Tumim and Prendergast

7 Nov 2011 in Orkney, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

We were perched high above Stromness, almost atop Brinkie’s Brae, with the not surprisingly fabulous night time views down over the ferry, Hamnavoe and the Holms.

Tumim & Prendergast – Matilda Tumim and Christopher Prendergast, who are married, sharing a domestic life, and artist collaborators – have returned with their work from a successful exhibition at Limousine Bull in Aberdeen.

I didn’t get to see the exhibition in situ and am delighted that they have hung the pieces back in their studio, not the exact experience of the gallery show – a more intimate experience, and the catalyst for a discussion about the work, collaborating, trompe l’oeil, the human condition, the politics of embroidery, and a whole lot more.

Christopher Pendergast and Matilda Tumin in their studio (photo Clare Gee)

Christopher Pendergast and Matilda Tumin in their studio (photo Clare Gee)

A bit of background.  My first visit to Orkney, other than for a holiday, back in January 2004, included an inspiring trip to the Pier Arts Centre, an opportunity to be wowed by the artefacts housed in the Orkney Museum, a job interview and one of those awful evening events where job candidates meet and chat to relevant people, panic a lot and wonder what on earth they are doing there – in this case speaking to elected members and members of the Orkney Arts Forum.

It was naturally all a bit fraught, although people were being very friendly and encouraging, and I was very lucky that during the evening I naturally gravitated to talk to Matilda who was there as Visual Arts Rep on the Forum, and discover that we had both studied fine art at the same art college (Falmouth School of Art) only a few years apart, knew some of the same tutors and lots of the same places, that we had both been influenced totally by the experience and that we had both met our partners at college.

So, we share a similar art history and for different reasons and at completely different times, arrived to live in Orkney.  The other shared experience is that of collaboration.  My partner and I occasionally collaborate when the mood takes us.  Tumim & Prendergast, on the other hand, is a very formal collaborative partnership.  Neither Christopher or Matilda make work individually anymore and they have not only made work together for a number of years, but have also undertaken residencies and other opportunities in this guise.

Work from the Retrieve exhibition in Aberdeen

Work from the Retrieve exhibition in Aberdeen

Originally entitled Christil Trumpet, they spent a year at Papdale Primary School in Kirkwall on a Scottish Arts Council pARTners funded residency (2006), and have also developed work with children from Glaitness Primary for the Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital, and amongst other things exhibited both in Orkney (Pier Arts Centre and the Orkney Museum) and further afield.

Their most recent exhibition, Retrieve, at Limousine Bull, an artist co-operative with artist led exhibition space in Aberdeen, included a series of work, some of which I had seen previously (including ’73 Leaves’, which I have seen in several guises, including at the RSA in Edinburgh) and some that were new to me.  Their work is painstakingly and exquisitely made, and takes a very long time, so I was surprised to experience so much that was new to me, although some were pieces I was aware of, as ideas and concepts, I just hadn’t seen fully formed.

The by-line for the exhibition – an installation of new and existing work, comprising of embroidered pieces that explore concepts of temporal existence through items usually discarded – is an appropriate and accurate statement about the nature and practicalities of the show, but I wanted to delve deeper, to understand the why’s and how’s and the wherefore’s, and I wanted to wallow in the beauty and challenge of the work.

Matilda talks about the desire for the work to be beguiling, to draw people in.  I take that to be as a magpie would be drawn to shiny objects or a child is naturally attracted to sweetie wrappers – or an adult in this case as one of the pieces (‘Extasie’) does include a series of trompe l’oeil embroidered sweetie wrappers and I sure am beguiled!

Work from the Retrieve exhibition

Work from the Retrieve exhibition

So the work draws you in because of its sumptuousness, its beauty.  But that is only the starting point. They describe it as slow release, using their skill and the beauty of the work to mesmerise and beguile.  This they manage exquisitely and expertly, so that, as with all really wonderful art, you, as the viewer, can then take from it what you choose, and that will be determined in part on your mood at the time and your life experience.

They talk about creating the opportunity for the viewer to take their own journey, and that is exactly what they manage to do.  While having been created out of specific life experiences, skills and moods, Tumim & Prendergast have that unnerving ability to enable your own demons and delights to be layered on to, and enmeshed in, the work, as well as their own, so you feel like they are yours, even when they are not.  You could simply be wowed by the work’s beauty, awed by the quality of the workmanship, or you can delve deeper and sometimes darker, explore resonances with your own life, or be amused by the irony.

I am interested by how, as a collaborative, they decide on what to make, and how the work is divided between them.  They say that both are involved with all aspects of the work, but they have different approaches and differing needs.  So while they will discuss and agree what to do next, Matilda could approach it from the perspective of a very practical challenge, brief or deadline, and Christopher may bring to it essences of the piece just made, or make connections that enable development of the work.

