Featured Artist | Simon Tatum

Awaiting Boat

Simon Tatum is a special exhibitor this winter; he was the 2016 recipient of the first annual Sager Braudis Exhibition Award at the MU Visual Art & Design Showcase. Simon is an absolutely exemplary student in the Department of Art at MU, and exhibits this February and March alongside other professional artists, having been chosen for this opportunity by the gallery’s curators last year. Simon gave a wonderful lecture here at the gallery on the history of his native Cayman Islands and the relationship there with the history of photography. In case you missed the presentation, we’ve covered much of the history feeding his work and the ideas behind it in this week’s interview between Gallery Director Hannah Reeves and Simon Tatum.

Reeves: I see reference to photography in some of this work. Because I’ve had the privilege of reading a previous artist’s statement of yours, I have a hint that you’re drawing on historical photo journalism for your paintings. For those with no familiarity with your imagery, can you describe its origin?

Tatum: Yes, there is a strong influence of photography in my work. I believe that most people who have seen my work may consider me a draftsmen, painter or printmaker because of the type of imagery I exhibit. However, photography as a media construct has always played an important role in way that I create my imagery. The works on acetate that are currently hanging in the Sager Braudis Gallery are drawings and paintings that reference photographs that I have collected from the Cayman National Archives on my home island, Grand Cayman. These archival photographs that I have been collected are usually coming from American or British scholars that have visited the Cayman Islands between 1910 and 1970. Some of these scholars include British commissioner and historian George SS Hirst, Oxford student C Bernard Lewis and American journalist Aarona Kolman. 

Reeves: What do you look for in the subject of each painting? Is there a particular character, scene, or feeling that you want to come through?

Tatum: The subject of each painting in the gallery is directly related to archival photograph that it references. Moreover, choosing the subject of the painting has to do with me analyzing and choosing images from the Cayman Archive’s collection. In the last two years, I have gravitate towards images taken by Lewis C Bernard and Aarona Kolman. I believe it is because of how these two scholars chose to photograph the Caymanians they encountered during their time in the Cayman Islands. I realized that these scholars were attracted to the way that Caymanians spent their time either working or engaging in quiet activities such as fishing, thatching and playing string instruments. These two scholars also seemed to be attracted to the fact that Caymanians were conservative and clean in the way they dressed and presented themselves. These aspects of Caymanian identity all seem to evoke a sense of well-mannered behavior that was not usually identified with Caribbean people during the 1920s and 30s when their photographs were taken. In a way, I believe that these scholars took these photographs because they wanted to showcase these people they met and illustrate their humble characters to a broader viewership. Moreover, the photographs they took of these characters have an interesting function as being objects that illustrate how people from Britain and America were viewing Caymanians. These photographs also seem to demonstrate how Caymanians become more consciously aware of their own identity and the way they are observed by foreigners through the act of being photographed. These are the functions that I wish to represent in my acetate imagery. I wish to show humble, Caymanian characters that are aware of how their representations are being perceived by the viewer. 

Reeves: Talk about your process a bit. What does the acetate do that paper would not?

Tatum: Creating images on acetate can be quite challenging. The acetate is a plastic film so it is very different to paint and draw on this surface in comparison to a paper surface. Paper has fibers that allow media such as ink to adhere and be absorbed. The acetate, on the contrary, repels the ink and the water that carries the ink pigment across the surface. I found this act of the surface repelling my ink media to be very difficult, and it forced me to learn a new vocabulary of mark making in order to create my ink on acetate images. I had to learn to trust the extension of pigment through water. I also had to learn to be less precious with my imagery and allow myself to work reductively into my mark making by removing my marks with wet clothes and surface cleaners. 

Another very different quality of an acetate surface is the fact that the surface is transparent. While making my images on acetate, I had to be conscious of what was coming through the transparent plastic and how those elements were affecting my choices in rendering my imagery. This negotiation with the transparent plastic eventually encouraged me to work on the back sides of the plastic. The majority of my acetate imagery is a negotiation of me rendering imagery from both the front and back side of the plastic and allowing the transparent quality of the plastic to help me accumulate my mark making.   

Reeves: What is next in your artistic career?

Tatum: I am currently producing new print installations and mixed media sculptures that are going to be in a solo showcase at the National Gallery in Cayman. This showcase will be set up on May 17th, shortly after I graduate from the University of Missouri with my bachelor’s degree. This showcase will be a part of Tilting Axis, which is a regional art and curators conference that take place in the Caribbean each year. This year it is being held at the National Gallery in Cayman. 

Once the conference is complete I will remain in Cayman and continue working within the field of visual arts. I am still in the process of completing applications for art organizations, but my ideal place of work would be with the National Gallery in Cayman. 

I will also be attending an artist residency program from November 2017-January 2018. I will be attending the Leipzig International Arts program in Leipzig, Germany. My residency will be focused around me expanding on my printmaking installations. I will also spend this time engaging in dialogue with other international artists and exploring the archives of the German National library. 

Reeves: I always like to ask: What is your studio quirk?

Tatum: I have a two studio habits that can be seen as unusual. The first habit is studio napping. Since my days are rather long in between my university classes and my studio work, I try to take short naps in the studio during the evenings. These naps are very helpful in getting me refreshed before I put in some focused time on my studio projects. The second habit I have is that I often designate a certain music soundtrack to projects I am working on in the studio. For example, when I was working on the images “Women Walking into Town” and “Caymanian Musicians”, I was listening to the album “Good Kid, MAAD City” by Kendrick Lamar. That was my designated soundtrack for those images. So every time I returned to those images to work on them in the studio I had to be listening to that soundtrack. I believe the atmosphere that certain soundtracks create in the studio helps me refocus myself to a mental state I would like to maintain for the entirety of a project.