Cody Tumblin

Cody Tumblin in dialogue with Steven Cox

Steven Cox: To begin, Can you tell me a little about yourself and your background?

Cody Tumblin: I more or less grew up outdoors in Tennessee– when I wasn’t playing video games. I spent a lot of time walking through fields, forests, rivers, sleeping under the stars, making fires, drawing in mud, listening to owls, watching things crawl about underneath rocks. My mom is a huge gardener and taught me the names of many birds, flowers, and plants growing up. My dad also took my brother and I backpacking and camping constantly. So there’s one part of me that’s very rooted in the magic and mystery of nature, a sincere wonder that still lives in me.

The other part of my creative upbringing was tied to fantasy and sci-fi worlds– reading Tolkien, Piers Anthony, those types of things. I spent a lot of time wearing cloaks, role playing with friends and my older brother, attending the Renaissance festivals when they came into town– my mother would sew a lot of our costumes from scratch.

Somehow these things led to the way I pursue my artistic practice. Those early creative freedoms allowed me to see the natural world through many different lenses that others typically miss out on. I try to carry that sense of secretive wonder into my making.

SC: Can you tell me about your current studio and working routine? Do you have any morning rituals or habits that contribute towards a productive day within the studio?

CT: Right now I live alone in a large apartment that also houses my studio so I sort of live alongside my work. But I like it that way- it allows me to have a more casual relationship with my work and see things take place more slowly. I can make myself a sandwich and eat it while sitting on top of a painting, then pick up where things left off.

My studio exists in stacks- stacks of boxes full of fabric, dyed scraps of color, collaged forms removed from paintings, unstretched paintings, appendages cut from paintings, stacked buckets, dyes and paints– it’s a bit of a cozy science lab. I try to wake up early, get a slow start with the morning sun and a pot of tea. I usually work till mid to late evening and tend to return to my more mundane human comforts at night like cooking, movies.

I work on the floor mostly and I pace around quite a lot, standing and squatting a lot. It feels good to walk across my paintings, sit on them, and be in them. My work requires a lot of labor– dyeing large batches of fabric, sewing bits and pieces together, stretching and unstretching one painting many times, cutting it up and sewing it into another painting. So I try to marry that constant movement to equal parts stillness. Sweeping, making tea, sorting piles of cloth, flipping through books– these things help slow my mind down.

SC: To what extent do you consider Chicago as being an influential factor in the shaping of your work?

CT: There is a very large network of artists, performers, and musicians here. If anything, because Chicago isn’t directly tied to a large art market and because rent isn’t insane you have the freedom to pursue a more genuine art practice. Everyone is pretty close and engaged in one another’s life and the openings are well attended. Many artists here make strange, amazing things–they take risks. It’s hard to explain, but you can see it in people’s work– they are pursuing and engaging sincerely with their practice, they’re not as concerned with what is trending, what kinds of aesthetics are selling. And if they are, they probably end up moving to New York or LA.

But also, I don’t love living here. Growing up among trees, hills, stars, even the quiet darkness of the winding roads- you don’t get that here. I feel very isolated from the energies that drive my practice. I really have to try and get out as often as I can or the city starts to take a toll on me. I don’t even have a porch in Chicago, and the sky is always filled with light pollution.

SC: I’m curious how the dramatic seasonal weather in Chicago affects you; the temperature recently dropped to lows of -50 degrees. Going by your love of nature, the weather of Chicago must disrupt both your inner need and wish to feed off the natural energies of a scenic wilderness?

CT: Yeah haha Chicago weather can be hell. It’s very otherworldly during serious temperature plummets, feels like you’re on a martian planet, devoid of moisture. Salt coats every surface– the ground, the sidewalks, the cars, the buildings, the air. There is some magic in it- the severe stillness of the air when everything is covered in snow, the way the lake freezes over, creating strange symphonies of broken ice as the tide breaks against the shore. But you just find a way to get through it. Any Chicago artist will tell you it’s a good excuse to stay inside and work, or use the weather as an excuse to meet up with friends, play games, eat food together. You’ve got to escape it some days because it can really grind your spirit down. One year I even had icicles forming on the inside of my windows in my apartment. I remember using a blow dryer to defrost clothes frozen to my floorboards that year.

SC: You suggest a concern with wasting materials and that you aim to repurpose materials as much as possible by re-using old paintings and offcuts. This process reminds me of Sterling Ruby’s process of endless self-cannibalization, but also shares a conceptual similarity to that of the palimpsest. Your works own traces of past marks and earlier forms. I find this process fascinating and effective, it generates a natural and ever-evolving visual vocabulary.

Do you also align yourself with this process of working for a similar reason?

