Inevitable Intuition: Ceramic Artist Cym Warkov Returns Home to St. Paul
If you were to walk into ceramicist Cym Warkov’s pottery studio in downtown St. Paul—Lowertown, to be exact—you’d see an amazing view of the state capital building from her west-facing window, and a small hillside of trees. Minnesota can somehow pull off greenery in its populous urban areas. You’d see a range of pale-colored clay vessels made of porcelain in various states of completion, sumptuous and precise, shaped into visual suggestions that the objects could be something more pliable, like fabric. You’ll also find a slab roller, various tools and materials, and her beloved dog, Birdie. “Typically I don’t glaze the outside, because I love the way porcelain looks and feels—and how strong it is,” she says “I think it’s so beautiful.”
Her story is like the coalescence of more than one life. Warkov grew up across the river in Minneapolis, and both of her parents were artists. Her father worked as a photographer, and her mother was a painter, which led Warkov to a childhood of exploration: making things, dabbling, playing, grabbing ahold of the many forms of creative expression and seeing how they worked.
She also discovered early on that living on an artist’s income was inconsistent, at best. “We didn’t have a lot of money, so when I got older, I was like, ‘I’m not going to be an artist. I’m not going to be poor,’” she says. She found work as a hairdresser, a craft that required an artistry similar to what she draws on to make ceramic pieces, as she absorbed the foundational principles of texture, color, shape and form. Eventually she landed a job with hair-care giant Aveda, where she ascended up the ladder until she was traveling alongside the brand’s president and creative team all over the country.
The company moved her to L.A., where she met her now ex-husband, a film cinematographer, and stayed for 28 years, doing hair and makeup on film and music-video sets. She raised her two children there, now both in their 20s. “They had the whole California experience. They went to Santa Monica High School and all of that. But we kept them away from the film industry, and neither of them want to move back to L.A.,” she says. “It’s a place where you see what happens when there’s such extreme excess. The materialism, the lack of real values; parents who aren’t paying attention. They want their daughters to be the next ‘It’ girl, and that’s what they think of as successful. That’s not what I want for my daughter. I taught my son to open the door for women, to say things like ‘Yes, ma’am’ and have manners. Generally, kids just aren’t raised like that there.”
She lived all over greater Los Angeles—in Hollywood, San Fernando Valley, Venice Beach. The latter was her favorite; she still has a home nearby in Mar Vista, and it was there that she learned how to surf in her 40s. It was also out on the ocean, in all its inescapable honesty, that she realized she and her husband were not a match. “Something in me knew it was time to separate,” she says. “There’s something about being out in the middle of the ocean that’s incredibly spiritual. And I was out there one day, and it was so clear to me that I wasn’t really living my life. That feeling of authenticity is what I’m always trying to get to, and in some ways that’s what ceramics is doing for me. I get so much fulfillment from working.”
Last month, she went back to visit her son, who now lives in Ventura—about two hours north of L.A. “That was the single best thing I did as a mother: get my son surfing,” she says. A paramedic, her son is often confronted with some of humanity’s most painful moments. Living in Ventura, he now surfs almost every day, as though physically cleansing the trauma.
With her son settled in Ventura and her daughter a newly minted East Coaster at New York University, Warkov moved back home to St. Paul in October of 2017 as she had always intended to do, after having been away for almost three decades. A lifelong creative, she’d worked in ceramics before having children, and found her way back in St. Paul, where she moved in with a friend before finding her own apartment. “L.A. had become a place that really wasn’t great for my creativity,” she says.
While her first winter back in Minnesota was one of the most challenging the state had seen in recent years, she still felt a wave of relief upon returning home, jumping right into the process of making. Now in her 50s, she loves the timely nostalgia of Midwestern seasons, the quiet ease of living, the greenery, earnestness, honesty, and perhaps most of all, space—where she can lie, daydream and make without care for what her life looks like through anyone else’s eyes.
“Something that happens to you when you get older is that the bullshit starts to fall away, hopefully. You want to be more and more yourself, and your filters come off.” There’s no need for flash or pomp here. Grounded, in reality, life is decidedly rich.
Images courtesy of Attilio D’Agostino.
This story originally appeared in ALIVE Volume 18, Issue 2. The digital version is available now. You can also order a print copy or purchase a subscription online.