The human experience carries a vulnerable weight. Sometimes it is easier to speak through an object, and Celia Pym is making art that heals the heart.
Perfection can be restrictive. Craft as an art form is too often related to the flawlessness of a skill. For London-based knitter Celia Pym, it is human error that gives her work confidence.
“I worry about a loss with our screen-based life. How do you know nature? How do you know the feeling of something?”
I had the pleasure of meeting the talented artist at her home studio in Stoke Newington. One of the finalists in the foundational year of the 2017 Loewe Craft Prize, the 38-year-old spoke about her work as a metaphysical mender, and the value of art education today.
“I think it’s really important in the digital age to make a connection with materials and your body,” Celia voiced, “I worry about a loss of that with our screen-based life. How do you know nature? How do you know the feeling of something?” Celia’s process-led work relies on tangibility, questioning what is human and what is real beyond the physicality of an object.
In the cozy confines of her studio, I sipped on Japanese tea and admired the colourful walls decorated with various knitwear projects she is working on. Large plastic tubs filled with yarn covered the floor space, organised by her favourite colours. “I really like wool but I’m not exclusive… I do have a lot of acrylic. I’m not a snob about wool, it’s funny.” Not surprisingly, the most vibrantly coloured tub is her joy.
Celia applied for the Loewe Prize at the suggestion of a friend. Acknowledging the importance for an artist’s work to be seen, she regularly participates in competitions, however the application for the Loewe Prize particularly stood out to her. “It was all image-based which I really appreciated. It felt very equal in that sense.”
‘Norwegian Sweater’ was the piece selected as a final contender. A traditional hand knitted garment the artist gathered from Annemor Sundbø’s Ragpile collection in Norway. Initially the most damaged item in the warehouse, Celia repaired the evidence of human wear by darning the holes. Her stamp on the garment is obvious, refilling the damaged tears with a neutral white thread.
Her fascination with repair came to fruition in 2007 after inheriting a jumper that belonged to her great uncle. The jumper underwent a vicious recycling process where holes would appear and her great aunt would mend them, until the holes appeared again.
“It’s easier to talk through an object.”
Measuring the evidence of time is part of the appeal behind damaged garments for Celia. “Time was really visible in this sweater. But I also loved the thinness of the yarn and the pointlessness of the exercise. It felt more like it was about preserving a relationship than a need.”
Celia once held an exhibition where she invited strangers to bring items of sentimental value in need of repairing. “People would bring me things with stories about loss related to garments. It’s an opportunity to talk to a stranger about something real, it’s also easier to talk through an object I think.” Celia is a people person, and these personal transactions help her understand the human value in repair.
Which is how she came to repairing garments for artistic measure, like ‘Norwegian Sweater’. Her process-led work has a strong intention — to avoid perfection, using hand work that leaves an obvious mark on a garment or within a knitted pattern. “I like things that are lumpy. You know the hole’s there. Just fill it.” This sense of humour and pleasure is at the heart of the process Celia embodies. “My work doesn’t look like the high skill of other craftsmanship… the fact that they have valued it and chosen it to go in the exhibition I find really exciting.”
It is admirable that Loewe, a house that has fore fronted luxury since 1846, has recognised a work that replaces perfection for intimacy like Celia’s. The official judging panel of six – architect Anatxu Zabalbeascoa, ceramist Claudi Casanovas, textile designer John Allen, glass artist Markku Salo, jewellery artist Ramon Puig Cuyas, and Loewe accessories designer Sara Die Trill – had nothing but praise for ‘Norweigan Sweater’.
“The result of this artist’s work is a wearable piece that paradoxically comes from apparently useless waste. Her work illustrates a process that goes from destruction to reconstruction. It speaks of recycling and recuperating while it also has to do with taking care of the other. It is the creation of a beautiful piece out of nothing. A piece that could almost look like tattoos on a body.”
With an extensive list of academic qualifications, education has been an enriching tool for Celia. From a BA in Sculpture at Harvard University, a diploma in Secondary Education at UCL, an MA in Constructed Textiles at RCA, and a diploma in Adult Nursing at Kings College; her educational scope is diverse.
“It upsets me that students are having to pay for higher education. I think it does act as a barrier.”
Now teaching mixed media to MA Textiles students at RCA, she has witnessed firsthand an evident change in the approach to art education. “It upsets me that students are having to pay for higher education. And maybe that’s because I’m from a time where I didn’t. I think it does act as a barrier. Because resources are now tightened, you have to prove yourself in a different way.”
At a time when the creative world feels under threat, it is wonderful to see money being put into celebrating craft through the Loewe Craft Prize. €50,000 of winnings would be liberating for Celia’s work. “I’m always looking for space, not physical space, but headspace to be making something or collaborating. I think it would be incredibly freeing, it would allow me to grow the work.”
Regardless of whether Celia wins the prize or not, ‘Norwegian Sweater’ will travel the world with the other Loewe finalists, inspiring themes of nostalgia for those who need a little mending.