CT: For me, material is everything. It’s the flesh and blood of the work, and it’s important that every fragment, every leftover is considered. Every thread is a relic; every stain is a memory of a movement. On one hand I enjoy the challenge of reusing my paintings– to never let myself leave a thing to rot in the corner, to cut off a portion of some half remembered thing and transplant it onto the surface of something new like a jewel handed down the bloodline, to be set in a freshly forged hilt. We have to see our materials as precious– honor the mystery of their making by providing the right conduit for them deliver their unknown energy into work.

I definitely relate to Sterling Ruby's work in the way it has an honest materiality to it. The way the work is made, there’s a directness to it. No illusions or masterful technique-trickery, which I appreciate. I was particularly drawn to his ceramics, the ‘Basins.’ He re-fires the remains of failed works over and over and over while applying generous layers of glaze until they become an otherworldly pit of odds and ends. But I feel like my work only aesthetically has a relationship to his work. Maybe it’s something like Sterling’s materiality, Hilma af Klint's spirituality + making, and maybe Sonia Delauney's color/ form motivations?

You mention endless self-cannibalization and I think more of words like regurgitation - - of recycled memory and form– is at the heart of my work. Revisiting forms over and over, using the leftovers of each move I make and re-embedding them into my work– it's a kind of constant hum, repetitive mantra. The palimpsest is a wonderful comparison because it not only holds the memories of the former, but it sacrifices or washes away some thing to make room for another thing to come along. As one text is erased and another is performed on top, they marry and become an altogether new form– some kind of mysterious alchemy takes place and the actual identity / soul of the thing changes.

I think that’s a large reason why I prefer to use leftover work to jump start new works. It’s important that some former thing lives underneath each layer, some former spirit to support each gesture. I like to imagine as the work manifests its own unexpected twists and turns, there is a kind of mysterious alchemy taking place. The ghosts and shadows of previous forms guide my hand and suggest how new layers should be built on top. I don’t believe in covering up a painting with gesso and starting over, it doesn’t embrace the chance and awkward truth of what came before. In this way, it allows the work to evolve on its own and take on strange turns and bends. I don’t want to walk into the studio and try really hard to make a “good painting.” I want to discover something, to be lead by a phantom. Otherwise boring paintings are made and no spooky things occur.

SC: You recently opened a stellar solo exhibition at Devening Projects in Chicago, titled Stray Light Shadow Between. Can you tell me a bit about this exhibition and the preparations that went into it?

CT: This body of work has slowly come together really over 3 years time. Many of the paintings are made by taking older works and unstretching them, sewing them into the heart of a larger painting, and painting over the forms, adding and removing others. I feel like this body of work is finally the work I’ve wanted to make- its processes, its forms, the content, the voice. A lot of people who visited the show were able to see the tenderness and precariousness the works present and that was really exciting for me.

These small photographs printed on cotton are the start of the painting (iPhone snapshots of the sky/ sun / moon taken mostly in Tennessee during drives home or on the way to my studio). I take this small, familiar thing– tied to memory, tied to a place, tied to an event, and I sew it into cotton sheeting. As I slowly begin to form the painting around the image, it feels like I’m dancing around a daydream or a memory. Many times the photograph actually gets covered up or hidden in the end but I like this idea that many of the paintings have small bits of memory sewn into them.

As many of the paintings are being made, I’m also peeling off bits of collage and cutting away parts and transferring them to vacant areas of other paintings- there’s a lot of cross pollination between them. One painted form is removed and carried into the skin of another thing and they continue to talk that way. It’s a large ecosystem of many moving parts that eventually settle down, hopefully still containing some of that restlessness on the surface.

There are also these strange sculptures in the show consisting of found ceramic plates and wooden balls that are glued together and painted. Not sure what to make of them yet.

SC: Throughout your exhibition, there’s a recurring use of the circle patch, circle cut out, and the physical sphere. I am curious if this shape is a metaphorical reference to both the sun and moon

CT: These forms are many things for me. They change from week to week, work to work. Sure I think in some ways they reflect these photographs of sunbursts, moons, and landscapes that I’m using. But you know, they carry different weights and meanings. I first started using these circular/ ovular forms in maybe 2015? It was probably one of the darkest years of my life so far, and at one point a close friend of mine told me that they really felt like scabs and that hit me in a gut-level way. You don’t always know why you’re using certain forms and honestly it’s usually someone else’s perspective that help shape what you’re looking for.

SC: Focusing on the titling of your works, I see you have used titles such as ‘A Place Where Dreamers Wilt’, Warm In The Veins’ and ‘Bother You Up And Down’, how do you choose your titles? For you, what is the role of an artworks title? And, you feel that a title can alter a works reading?

CT: Titles are important and not so important. I feel like if I make something, it ought to have a name. But usually these titles are coming from a tender place that is tied to emotion. Sometimes you just feel a certain way on a certain day and you want to say it out loud so it becomes a painting title. But I also change the titles when I show them pretty often because why not. They’re pretty flexible. Hmm I think the title can be one lens to see a work through, but just one of many.

