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Issue 164

Questionnaire: Sue Tompkins

Q: What was the first poem you remember reading? A: Beowulf, at school. 

BY Sue Tompkins in Interviews , Questionnaires | 30 MAY 14

Postcard owned by Sue Tompkins of George Segal’s Ruth in der Küche (Ruth in her Kitchen), 1964

What was the first piece of art that really mattered to you?

Thinking about answering this confuses me straight away! Because it makes me think of the first piece of art I made, which is different to the first piece of art that really mattered to me. I remember painting a portrait of my dad at school when I was about nine and it was the first time that people said: ‘Oh, that really looks like your dad!’ It was quite subtle and realistic. It felt like the first time I’d made art and now, looking back, that was an important moment. I also remember my nanny, my mum’s mum, showing my sister Hayl and me a lovely wooden box that was filled with drawings that my mum had made. There were sketches of my nanny and, perhaps, a self-portrait – I don’t recall exactly. But I do remember thinking that my mum was a lovely delicate drawer. That mattered to me then, and I still feel it now.

If you could live with only one piece of art, what would it be?

It would have to be a picture by my daughter, Mary. She made one in yellow pen and it’s just me and her in a big yellow heart with a thumbs up beside it. The thumbs up bit is amazing! It’s all back-to-front and gristly looking and a better drawing of a hand than I could ever do.

What image has stayed with you for a long time?

A postcard of a George Segal sculpture, Ruth in der Küche (Ruth in her Kitchen, 1964), which I’ve had for about 13 years. I can’t even remember where I bought it. I used to have it in a clip frame, but that broke, so now I just have the postcard. It’s an image that I always have on a mantelpiece or by my bed. Whenever I move home, I always put it somewhere very visible. It feels very important to me and yet it is still deeply enigmatic. I love its tone and stillness and thoughtfulness. It makes me think of just being alive – and I feel that whenever I look at it.

What’s your favourite title of a work of art?

Gustave Courbet’s Les Casseurs de pierres (The Stone Breakers, 1849–50).

What do you wish you knew?

That’s a really hard question. I don’t think I can answer it. But I’d like to keep this in as an answer.

What music are you listening to?

I always listen to things repetitively. I can listen to something over and over again if I like it; I just love hearing the best bits. This week, I’ve been listening a lot to the beginning of ‘Da Funk’ (1995) by Daft Punk and loads of parts in Yes’s ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ (1983), especially the drums. Ha, ha! I can’t believe I’m listening to Yes!

What should change?

More sun would help.

What should stay the same?

Radio should never change.

What could you imagine doing if you didn’t do what you do?

When I was little, I wanted to be a nun or a district nurse or a sweet shop owner. So, I think I’d be some sort of nun and sweet shop person combined with a lot of something else in between.

What are you reading?

I’ve just started Heidi (1880) by Johanna Spyri.

What is art for?

To make us love life.

lives in Glasgow, UK. This year, she has had solo shows at White Columns, New York, USA, and the Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow, as part of Glasgow International. Last year, she had solo exhibitions at The Modern Institute, Glasgow; The Portland Museum of Modern Art, USA; and Diana Stigter, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She will be doing a solo performance at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge, UK, on 30 August.