On an October day bookended by weekend trunk shows in New York, Minneapolis potter Ginny Sims takes a break to talk about her work—colorful handmade pieces, including cups inspired by the Staffordshire pottery tradition of England. Her style at the moment, 25 years in the making, is wildly popular, with fans instantly snapping up pieces in periodic online sales.
But it also carries deep meaning, reflecting on the industrialization of ceramics and how the maker’s touch was lost. “These colorful little landscapes or scenes [on my pieces] can be bleak or feel rubbed out,” she says. “They touch on the darkness of that time.”
Sims appreciates how pottery documents life unlike any other medium, an idea articulated by Canadian ceramicist Walter Ostrom. “I took a workshop from him, and he said that ceramic history is a literal vessel of economics, culture, food, and history,” she says. “All of it is there.”
Working and learning on the potter’s wheel in Europe in her 20s and 30s, Sims picked up a world of perspective now reflected in her pieces. Here, she gives us a sense of that journey.
Europe—and, more specifically, England—inspires many of your ceramics, but you started in your hometown of Little Rock. What was that early time like?
When I was in college in Little Rock, I didn’t know that choosing art or ceramics, in particular, was a viable option for a career choice because it wasn’t around me. But it started with me taking a class at the Arkansas Art Center and realizing that you could produce an object you could use and then maybe sell. That propelled me to get interested in getting experiences, but there weren’t very many options in Little Rock. There was an older potter there who I asked, “Well, what should I do? I want to learn more.” And she said, “Leave.”
Where did you go?
So, I got my Blue Card and ended up in the United Kingdom, in London, working at a little health food store in Notting Hill. And I saw a European ceramics magazine, and in the back, in the help wanted section, there was a little caption that said, “Potter needed, needs to speak English, in Southern Italy. Please call Maria.” And I went there, south of Naples, for the summer, and worked on the farm and made ashtrays and bells.
And when my time was running up there, I ended up looking in that same ceramics magazine and saw that a potter was needed in Scotland, on the isle of Iona. I applied to that and I was [the potter and business owner’s] second choice, but his first choice ended up backing out right when I was leaving Italy. I got to Scotland and the wheel was different. The clay was different. I cried my first day and he was like, “You know what? Just make what you can.” He kept me there for eight weeks and it was incredible. He paid me and I lived on their land. From there, I ended up teaching English in Spain for a little while. And then I went to Southern England with a friend, because I really wanted to stay in Europe.
Did you feel like you had more to learn there?
Yes. We went around basically knocking on potters’ doors in the southern part of England. I would say, “Oh, I want to stay here for a few months and get a little bit more experience before I go back to Little Rock. I don’t have any money. I will work for free in order to get some knowledge.” No one could really figure out how to have me there, but the last door I knocked on was Mike Dodd’s. I had no idea he was one of England’s greatest living potters. He said, “Oh, why not have an American girl around to help me out?” So I ended up staying with him for a couple of months and we’re still good friends. And working with him cemented my decision to work with clay, because I saw that a life was possible and I had gained all this experience.
That experience brought you back to residencies in the U.S., but you continued to find inspiration in English ceramics, right?
Well, I started looking more at historical ceramics, at decorative ornamental works from all over the world. It’s just something that’s always been stimulating for me, that the medium of ceramics is never ending and is a bridge to learning about other cultures and places and times in history. Eventually I got a hold of some Leeds Pottery manuscripts and these drawings the potters did in the factories. Their works were so lovely. It got me interested in British factory ceramics—and I ended up becoming fascinated with how the artist’s hand was moving toward the factory means of producing. It was a key to seeing what happened at the moment when we took away the means of the artist, the importance of the artist working, and gave it to the machine.
Did that interest take you back to England?
It prompted me to learn about the beginning of English factory ware, which started in Staffordshire, in these small towns. And I got a Jerome Foundation travel grant to go and visit these potteries. My husband, our 11-month-old little boy, and I went to England for five weeks with this grant. I had never been to the north, to Staffordshire. This was essentially the birthplace of the industrial revolution.
And is that where you saw historic ceramics with landscape scenes or patriotic messages—elements you now essentially blur out in your works?
There’s a particular frame in Staffordshire ceramics that will sometimes have landscapes or words or transfers with pictures of generals on horses and expressions like, “Prepare to Meet Thy God.” So I’m taking that frame now and making colorful little landscapes or scenes that are rubbed out, like something was erased. I’m trying to touch on the darkness of that time in England. When the machine took over, the parts were placed differently or you could tell that a person had to help the machine. And then, what you end up with is not at all either of them. It’s about how susceptible we are to handing over our world to technology, how susceptible we are to damage or mistakes. I feel like that whole evolution is really symbolic of the disaster that modern capitalism has become.
The way you express that idea really seems to resonate with your fans, even if they’re not aware of it.
So, I feel like I’m in this moment right now with this work, but I’m not necessarily sticking with showing that time or that story. It’s more about bouncing off that aesthetic—continuing a conversation but going way further. It’s interesting when people message me and they’re like, “Hey, I want to start celling ceramics. What do you do? How do you do it? What do I need?” I say, “Well, it’s a long story. You can just go out and buy a kiln and some clay and figure it out. But if you want to have relationships and something that’s yours—your style, your work—it takes a really long time, I think.” Most potters will tell you it takes a lifetime to generate the work that you find really sings.
The way your work sells in mere seconds online—and in sales in New York, Los Angeles, and the Twin Cities—shows it really sings for a lot of people.
I try not to think about it too much, even though it’s really humbling and great, because it’s the first time I’ve had spending money and I’m 45. But there’s something special about a person making something from their own ideas, something that you can hold onto or feel good with.
I recently saw a conversation on Facebook where someone was trying to raise money for a public art project. All of these people were saying, “Well, we don’t need to spend money on public art. Other things are more important.” Honestly, I disagree with that. We need places where we can congregate that are visually interesting, that feel fun, that feel different, and that make us question. That’s why I think about art and design groups like the Bauhaus and how inspiring that whole time was. Talk about political—they were completely shut down by the Nazis. Why was that so threatening? Why was this new way of making more visually interesting housing and buildings and playgrounds and teapots such a threat? I feel like these kinds of questions still stand, and I’m dedicated to that thinking when it comes to ceramics.