SC: You mention this series of sculptural works that are painted wooden balls glued to ceramic plates; I find these interesting, does the incorporation of plate ware loosely hint towards your passion for cooking?

CT: I was invited to do a solo show in Nashville at Mild Climate in 2017- a space that’s dear to me because it’s run by close friends of mine. The show / opening night was simply an enormous community potluck, and I didn’t show any paintings or capital A “Art.” We held 2 months of food based programming and recipe swaps and at that time I was transcribing notes from my notebooks onto found plates with metallic glaze and re-firing them. I was taking a break from making paintings at the time and just searching for new ways to interact with people. And food has always been an enormous way I share love with others. I think the memory of those works have carried into these newer plate works but I haven’t figured them out yet. Cooking is a love language and a kind of conversation between people, so maybe that is bleeding over a bit into my studio practice. Nice to have an unknown thing.

SC: There is an interesting quote by Jackson Pollock where he says, “Painting is self-discovery. Every good artist paints what he is.” Would you say that through the act of making, you are continually learning about yourself? And, to what extent do you consider your work a measure of reflecting your personality?

CT: Haha I’m not sure. I feel like my art is definitely a reflection of what I want, need, hope for, but I don’t see my work being so self centered. Art is more a way I am searching for certain things, asking questions– bringing those same questions to others and asking them to participate. Some kind of dialogue with ourselves, others. So, sure… it starts off in a personal place but I always hope it reaches outside of that in some way. If I made work about myself for 40, 60 years I’d get super fucking bored and learn nothing.

SC: I am interested to know how you plan your works. Do you begin with preparatory sketches of some form, or do you prefer to work solely in an improvised manner?

CT: I don’t sketch as much as I take notes. Thousands of notes. My ‘notes’ app on my phone has 2,500 notes. Even my notebook is more like sets of instructions, motivations, bits of sounds, or ideas of what an image could be/ feel like, interviews, and memories. Things like:

“Try to reach further”

“Never again Never again Sleeping on the wind, Never again”

“I've painted the night sky 1000 times. Varying deep blues and blacks and purples layered over and over and sewn together in blocks across large canvas. And then silver dots lined across the top, dancing slightly.”

A recent one in my phone said:

“Words to think about,




Some of these notes have thumbnails paired up with – small wiry sketches of what a painting could be.

I also think more often through watercolors recently. It’s a really unburdened medium for me, I feel like I’m just free to let the brush dance around a bit more, glue 5 layers of paper together, cut things away, enjoy the material without any worry. I learned a few years ago it’s important to have something in your practice that is free like this. It’s important to take yourself out of the seriousness of everything, to step back and remember you’re just thinking out loud and seeing what sticks sometimes.

SCI am also curious about the documentation of an artworks creation. Within my own studio, I regularly take images of paintings in progress so I can note specific points in the creation of a work. How regularly do you document the progress of your works? Is it important for you to take note of a works development?

CT: I like to take photos of the work to remember the tiny gestures and forms that brought together the final thing. It’s a silly metaphor but it’s like taking snapshots of your food, your friend’s face, a picture out the car window on a road trip. A quick glance of something you’d like to linger a little longer. Mostly these snapshots are just to show to others honestly, not a vital part of what I’m doing, where I’m going.

SC: At the beginning of February you were in residence at the Ace Hotel Chicago, what was involved in this residency and can you share some of the highlights?

CT: The Ace Hotel in Chicago was a nice, short escape. Andrew Rafacz gallery was working with Ace to bring artists into the program and Andrew generously offered me a slot when I was wrapping up the install for my solo show at Devening Projects. I was basically given a 24 hour stay in the hotel with free accommodations, food, and a small honorarium. I used my time there to listen to some jazz and Pharcyde, dance some, and make some watercolors, room service. The whole deal. It was a little vacation and a welcome change from my little home studio.

SC: To what extent is success within the art word important to you? And, how would you define a successful art career? Do you have any specific goals you are aiming towards?

CT: Oh wow the big questions. Uh well, it’s hard to know at this place in life. I’ll be 28 in April and I’m still fairly young although I’ve felt very successful in the work I’ve been able to produce, the people I’ve been able to work with. I just want to have opportunities to work with others, to have a dialogue, the chance to present questions.

Right now I have a part time day job that keeps me afloat and provides my health care and any other art sales are funneled back into making, or my savings account to travel to show openings, vacation. My biggest goal is to one day return to teaching and leave my day job. If I can help others find their own way, contribute a small something back/ actively be a part of a community that challenges others and helps them grow– that would be the most fulfilling place I could be.

