Cody Tumblin: Being An Artist Is Only a Part of Your Identity

Let’s take it all the way back to the beginning, when did you first find your creative talent?

I guess there are a few places I could start at. I think my biggest creative outlet when I was younger was role-playing as characters from my favorite movies, TV shows, video games. I spent a lot of time outside dressed up in costumes- as an assassin, as a Jedi, as an elf fighting off Orcs and Goblins, etc. My best friend and I would spend hours drawing our characters and labeling all their weapons/ gadgets/ gear before we would go outside to become them. I also wrote constantly, crafting wild adventure stories and spooky mysteries/ horror stories. I loved to write then.

You ended up moving to Chicago to attend SAIC to major in Fashion Design. Why wasn’t the fashion program for you?

One of the biggest reasons I focused on fashion design in high school was because it tapped into my femininity. I was always very proud of my ability to sew thanks to my mom, and I enjoyed feeding these softer creative sensibilities if you want to call it that. There was something very freeing about making clothing and thinking about cosmetics, designing for a woman. I grew up in a very masculine/ hetero-normative environment in the south and pursuing these things felt like a small rebellion. I could be who I wanted to in these mediums. But once I got into the program, it was more the pacing and format of the work assigned to us that felt too slow and detail oriented. I quickly moved to printmaking and fibers simply because I could make work much more quickly but still pursue these softer, sensitive mediums I loved.

While studying abroad you were in Denmark and attended two shows that you said changed your life, “Hilma af Klint at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, and Tal R show at Aarhus Art museum” What was it about these two shows that really inspired you?

I’ve always relied on looking as an artist to learn. A lot of times, I feel like you’re looking for permission or possibility from others (even if you don’t know you’re looking for it in the first place), and those two shows did that for me as an artist. Seeing Tal R’s extremely wide array of making (sewn textiles, paintings on cardboard, cutting board repurposed as woodblock prints, community made collages, etc.) was very freeing. Especially in school when you’re looking at this long history of artists who do a few particular things extremely well in a concentrated way, it was refreshing to see someone following their every material intuition and just letting chaos reign a bit. He really showed me that an artist is not just a marketable look or a calculated image, but a spectrum of possibility.

For Hilma Af Klint, when I saw her work for the first time in 2014 at Louisiana on the ocean, I was very emotionally overwhelmed. Hilma knew exactly what she needed to make and knew that it would be difficult for her, but she made the work regardless. These works are extremely spiritually potent and extremely intelligent. The way she encountered the spiritual and the unknown in her life and rationalized it into symbols, diagrams, journals, schematics– it’s bewildering. She showed me the true power of what art could do, what it could seek out, how it could perform, and how it could be unapologetic in these ambitions. If you truly look at what she was doing, then and now, and take her intentions seriously, it can reveal a lot. I cried a couple times when seeing the work again this year at the Guggenheim. But I was really disappointed in the way that the exhibition texts waived off and watered down her religious/spiritual pursuits as “superstitious” and dated. Unfortunately, this kind of naive dismissal is prevalent in all parts of the art world.

You’ve talked about how you want to get to a time when you’re building social engine within your work, similar to Susan Ciancolo, Allison Knowles, and others. When do you feel like you’ll get to that place?

Haha, great question, I’m not sure. The older I get, the more my eyes are opened to the art world as a giant cog of commercial hogwash. That being said, when I see work that more honestly engages with others and reshapes the way we interact with one another and our environments, I am taken back and forced to look at my own work and think “what the fuck am I doing, honestly?” For now, I have a few exterior facets in my work as an artist that create small gestures. Cooking for people at openings, working on cookbooks with other artists, hosting game nights for artists in our neighborhood– very small things. I still haven’t figured out how to introduce these things into the forefront of my work but it’s ok, it is a thing that can develop and form on its own. I haven’t figured out how to balance this idea of myself as an artist who makes things that sell to people and an artist who makes things to unite and challenge people. That skillset is something I have to work on greatly.


I’ve noticed you enjoy placing these ‘small secrets’ within your artwork, do people ever find them?

Hmm generally no. I usually place small things into my work because it is important they exist. You may visit a temple and never actually see the relic that is tucked away beneath its stones. Sometimes the work has very personal intimate secrets (whether they physically exist in the work or not) that are meant to be for me only.

If you could be a part of any art period/movement, which one would it be?

It would’ve been fun to be at the forefront of the fluxus movement. There are still very obvious traces of the work they began in contemporary art today, but damn I love what they did.

Why do you think painting has gotten this resurgence?

The market has grown. People are taking advantage of the extreme influx of available art via social media. You can make money off this shit, it’s an ongoing hell cycle. Painting could be totally fucked in my opinion. I’m afraid it will be all a homogenous porridge of flashy crap that sells.

Are you impressed with modern day art?

Definitely not impressed. I’m impressed with the size of the art world maybe. But I am more tired of the art world. It’s an exhausting place to be and it validates the kind of social and economic behaviors that are eroding the general foundations of humanity. That sounds like an overblown statement, but damn the art world can be a very self-serving, surface level place.

Let’s get into some favorites now…

Favorite thing about being an artist?

The books maybe? I love artist books, I always need more shelf space. I also really love when I get the chance to travel to schools and talk with students, hear what excites/ concerns them. That’s infinitely more rewarding than a prestigious solo show. I also love the slow moments of being an artist. Having a friend in the studio to share a tea/ beer, sift through piles of your crap, talk about life. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I really like when all us “artists” get together and we are not artists. When we play card games, or I get to teach a group of friends how to play Magic or host a D&D night. I think we all collectively relax from our artist personas in these moments.

Favorite Chicago neighborhood to draw inspiration from?

I don’t really draw inspiration from Chicago the city. I like the people I spend time with but that’s about it.

Favorite project you worked on?

In 2016 my now good friends Morgan Mandalay and Kim Schreiber invited me to show at their beach space, SPF15, with Lila de Magalhaes. Not only was it a really bizarre experience, having a one-day exhibition under a tent on the beach, talking to visitors shirtless holding a corona, but it was generally a super nice trip that I got some great friendships out of. Morgan and Kim also were great hosts and we ate fruit from the farmers market every day, they gave me homemade granola and cooked for me. Doesn’t really get better than that. 


Favorite lesson you’ve learned over the years?

Being an artist is only a part of your identity. It is not the end all be all thing. I think that’s true.

Favorite Chicago artist?

Oof that is too tough. Can’t pick favorites. Although recently I have come to know Karolina Gnatowski (goes by Kg) a bit more, and their work is unbelievable. They had a recent solo exhibition at DePaul Art Museum and it really impacted me. They often take very small, very intimate objects from their life/ relationships, and weave them into both enormous and tiny weavings with bits of debris, found objects. It is very powerful, vulnerable, tender work really does something to you. They also brought their SAIC class to my studio a few months ago and we had a really thorough and honest conversation about what it means to be a working artist.

I always like ending interviews with this question, if you could hold yourself accountable for accomplishing one goal by the end of the year, what would it be?

I am trying to make more work that I want to actually make, and worry less about where that work fits into my overall practice. I think my goal would be to make less work, but work that is more thoughtful, more generous, and tries much less to be something it is not.

Written by: Nico Rud