in the Tokyo district of Aoyama. It grew into the country’s leading contemporary furniture design store chain and owner Teruo Kurosaki, with his mission of making good, simple design accessible to all, is often compared to his British counterpart, Terence Conran (1931–2020). Early on, Idée began designing and manufacturing its own products, often commissioning foreign designers such as Philippe Starck and Marc Newson, among others. “I have to produce a large amount of work for Idée and then they want me to exhibit at a second show somewhere else in Japan,” reveals Wilson. “I showed with them two years ago and it was a very successful show.”
“Exhibiting my work was a pivotal point of success,” Wilson explains. The first exhibition he participated in was “Ceramic Art London.” This event is organized by The Craft Potters Association, the national body representing ceramic artists in the UK. He then exhibited at “Origin,” organized by the Crafts Council, which was part of the London Design Fair. “There was a great deal of media attention, which had a good effect; it was a great start and that got me noticed,” says Wilson. This catapulted him into the limelight, providing him with helpful opportunities. He says that he is still reaping the rewards from these early exhibitions. Over the last 20 years, he has racked up several solo and group exhibitions all across the globe in large cities like London to New York, and in venues in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Singapore, Switzerland, and Japan. Wilson is represented by two galleries: Flow Gallery in London, England, and Modern Shapes in Antwerp, Belgium.
Wilson’s working day is always varied. “In the morning, I will usually answer emails and prepare work, although each day is different. It is a mix of lots of different elements. If I’m making sculpture, I’ll assemble, construct, and sand—refining and shaping back multiple times. I have three children, who are curious about my work, so I make sure that I finish at 5:30pm every day. A couple of nights a week, I’ll return to the studio around 9pm to work. That’s the really great thing about being self-employed, you can work your business around the family. In the old days when I was young, I just kept working, it didn’t matter. But I’ve learned that there is much more to life and that a work-life balance is very important.”
Wilson wants to scale up and produce more monumental pieces, as well as experiment more. Yet his sculptural work currently means that he doesn’t have enough time to produce tableware, which is an important element of his production so there’s a fine balancing act.
To learn more, visit www.derekwilsonceramics.com.
the author British journalist Tim Saunders writes about art and ceramics. When he has time, he enjoys painting and making.