Student Spotlight - Simon Tatum

If you spend a lot of time at the Center for the Visual Arts, you have probably seen Simon Tatum around the halls or perhaps working in the gallery or his studio. He is an M.F.A. candidate in the School of Art's Studio Art program, concentrating in Sculpture and Expanded Media and in addition to his studio practice, Simon also works behind-the-scenes as the Director’s Assistant for the School of Art Galleries for his graduate assistantship. Knowing this, you can probably understand why he is a CVA regular. 

An international student, born in the Cayman Islands, Simon’s art career has been greatly influenced by the Caribbean and the people he has met there. He is an accomplished young artist whose work has been featured in multiple museums and galleries throughout the United States and internationally, including his native country at the renowned National Gallery of the Cayman Islands

Since earning his B.A. in Studio Drawing from the University of Missouri, Columbia in 2017, he came to Kent State University in 2019 and is currently in his second year of the M.F.A. program. In this interview, Simon reflects on his growth as an artist during his time at Kent State, how his connections in the Cayman Islands influenced his life and work, and shares some of his future plans. 

Sculpture by Simon Tatum - Exchanges.
Q: Can you describe how you found out about Kent State and decided to attend grad school here? 

A: I learned about the Kent State School of Art from the reputations of various professors who are teaching at the school. For example, I knew of Janice Lessman-Moss because she was the mentor for my undergraduate fiber art professor, Pazia Mannella. I knew of Gianna Committo because her work was in conversation with my undergraduate advisor and drawing professor, Matthew Ballou. 

My connection to the graduate program was formed through my relationship with Davin Ebanks.  I have known of Davin and his artworks for years. One of my first encounters with his artwork was during a high school field trip. I saw one of his works installed at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands (the Cayman Islands regional art museum). It was his glass pillar from the Blue Meridian series that resembled, in color and form, a slice of an ocean current.  It was really a mesmerizing sight, especially as a 17-year-old high school student who was curious about creative work and creative careers.  

Years later, I was working for the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands as a junior staff member and I contacted Davin about participating in an artist panel while he was visiting his parents on Grand Cayman. We went out for a drink after the panel was finished and we discussed various things about art schools in the U.S. This led to me learning about Davin’s experiences at Kent State University. Davin left a good impression in my mind about the graduate programs with Kent State and I considered the university as a possibility when I began creating applications for M.F.A. programs. By March 2019, Kent State became my best option for graduate studies due to the assistantship offered to me and because of my familiarity with American culture and American art schools. 

Q: Do you feel that your work has evolved a lot during your first year as a graduate student here? How so?

Yes, my work has evolved a lot. I have made a few big shifts during my time in graduate school. First, I have become less intimidated by materials and more willing to adopt unfamiliar materials into my projects. This quality will show in my mixed media installations and found object sculptures for my thesis show. Second, I have grown more focused with a central concept and subject that guides my current projects (tourism and tourist advertisement strategies).  Third, I have become more flexible with my understanding of what makes a finished project, and I have grown more flexible with my approaches to make a finished project.

Q: Your work has been featured multiple times via the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. How do you think your work is influenced by growing up in the Caribbean? 

A: My relationship with the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands and its current director, Natalie Urquhart, has been extremely rewarding towards the growth of my art career and my education. It goes beyond my recent opportunities to show work in their temporary exhibitions. That museum was the primary place to learn about artwork and art practices during my secondary education in Grand Cayman. Later, the gallery became the institution that really supported my pursuit in collegiate studies for the arts. The director gave me an internship with the gallery to help me learn about museum programming, wrote letters of recommendation for my university applications, and supported my applications to college funding. In fact, the National Gallery was able to supply me with a partial scholarship (in partnership with the Deutsche Bank’s Cayman branch) for my studies in the visual arts and art history between the second and fourth year of my undergraduate degree program. 

After my Bachelor of Art degree was completed, I was hired into the National Gallery as a junior staff member and worked with the curatorial team on various projects. I was also introduced to artists and museum professionals working around the Caribbean. This connection to the Caribbean region as a creative network is what led to my interest in Caribbean art. The connection to the Caribbean region also led to the current influences in my work, the subject of tourism and the concepts of the Caribbean picturesque and post-colonial discourse. 

Q: You are a graduate assistant in the school of art galleries. Do you hope to pursue a career in museums and galleries or do you have other plans? 

A: I am not sure. I have always enjoyed art museums and art galleries. I try to visit them everywhere I go. This joy for them was raised through my close relationship with the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands. I can imagine myself contributing to projects with various institutions in the future. I can also imagine myself taking another role within a museum or gallery, if I am given the opportunity. However, I do not think that my life will be focused around a career in museums and galleries. I think my life will always be focused around my own studio art practice, my interest in post-colonial discourse, and my love for travel and experiencing unfamiliar cultures. 

Q: What has helped you cope with changes related to the pandemic? 

A: There are three methods that have helped me cope with the pandemic restrictions and the stress that continues from those restrictions. The first method is learning to give more consideration to self-care. That means cooking more and eating less processed food. It means making time for exercise and for rest. The second method is learning to enjoy the little things that give me pleasure, whether that is honey in my tea or having a hot bath in the evenings. The third method is finding a sense of community wherever it is available. I am learning that I fall into social issues when I am disconnected from people around me. So, I am working to make moments of community for myself. Right now, that means paying attention to my friends, fellow students, and professors and spending time with them in safe environments. Earlier— during the start of the pandemic— that meant showing kindness and having considerate conversations with strangers (like store clerks) who I had regular interactions with.

If you are interested in learning more about Simon and his work, he will be a featured emerging artist at this year’s Sculpture X virtual symposium, which will be held on Friday, Feb. 5 at 11 a.m. 

Images: (top, left to right) Portrait of Simon Tatum; Artwork by Simon Tatum: Souvenir, 2020, 13x6x6 in (33x15x15 cm), Acetate, acrylic paint, cigar, dried grass, metal, plaster, vinyl; Souvenir, 2020,13x8x8 in (33x20x20 cm), Acrylic paint, ceramic, dried yam, dyed duck feathers, plastic, sea shells, steel.

Image within text: Simon Tatum, Exchanges (working title), 2020, 96x 48x 12 in (243x 121x 25 cm), Acetate, acrylic paint, feathers, metal, plastic, sea shells, vinyl

POSTED: Tuesday, February 2, 2021 - 5:32pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, February 3, 2021 - 4:21pm