For example, Matilda wanted to make a piece about leaves, and collected leaves in Berlin to use.  Through collaboration they both made the individual leaves but the piece also developed into ’73 Leaves’, specifically a celebration and commemoration of Matilda’s mother.  But it is far more complex than that, both emotionally and practically, with this piece emerging out of another ‘Fall’, literally in that the individually trompe l’oeil embroidered leaves that made up that piece became the backbone of the new piece, and with it a whole new meaning.

Other works come clearly from one or other of the partnership.  Christopher’s infuriation that several people wanted to buy individual leaves from ’73 Leaves’ – which he describes very aptly as being like someone wanting to buy a single word out of a poem, led to him creating the work ‘Eye Candy’, which is the letters NFS made up of the most gorgeous and desirable (embroidered) sweets, from Berlin and Nimms in Kirkwall, then placed behind glass in a ‘you can’t have them’ or a ‘get your hands off’ kind of way.



I love it, it’s funny and lightweight and ironic on one level, an almost sulky or childish reaction you could say, but immensely challenging in another, about how people view and desire art, and also, I expect, about the use of embroidery and it’s link with craft.  Would an installation in another more obviously (macho) ‘art’ medium have been more easily understood or computed by the viewer as a whole piece, rather than a series of individually pleasing objects?  I was left looking for the beautifully embroidered red dot as the final irony of the piece.  There wasn’t one but Matilda thought that might make a positive addition in the future.

Of course each piece they make, and the role of each in the making, is different and unique depending on the work they are creating.  I do genuinely feel that both artists contribution is essential, neither is dominant, neither is superfluous – it is an inspiring vision of true collaboration.

Art of Rejection No. 2 in progress, 2010

Art of Rejection No. 2 in progress, 2010

I am fascinated by their move in to embroidery.  Matilda talks about a historic and very practical need to stop working in paint, which led to the shift.  Their intricate and incredible skill in drawing and painting is still present with the move to embroidery, there is no less detail, no less beauty, but I personally feel the work is deeper and darker and funnier.

Despite most pieces being about a very quick or transitory moment – the scribble of a message on a post-it note, or the wind picking up autumnal leaves, a flurry of anger or frustration, the making is incredibly slow which is an irony in itself.  And they also potentially have the political baggage of using stitch.

They have recently been included in a book by Leanne Prain, Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery, and I wonder if they feel they are part of a ‘movement’ like yarn bombing and the recent reinvention and reinvigoration of embroidery and knitting – and if they are part of it, do they find that comfortable?

It is clear from our conversation and the work that their use of embroidery as a medium is because it is the medium most appropriate to the work they need to make.  It is not political and they are not part of any  movement, although Christopher explains when one woman asked what type of stitches they use, to feeling like some kind of phoney as he didn’t know or didn’t care – they are rogue stitchers, guerilla stitchers.

Work by Tumim & Prendergast

Work by Tumim & Prendergast

I love this attitude.  They use what they want to use, make what they need to make, and make no apology for it.  They are not scientists or academics, they know where they are coming from and make work about the human condition as alchemists.  The briefest of moments interests them, the small things about people’s lives that are not celebrated in formal portraits, it’s the things that usually fall through the cracks that they celebrate and commemorate in utterly beautiful works.

Even rejection is celebrated.  Several pieces share that thing that most artists would want to brush under the carpet – the awful dismissal when your work is not included in an exhibition.  It is the secret world of the artist laid bare.  Beautiful, exquisite embroideries of scrunched up rejection letters, the fleeting anger and disappointment made permanent and solid in stitch.

These pieces are fabulous because they combine all that is wonderful in Tumim & Prendergast’s work.  Collaboration, in that the galleries are collaborating even though they don’t want to, celebration of the smallness of a moment and the human condition, bravery, in that the rejection is made incredibly public and open (and you can just make out which galleries they are from their own logos), and the irony of the whole thing, all wrapped up in the gorgeousness of the medium.

We talked briefly about Falmouth, the importance of the experience to both collaborators of having gone there.  The resilience and individualism required to be developed by the approach of the tutors and the college.  The rigour that was instilled that has enabled all of us to still be making art over twenty years later and the fact that Falmouth was a tiny college in a seaside town not that dissimilar to Stromness but at the opposite and extreme end of the country to Orkney.

One of our tutors from Falmouth said to me only a couple of weeks ago that it was strange to think of us through time and distance in Orkney, and that the college had changed and grown, but that the Fine Art course still had something of the quality it had when we were there.  I hope that quality is in the rigour, the resilience, and the constant questioning that enabled and still enables artists like Tumim & Prendergast to make the quality of work they do.

I do not know where Tumim & Prendergast will go next, what they will do or what form it will take.  I expect they will move away from embroidery into pastures new at some point, but not quite just yet, their work will shift and develop.  But I am sure of a couple of things.  It will continue to beguile, to challenge, to be utterly beautiful and most important of all, to allow me and any other viewer that takes the time to go on really small, intricate, and hugely important, journeys.

© Clare Gee, 2011