“When I moved to Berlin I was on a quest for identity. I needed to be far away from France, to see other horizons and other ways to live,” says 28-year-old ceramist Violaine Toth who came to Berlin in 2017 “full of naivety and dreams”. Toth grew up just outside Paris in the city of Fontainebleau, home to the eponymous royal palace and a lush, scenic forest. Her time there was conditioned by the hidebound norms of the town’s conservative, bourgeois society, a time she describes as being “completely in the closet, because my culture, my education, the whole school system was made to keep people who were not following the norms in the closet. I had no idea I was even in the closet.”
As a new arrival, Toth relished Berlin’s creative outlets, its queer spaces, ceramic workshops and French expat community. An internship with Berlin-based porcelain designer Anna Badur set Toth, a trained product designer, on a trajectory of personal and professional growth: “My art gave me a real sense of purpose and visibility. It helped me build myself as a queer woman and independent artist.” Under Badur’s tutelage, Toth learned everything she didn’t learn in school, from packaging and pricing, to photoshoots and personal branding.
“Clay is constantly in a state of change from soft to hard, light to dark, a velvet feeling to a very rough texture.”
Four years ago, when the capital’s burgeoning ceramics scene was still cutting its teeth, Toth started out on a work exchange basis helping with studio maintenance at Ceramic Kingdom in Neukölln. Six months later they hired her to teach workshops. The experience broadened her horizons, helping her discover practices and names that have shaped her work. Of her art, Toth says: “to me, colours are irrelevant, as is the concept of beauty.” Instead, cosmic and botanical forms as well as the inspiration provided by the body’s curves became artistic lodestars.
She cites a diverse mix of influential artists and movements on her work, from New Objectivity photographer Karl Blossfeldt, to the Arts and Crafts movement, and Goth counterculture. Syncing these elements, Toth developed her own distinctive, monochrome aesthetic using the textured black stoneware and minimalistic glazes which give her work its distinctive sense of caprice. “I don’t really know how to express myself in words most of the time,” she says. “I create because it’s my only way to stay sane.”
Berlin’s tattoo artists were another source of inspiration and Toth began trading her work for tattoos. Both activities allowed her to create an emotional carapace: “I was becoming the potter for the tattoo artists and that was really a way for me to create some kind of shell. Making ceramics and tattooing my body were two things that I did to create my own universe, my safe space. The black [ceramic] collections were growing as quickly as the ink spread on my body.”
For Toth, working with clay is a way of merging the constraints of a potentially vulnerable material with a technically sophisticated design aesthetic. “Clay is material that is soft at first, but it can also break, it can hurt you.” She became fascinated by its flexibility and recyclability – by the fact that designs can be achieved in a way that’s not possible with pre-cut materials such as wood. As Toth puts it: “Clay is constantly in a state of change from soft to hard, light to dark, a velvet feeling to a very rough texture.”
The pandemic allowed Toth to deepen her research and practice. She began thinking about larger-scale products such as sculptural vases with a dark, granular aesthetic. She has also developed a 26,000-follower fanbase on Instagram, a platform she uses to talk about creativity and activism, in particular the role of patriarchy and her own experiences as an LGBTQIA+ individual. “I had the urge to talk about activism and my community, and I think it was also a way for me to come out publicly,” she explains, adding that her parents found out she was queer after reading one of her interviews in a magazine.
As workshops get back underway and Toth works on a new collection inspired by biomechanics and the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, she says “when people buy my work, they are also buying the story behind it. Some of them have followed my journey since the beginning and through their purchase, they become a part of it. They also want to support local artists – it’s an ethical gesture.”
Last year saw a solo exhibition at the Michael Reid Gallery in Mitte. Another show with fellow Berlin-based ceramicists at Neukölln’s Wishbone Studio highlighted their self-awareness as artists showing work within a specifically artistic space. Following another exhibition in Paris, Toth celebrated the official opening of her current studio space on Treptower Straße with a group show of local artists.
The new work space made economic sense, but Toth sees the move in larger terms, saying: “You really understand your own culture and your own country when you leave and go abroad and this is exactly what happened for me.” This new space, she says, is “a chance to build a community. It’s like a catalyst. Here I gather many people with the same interests in art and craft. That’s my sense of Berlin, of family and of home.”