art basel

Artist Eny Lee Parker Just Wants to Play Around

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Eny Lee Parker, Getty Images, Amazon

Though she’s known as a ceramicist, Eny Lee Parker wouldn’t consider herself one because she enjoys breaking the rules. The artist likes to celebrate nonliving things through her work. Her swanky-shaped contemporary furniture, vases, lamps, and more have a modernized craftsmanship that is unique to her and dream art to live in a household. For Parker, she sees a lot of her creations as playful and has found that people are turning to her for curating their kids’ rooms, whether it’s for art in the shape of flowers or some lightheartedness. The New York–based artist grew up in Brazil, where her artistry started by embracing her imagination and the scrappiness of her surroundings. “My mom would bring a ton of leather straps home and she would say, ‘We have to make 500 leather belts.’ It was a side gig. My mom and I would sit and braid leather straps. It taught me to be good with my hands a little bit. I love repetitive work and I think that [a lot of my own] stems from that.”

She channeled that childhood in her most recent art during Art Basel at Play by American Express Platinum, an interactive gallery that blends art and nostalgia. The gallery featured reimagined iconic toys as limited-edition collectibles from artists. Parker’s toy of choice: Benny, an adorable handcrafted collectible plush bunny made with a mix of high-end leftover upholstery fabric. The gallery was nostalgia-inducing for everyone who experienced it and especially so for Parker, who loved her stuffed animals (especially Tweety Bird) growing up and wanted to use this opportunity to be playful and embrace the scrappiness of her childhood. “My [scrappy] nostalgia could easily be a sad experience from not having enough money and sacrificing my whole weekend, but it was more of a sweet experience. My friends [and I] had so much fun, it felt like playing. To me, that is the nostalgia of childhood, having fun with what you have,” Parker says. Along with making art for other people’s children, she’s found a way for her art to speak to her inner child.

What are your pre-rituals before you start working on a new piece of art? 

I have to make sure that everything around me is clean and organized. I don’t do well working in chaos. It has to be my chaos. I have to feel like the main character so wherever I go or wherever I’m at, I have to make sure that everything is clean. I have my coffee and good music. I want it to be a good experience to work.

Do you have pre–Art Basel rituals? 

Shopping. I’m always like, can I write this off on my taxes? I like to shop with my friends; some of my friends have clothing companies.

Where do you shop? 

I love Lana [Johnson]’s brand, Orseund Iris — it’s like hot-girl clothing. I’m wearing a dress from there tonight and it’s so cute. The clothes fit so well. I love vintage shopping, too.

Yes, hot girl! Where do you get your best culture recommendations from? 

My friends. They’re all well cultured and they teach me to know what to care about.

Do you have a favorite game you love to play? 

Gin rummy. I love gin rummy. I have a big score going on on my phone with friends and [my] boyfriend. I recently learned how to play the Chinese game mahjong, too. I’m obsessed with it; the weight of the tiles are so fun.

What’s the playlist like when you’re working? 

My friends and I share a playlist and we add our favorite songs to it. They’re some of my closest friends so I listen to that a lot. It’s a little bit of everything on it. There’s a lot of Japanese because my friend is obsessed with Japanese piano, and another friend is into old disco music. I like West Coast hip-hop, and I have a friend who is Nigerian, so he adds a lot of Afrobeats, so it’s a little bit of everything. I listen to audiobooks when I’m working, too.

I know asking an artist this is like asking a parent who’s their favorite kid, but do you have a favorite piece of art you’ve created?

I made this gigantic cloud daybed. It’s literally the shape of a cloud and it’s so cool. I approached making Benny very similarly. Originally, the concept was of something else and I thought because I was able to make this big cloud daybed, that the toy would be the same. It’s very different. It didn’t work because it’s a very different type of construction. It was so much harder than I thought, but I loved learning the process. That’s my favorite part about designing things: There’s always something new to learn and I’m so fascinated by it.

You like your art to celebrate the beauty of nonliving things, so how do you approach that process?

The scale of my work is very unexpected. A lot of people are like, “Whoa, this is much bigger than I thought.” I play with proportions. I just like when things are not following the rules and makes designers and clients have to ask themselves, “How I can think outside the box to house certain things?” There are so many rules in interior design, so for me it’s just being a little more aware of our surroundings with nonliving things. I think that helps us be more self-aware as well and how we interact with ourselves and with objects. Beauty is about the experience that you have with the object or the person or the space. I think it’s really internal.

Tell me about your personal technique with the use of clay.

It’s really a material that I knew the science behind, but we make up so much as we go because I use clay as a medium for furniture and lighting. I don’t use clay as a ceramicist, so a lot of people call me ceramicist and that’s so much credit and I’m not. I don’t mix glazes and I don’t understand all the technicalities of it. All the materials that we use are always applied into furniture and lining so we kind of bend the rules a lot. It just feels like Play-Doh.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

There are two. If your task is to go buy an apple at the store or at the market and they don’t have it, don’t come back empty-handed; get the other options and figure out a way; get other fruits; go to other markets to get the apple. Just go above and beyond, always. The other advice that I follow is it’s never that big of a deal. We’re in the luxury business. If you make mistakes just own up to it and learn from. It’s important work, yes, but at the end of the day, nobody is dying.

How about the worst piece of advice you’ve ever gotten? 

Develop a design or develop a brand. I’m always like, I don’t have to. I think people get so stuck in [creating something] that’s your look or something that has to be my identity or what people know me for, and I just think that now is the time for all of us to just try things out. By the time I’m 60 or 70 years old, I’ll have pieces that I love and things that embody my work and I can say, “I’m done.” Right now, I just want to play around.

It’s freeing to just play. Is there a comfort place you love to go while here in Miami? 

Really just the beach. I love being on it.

 What’s the last thing you ate for dinner? 

Last night we had pork and paella — they’re obsessed with it in Miami. It’s the fried skin pork, chicharrones. It’s extra-fried fat, I love it.

If you’re hopping in UberXL and you can bring five celebrities, who are you bringing?

Everybody knows that I’m a little obsessed with Selena Gomez, so definitely her. And, Solange, she’s a dream client. I think she’s such a genius in her vision and she’s so multifaceted. They would honestly be the two I can think of.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Artist Eny Lee Parker Just Wants to Play Around