Until then, I just keep seeing what comes up. I have enough income from my day job to be able to choose who I work with– I don’t say yes to shows out of desperation or need for income. That’s important for me right now. You just keep at it, you stick to what you’ve got, and when things get too easy, you have to throw a wrench in your plans from time to time to make things interesting.

SC: In relation to social media and more specifically Instagram, what are your thoughts on this as a platform to engage with new audiences? Do you have a love/hate relationship with Instagram or other online social media platforms?

CT: In many ways, Instagram has allowed me to become close to artists I admire, meet new people, and share work that I feel needs a platform. It’s an extremely, extremely important resource even though many artists try to pretend they’re too cool to admit it. So many times I’ve reached out to people to just let them know I love their work/ what I’m curious about and that has started a friendship. Same with when other artists reach out to me. It’s humbling and encouraging, like we’re all in this thing together.

On one hand, I’ve come to accept it is primarily a promotional tool / an agent of my work and process. That part of it can feel mechanical and cold. But I don’t have a problem with admitting that I have to be an agent of my work until someone else does it for me down the road. On the other hand, it’s a very important place for us to continue to voice our opinions, beliefs, to use it to promote others and lift up what is important.

If you’re given a powerful tool, try to use it for others from time to time. Remember that it is important to share and give back, even if it’s through something as simple as a social media platform. If it serves only as a self-aggrandizing tool to lift yourself up above others, you’re not contributing much of anything to your community.

SC: What do you feel are the pros and cons of Instagram, and do you consider Instagram important for artists working today?

CT: Well let’s save a lengthy talk about consumerism / capitalism for another time. But artists need to be careful. Instagram is a very vital part of the emerging art market, and those who control the promotional power control some amount of majority influence. This is why the most generic, fruitless, meaningless artwork will continue to thrive as long as some institution/collector/ curator/ artist with 50k followers promotes it. If you contribute to this, we’re part of the problem. It all goes back to using the platform we have to say what is important. Do I do that enough even? Definitely not. But be sure to check yourself/ others from time to time. We have a responsibility to contribute intelligently.

SC: To you, are there any specific artists that have been notably inspiring and influential?

CT: Early on Tal R, Josh Smith, Joshua Abelow were very big motivators for me. Each of these artists are very prolific and direct. Their moves are out in the open/ not a ton of mystery to the making, just a dedication to the work that comes through in pretty miraculous energies.

In 2014, I saw a huge survey of Hilma af Klint at Louisiana in Denmark and that just utterly reshaped everything for me. The way she so sincerely navigated the marriage of the spiritual world to the natural world, the way she dedicated herself to engaging with the unknown and brought it to life in such an amazing array of colors, forms, journals. Her work showed me the possibility of what art could do. The way it could commune with the world, really search for something in an honest way.

Since then, there are a few artists I follow very closely / look up to greatly and have really tried to emulate in various ways. Some of the big ones are Joanne Greenbaum, Cosima Von Bonin, Molly Zuckerman Hartung, Sergej Jensen, Susan Cianciolo, and Sue Tompkins. I’m could spend far too long talking about each of them so ask me another time.

SC: Can you tell me about some of your views on painting today?

CT: More and more I think we’re seeing the commercial success of painting impact painting. I feel like more and more we’re forgetting that art could be a place of discovery, investigation and friction. I feel like there’s one side of the art market (the dominant side) that favors aesthetically motivated work - surface level artwork that looks great/feels great, not a whole lot more to it.

I don’t get too excited about paintings unless they have friction. You can tell when a painting is rubbing up against something, nudging some unknown thing next door. But I don’t mean in some sort of extraordinary way. I think painters are humans who think out loud, but we’re by no means geniuses. You just ask a few questions and wrestle with the indecision of your answers, something awkward and poignant comes out of it. I saved this little bit of text where Lisa Darms is talking to Molly Zuckerman Hartung about Michelle Grabner’s work and they mention how it is “deeply personal, but not revelatory in any way.”

In 2016 I saw Sue Tompkin’s show of paintings and text based works at Lisa Cooley, and there was this one little red painting named ‘Flashing Back’ she had made. It had a line of coins glued up the center of the painting, top to bottom. There was one tiny red plastic mouse off to the side, and the whole thing was slathered in layers of super vibrant red, magenta, and fluorescent paint. The thing vibrated, and yet felt sort of awkwardly cobbled together. It was really mind blowing and haunts me still today. It felt kind of like when I find a piece of my hair trapped in a seam of my painting, frozen in time under pools of dye and paint. Some kind of backyard magic that really shines.

I think good painting has that magic to it. It’s honest about what it is, and at the same time is just drenched in something mysterious. That could keep me on the hook for a lifetime.

Cody Tumblin 

Images courtesy of Cody Tumblin, Devening Projects and Chester Alamo Costello