Magical Re-thinking: Minneapolis Ceramic Artist Ginny Sims

 In Culture, Feature

Imagine a room where tables float from Crayola-painted panels and shelves of pottery teeter forth. One part Dr. Seuss and two parts Bloomsbury Group, it’s a pop-up book of breakables, the white box transformed into a trippy parallel universe. But once the whimsy wears off, the fragile looms. A plate of erased bodies hangs from a daffodil wall, twin boxers clock each other’s blank faces, mugs blur at their centers methodically rubbed out.

Welcome to the uncanny world of artist Ginny Sims. Whether due to the ubiquity of registry culture or the dual rise of the HSN and QVC, domestic ware would hardly seem to be objects of resistance—and that’s where Sims seeks to shake things up. Mining the history of English pottery, she infuses traditional forms with allusions to contemporary exigencies. Hers is an art of quiet upset—an urn that yearns, a kettle that unsettles, a vase effaced of figurative clarity. A monolithic wall appears on a commemorative plate; on another, a comic bubble simply reads “No.”

Raised in Little Rock, Arkansas, Sims moved north to pursue an MFA at the University of Minnesota. She now teaches ceramics and art history at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College, as well as at the University of Minnesota. Her recent residency at The White Page, a studio and gallery space in South Minneapolis, led to her fall 2017 exhibition, “Six Towns.”

“It’s sort of a mash-up of English style and my aesthetic,” she explains of a series of bright vases, the final inspired by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass. “I actually spray-painted that one. My own humorous nod to high design.”

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You pick up on past ceramic traditions, but as your artist statement reads, you are also invested in “forgotten, implied and traumatized senses of self, family and community.” What does that mean with respect to ceramics?
Those words might seem pretty heavy when it comes to objects so rooted in commonplace domestic tableware. But I do look to moments in ceramic history for my ideas—it’s my biggest inspiration. I’m always looking at past ceramic forms and reinventing them—in ways for my own contemporary self, but also for the socio-political moments that we’re living through now. The language of trauma also opens up a way for me to include my own stories—about family, loss, abandonment and then relating that to the collective human spirit.

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So your work sounds like a cross between the historical and deeply personal. Does that feel accurate?
Definitely. I like to marry the two. There’s no end—ceramics history is so vast and contains both. I teach art history, and I’m always still learning about prehistoric ceramics—Chinese storage vessels will have the same effect on me as a Korean vase from 800 B.C., the whole linear progression of what they were used for, and the fact that these were actual containers that betray information of all kinds: the social, political. Everything.

Right now what I’m tapping into are the factory wares from 18th-century England. I got a grant to visit the northern industrial part of England in the summer of 2016 and got to see a lot of the old factories. What’s fascinating to me is how in the beginning of factory ware, the evidence of the artist’s hand survived production. I love the naiveté of the actual hands involved—objects getting messed up, hands interfering in the molds of ceramics, the sloppiness that took place before it became more refined. That’s partly what my new work is based upon.

Visiting that region and seeing how devastated that part of England is now—how it took such a toll on the people—also really interested me. I became really interested in the social messages emblazoned onto teapots. When we think of commemorative plates today—of Princess Di and Prince Charles, for example—those came from a history of political propaganda on teapots in the 18th and 19th century. I’m interested in borrowing that way to put a message on a piece.

The whole reason I got into factory wares was because of the potters’ sketchbooks that I saw at the Victoria and Albert Museum—these beautiful 300-year-old sketchbooks, covered in dirt from the factory workers’ hands. It was so powerful to see these hand-drawn profile views of pots. A lot of my work is made to look like those drawings.

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To what extent do you see your work as functional versus meant for display?
That’s a hard question for me. Ultimately I’d love for them to be used, but there’s nothing wrong for them to be admired on their own. I’m getting to a point where I can’t crank out work. I think maybe subconsciously I’m slowing down my process to make each piece more unique and more loved, and maybe more of an art object than a mass-produced, wheel-thrown pot for everyday use.

You have a past installation called a “Room for Jean Cocteau.” Does his philosophy still influence you?
It’s definitely still a concept that’s important to me, and I’ve revisited it with my most recent show. With that room for Cocteau, I was looking at magical, surrealist imagery. I wanted to convey this living space based off of a Cocteau film called “Beauty and the Beast.” The characters are completely unaware that the objects around them are alive and following them throughout the home. In my show, I wanted my ceramics to capture that kind of heartbeat in the room, a room that’s alive with no actual living thing.

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You grew up in Little Rock, and now you’re based in Minneapolis—a place with such creative energy. How has it shaped your outlook?
I’ve always been in the middle of America. I’m from Little Rock, moved to Kansas City, and ended up in Minneapolis. Growing up, I actually always wanted to live on the coast, but for someone interested in ceramics, you first need to prioritize having room. Ceramics studios in New York City, for example, leave barely any room for things to happen. The schools that are bigger ceramics centers tend to still be in middle America—Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska—places where there is a lot of space. What are you most excited about right now?

With my new work, I’m getting at some things I’ve wanted to do for some time. For my current show, I’m painting directly onto the wall, creating a more colorful, detailed space than I have before. I’ve been looking a lot at the Charleston Farm House in England—the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia Woolf. A lot of that group didn’t have formal art-making skills, but everything from the paintings to the vases on the wall were really inspiring.

It seems like in so many ways you pull from a diverse history and apply it to today’s tumultuous zeitgeist.
In terms of today’s political moment, it can’t be ignored. It’s not something I touch on directly—no emblazoned images of Trump. But there is this feeling of erasure in a lot of my work right now—these framed spots on my mugs and teapots that would normally have a silhouette of a person now represent a darkness or void. That is my way of making the work political, of thinking about what’s happening today and relating that to pottery. It’s hard to make political work without being overt about it, but I’m more interested in the feelings rather than a direct message.


This story originally appeared in ALIVE Issue 6, 2017. Purchase Issue 6 and become an ALIVE subscriber.

Photography by Attilio D’Agostino.

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