PROVIDE CONVERSATIONS – Cym Warkov
We first met Cym Warkov at New York’s Shoppe Object back in the summer of 2019, and she’s continued to be one of our favourite ceramicists. The artist is known for her striking, sculptural pieces that seem to defy physics: they’re architectural and organic, almost archeological in nature. We caught up with her from her home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to talk about her work, and the need for imperfection in a creative practice.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I try to handle anything that’s non-physical or artistic in the morning. I get on my computer and answer email, send emails. Then I walk to my studio and get going. I have two assistants, so we go over what needs to be done and get the day going. When I’m at the studio, I’m making things as well as ordering supplies, shipping, etc. I wear every hat. And then I come back home, I get back on my computer, and I look at emails again.
As your business grows, you end up, as you say, wearing all these hats, and often you don’t get to do as much of the creative work. Do you have a way of protecting that creative time, and getting your hands in the clay?
I do. I have assistants at my studio Monday through Saturday, and then Sunday is the day that I go in there, and it’s just me. And that’s my day to work on new things, and just clear my head. Just do whatever the heck I want.
Tell us how you got into ceramics. How old is your practice now?
This part of my practice is really since 2018. But I have basically had a lifetime in the arts. My parents were both artists. Our home was always a home-slash-studio. My father taught photography, my mother is a painter, and so my whole life was on the campus of the University of Minnesota in the art department. And my school that I went to it was called Southeast Free School. It was basically a bunch of hippies who got together and started a school, and so I spent a ton of time in the ceramic studio. Ceramics, batik, metalsmithing, tie-dying, printmaking, painting, photography, everything except for, like math, reading, you know! In some ways, it was like a Bauhaus education in the arts.
So in terms of how I started this most recent version of my practice, I had a store, and we were selling things made by makers because I was so resistant to ever being an artist myself, having grown up in that world. I was like, no way. I’m not doing it. But then as I was visiting artists, I realized, you know what? I want to be a maker. I know I can do this. This is what I’ve done my whole life. And so I just decided to dissolve my partnership and move back to where I’m from, which is Minneapolis, and start my ceramics business.
You were in California?
I was. I was in California for 30 years. I raised my children there.
What drew you back to Minnesota?
I love it here. I really do. I think it’s a pretty special place. Because it’s not on a coast, it’s not a destination. But it’s so special. In some ways, I think of it more like Canada than the United States. A lot of people don’t know it, but we had socialized medicine here. We were the first state that ever had anything close to Obamacare. There’s a lot of social fabric woven in here that I think you don’t get in a lot of other States. I’ve always appreciated that.
Also, Minnesota supports the arts, well and above any other state. So this town is full of creative people. However, there are not jobs for ceramic artists here. So that was one of the things I wanted to do, is to create jobs. So you can actually have your hands in what you love, and get paid for it. And also you’re going to have your own personal practice, too, of course. But at least you’re not toiling away at Amazon during the day, and then trying to squeeze in time. That was my overall goal: to provide jobs for ceramic artists, have a really great product that we’re putting out into the world – a really quality, lasting product that’s not just a throwaway thing.
How quickly into your business were able to create jobs?
I think it was the second year. And now I have a full-time and a part-time assistant. And once his toddler gets into kindergarten full-time, he’ll be a full-time assistant too.
And that’s the other thing that’s important to me – your family must come first. I wanted to create a place where people want to come to work, and they’re supported. And also there’s that bottom line. So how do I have a profitable business, and treat people fairly? And there are models of people that have done that in this city to look to and to get counsel from. So that’s also another reason why I’m here.
How did you develop your aesthetic as an artist?
Well, I think it just reflects my personality. There’s something that I’ve always loved about order and rhythm that’s not perfect, if that makes any sense. I think, as human beings, we’re always looking to find something we can hold on to, and identify and relate to. And I think most people really can relate to a lot of the shapes that I make: they’re kind of these human forms. Or the fact that there’s this repetition and rhythm and regularity, but that it’s also not perfect, like human beings. We’re all trying to go out and do this thing we’re expected to do, but we’re not perfect. So I think that at the root of my work is rhythm, repetition and imperfection.
And celebrating that beauty in imperfection.
I think that’s really so important. I don’t know who said it, but somebody said, ‘perfection is the death of creativity.’ And I think it’s really true. If something is perfect, and there are no flaws – I want that in my surgeon or my dentist, or my accountant, and that’s a great quality to have if you’re a doctor. But in the arts and for creative people, and even for parenting, being able to make a mistake, and then grow from it, or learn from it, or go into another direction, and being open to the unknown, the possibilities – I think that’s important.
Wonderful. What about influences you bring to your work? Do you have people or ideas that that come into it?
My parents both being artists, that’s a huge influence on me. My mother’s a Buddhist. She’s been meditating for 63 years, and she studied Japanese and was very interested in Japanese culture. Maybe it doesn’t show in my work, but I am influenced by the Japanese aesthetic. I like minimalism. I like that quiet simplicity about it.
Architecture is also a big influence. I’m an architecture junkie.
Speaking of architecture, can you tell us more about the technical side of your work? There’s an appearance of fragility, but it’s quite structurally sound and stable, all of which seems very technically challenging. Are there hurdles you must overcome to create the work?
Oh, yeah! I work in porcelain, which is the diva of clay bodies. My new assistant is very accomplished. He’s just finished this great graduate program. He has way more technical knowledge than I have. I don’t even want to call him my assistant because he’s too accomplished. But he’s blown away by what we do with porcelain, because in his education, it’s like, ‘Oh, we can’t do that. You can’t do that.’ But I think our ignorance of what we cannot do with porcelain helped me push the boundaries of what I do with it.
And it’s one of my favourite parts of what I do: that figuring out how to overcome a problem. How to engineer something. That’s just been a big part of it: ignorance is bliss, and trial and error.
And have you seen an evolution of your business and your work over the last five years?
Yes, there was a big learning curve in the beginning, and because a lot of my pieces, each one is really a sculpture, and the labour that goes into them is incredible – that’s why they’re expensive, and that’s not always easy to quantify to people. Because there’s just so many touches that go into it. There’s so much time and labour and loss. So I am trying to figure out ways to make pieces that are more accessible, price wise. And also make pieces that other artists can produce for me. And so that’s going to require a piece that can be repeatable that – you know, every artist has a different hand – that’s going to look good.
And lighting. That’s probably the biggest thing is that we’re moving into: we’re doing a really deep dive into more lighting.
Do you have pieces already?
Yes, I launched my lighting about a year ago, and I just haven’t had time to really keep developing it. And so that’s when I realized I had to move to a bigger studio. I have to make this next leap, so I can really focus on it.
Wonderful. Tell us a little more about why you work with Provide.
David was one of the first people that bought my pieces! We met at the Shoppe Object trade show. And he just responded to my work, and I saw what he was doing at Provide, and it just seemed like such a great fit. He has such a good eye. He’s just such a curator, and a gallerist in a way. I have to get there some day. I’m Canadian by the way!
I call myself a fake Canadian, because I was born in Winnipeg, my dad’s Canadian, or he was. He passed away, but I was born in Winnipeg, and my parents met in Art School in San Francisco, and had my brother there. When she was pregnant with me, they moved back to work in his family’s business, because, you know, being an artist, there was no money. So they moved to Winnipeg. I was born there, but only lived there for about a year and then moved back to the United States. So, even though I’m a citizen of Canada, culturally, I’ve never lived there.
Contact Provide for more information on our Cym Warkov Ceramics collection.