Celia Pym, installation view of “Bags,” 2024. Photo: Courtesy Hweg

Celia Pym

Penzance, Cornwall, England

Hweg Gallery

Celia Pym’s new sculptures exist in the intersection between craft and fine art. With their thread and stitching, and forms that accord with typologies of useful things, these objects appear materially and instrumentally to veer toward “craft.” But for those unconcerned by technical distinctions, Pym is clearly making sculpture with paper and fiber. Like contemporaries in London such as Caroline Achaintre, who shoots wool through canvas with an air compressor to make her work, Pym is taking materials and processes traditionally associated with the applied arts into a contemporary art practice that can be said to occupy a new space between traditional definitions.

As the title of her exhibition “Bags” suggests, her starting point is the insubstantial, ephemeral paper bag. Some examples are standard lightweight flat bags; others have rounder bodies like flour bags; and a third type is flat-bottomed with handles, fabricated with heavier Kraft paper. White or in shades of buff brown, they are sometimes printed with store branding. In a past utilitarian existence, they held food, medicine, or perhaps a book, and although Pym may make her selections based on aesthetic potential, all came into her life through use—packaging from a purchase or a gift from friends. 

Once taken into the studio, the bags’ former contents do not interest her beyond being the cause of tears, splits, or degradation to the paper. While creases from handling may impart a desirable shape, the sundering of material is Pym’s main interest. Tears and rents must have been acquired during the bags’ carrying duties; she never inflicts damage as an expedient prompt. For her, circumstantial injury is the start of the art process and not where it ends. Not meant for re-use, each bag acquires a second life as an artwork to be looked at in a new way, with texture, color, shape, and stitch in the foreground. Previous function is not forgotten, however. It is impressed into the form of the sculptures (though their interiors remain empty) and acknowledged in titles such as Mended Postcard Bag (2022) and Mended Cucumber Bag (2023). Correspondence between a bag’s former contents and the sculpture’s demeanor is gently inferred while also being rather illusory. The very nature of the materials means that final form is subject to some change within limits and, thus, perennially provisional.

Pym says that “the damage always leads” her marks with the needle. Signs of wear begin a kind of conversation with the object, suggesting which tone, thread, or density of yarn to use. She prefers wool for its associations with interior spaces and family relationships. She also regularly employs cotton thread and synthetics, which offer wide textural and chromatic ranges. 

A surface that came broken into her hands is made whole, but transformed, by working. New layers of stitching avoid obscuring the original, though the interventions stretch beyond the site of damage. This is how the conversation shifts from strengthening the area of “repair” to the formal concerns of abstract composition. The interaction is closely related to drawing, which Pym brings into sculptural construction. Stitches appear in various combinations and directions, such as interweaving with a crosshatching effect. Allusions to painting are also strong, with gesture emphatically registered in varying degrees of elaboration, the linear rhythms of the threads infusing color into the paper ground to articulate space and shape.

Celia Pym, Mended Baguette Bag, 2022. Paper bag and various yarns, 30 x 12 x 6 cm. Photo: Courtesy Hweg

Pym embarked on these works as a consequence of pandemic lockdowns, which cut her off from her established practice. Pre-Covid, her process inevitably involved contact with other people, who would bring her garments and objects to be reworked through her distinctive handling of old fabrics. Conservation was explicit in these transactions, and Pym continues to be commissioned by galleries and institutions to repair damaged items in their collections, but it is her work with private individuals that is most pertinent to the new sculptures. For more than a decade, people have entrusted her with items of personal significance that need restoration in order to survive.

Clothing shapes itself to the body, and often people want to keep holes and worn areas intact, especially if the wearer has died. Pym’s repairs—by no means invisible—honor emotional attachment while often facilitating dramatic change, not least in the object’s perceived status. The concept of healing is integral to her method, which she calls “mending” (a word that appears in the title of every sculpture in the show). She has found that people feel easier talking about grief and loss through the channel of objects. 

Pym, who is British-born and studied sculpture at Harvard University as part of her degree in visual and environmental studies, learned to sew and knit as a child. These skills took on a different purpose when, as a student, she used them to ready her fingers and begin thinking about welding and mold-making. Soon knitting began to move into her practice, freeing her from the workshop and its male atmosphere. A dramatic contrast to shaping metal—and a release from elegance and fine finish, which Pym had always resisted—knitting also combined the process of making with the concept of recording. 

Her undergraduate thesis project involved red knitting yarn—for Pym, the most exciting color in the wool shop—and Boston’s Red Line rapid transit system. She began to knit to mark spaces and the duration of journeys, thinking about the traces that humans leave behind. The idea of portability thus came into in her work; making was not confined to the studio but merged with travel and sociability. Textile-based work became a passport to overseas residencies and to encounters with a wide range of people. The look of the “Bag” sculptures, like a repaired sweater, is influenced by human handling, consumption, and exchange. 

Naturally, Pym’s approach to and choice of materials come with ramifications. While there is a risk that her work might be marginalized and its critical and theoretical reception limited, such concerns are outweighed by the benefits of spontaneity and improvisation. If Pym’s work with clothing has a performative element (which it does, extending to public events called “Mending Days” when members of the public bring worn-out clothing), these studio pieces consume other energies. They are self-generated rather than reactive and endow the artist with creative agency that can be expressed rather than sublimated to the needs of others as in other forms of mending. For this reason, the “Bag” sculptures project an intense intimacy and aloneness, a reserve compensated by a jaunty, good-humored bravado.

As a kind of “poor art,” Pym’s objects resonate with the world around them—its habits, fragilities, and pitfalls—while simultaneously demonstrating a separate, material sensibility. The tear at their core is like a wound; the scar is seen through the stitching, and the yarns patch the area like new skin. Comparisons with repairing the body through surgery are appropriate, especially since, after her art studies, Pym retrained in London and worked as a nurse’s assistant on a stroke ward in a small hospital. Somehow the jump between professions did not seem so huge or surprising—“mending” also refers to getting better; broken bones “knit” in recovery. The “Bag” sculptures evoke the same spirit of revival.