With a focus on biodiversity and conservation, Kate Tume’s glittering, textured animal portraits catch your eye. The viewer is treated to a kaleidoscope of colours and strong imagery, leading the viewer on a journey of discovery. Texture, movement and sparkle is provided by exquisite surface embroidery and unconventional, layered embellishments.
Kate’s work explores the loss of regard for the natural world, which has resulted in vulnerability, endangerment or extinction for thousands of species. She seeks to subvert popular narratives around what ecological threat looks like. The stories behind Kate’s work allow her to examine how colonialism and white supremacy create cycles of ecological desecration, affecting society, our environment and the diversity of species we coexist with. Kate deliberately uses religious iconography and mythology to begin a dialogue about what we hold sacred, how that has changed and how it is affecting the planet around us.
Kate’s work has featured numerous exhibitions including recent shows ‘Pura Vida’, Brush Gallery, Brighton (2020) and ‘Beyond Ruin’, Remembrance Day For Lost Species Exhibition, ONCA Gallery, Brighton (2020), which she also co-curated. Her work ‘A Benediction’ was shortlisted for the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of The Year 2020, where she was the third place winner in the People’s Choice Award. In 2020 she was also a Finalist Mentor in the Hand & Lock Prize for Embroidery and Artist in Residence, Mauser Foundation, Costa Rica.
Remembering her childhood home filled with cross stitch designs, Kate rediscovered embroidery in her late twenties. In this interview, Kate shares how first she built confidence by studying embroidery techniques, then began to ‘unlearn’ them, to free herself from rules and limitations.
You’ll also learn how to communicate with your audience by developing a strong message and communicating a story through your work.
Returning to childhood roots
TextileArtist.org: What initially attracted you to textiles as a medium? How was your imagination captured?
Kate Tume: I think the familiarity of textiles and, ironically, a lack of confidence in my creative ability led me to my use of textiles! I was in a pretty low place, and not happy with my life. Embroidery was one area I felt I had ownership over and an affinity with. It allowed me to develop and grow my artistic voice.
Today, I feel that the medium is incidental; I want my art to communicate and engage, regardless of the medium.
I think textiles have a special ability though to draw the viewer in. They enable the audience to experience the art on various levels.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
When I was a child, embroidery was the most visible creative endeavour around the home. My mum used to do a lot of counted cross-stitch kits and the walls of my bedroom were decorated with her framed embroidery work. My great aunt Kora also used to do crewel work. Stitched work is something that was in my family. I remember as a child always being fascinated by the different coloured skeins of thread and the pixelated pictures.
I also loved the designer Jo Verso; my mum had several of her books. I used to spend time looking at the different cross stitch designs, with all the little people, animals and plants made up of little squares.
I remember making pictures by colouring in the squares on graph paper, and the first cross stitch I remember doing was using Verso’s designs to create an illustrated map of the continent of Africa. I never finished it and I wish I knew if it is still stashed away somewhere!
What was your route to becoming an artist?
I always wanted to be an artist, since I was a small child, but various influences took me in another direction. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I built up the confidence to start trying art again.
I had a corporate retail job that I was growing miserable with. I desperately needed a creative outlet. It took a few twists and turns but I found my path by returning to my childhood roots.
I designed my first cross stitch using graph paper, tracing a skull from a copy of Grey’s Anatomy. I started reading all the Royal School of Needlework Stitch guides and taught myself techniques including freehand embroidery, stump work and silk shading. One piece led to another.
Initially I believed I could only make small pieces if I was to be able to sell my work for a fair price, because of the time and labour involved. I made a couple of collections of art jewellery using stumpwork techniques. Eventually I realised this was just another limitation I was placing on myself.
In 2013, I decided to start speaking clearly in my own artistic voice, and I made my first large animal portrait, The God Of Crabs. This led to a series of four more large pieces. A collection of ten pieces followed that, then six more in the next year. I had my first major exhibition in Brighton, in 2017, as part of the events linked to the ‘Remembrance Day For Lost Species’ that year.
Growing by ‘unlearning’
Tell us about your process from conception to creation
I am always on the lookout for new subjects. I keep lists and save images of animals with interesting stories.
The first thing I do is make a drawing. I find this essential as it allows my brain to do some problem-solving and decision-making early on, before I get to the fabric. This helps me avoid making mistakes. When I’m happy with my drawing I photocopy it and enlarge it to the size I want and I trace it onto interfacing. Or if I’m making an appliqué sketch, I might just cut out the drawing to use as pattern pieces for the appliqué shapes.
I’ll go through my fabric and embellishment drawers to collect a palette of materials. Then I keep my chosen embellishments in tins around me while I work.
Once I’ve framed up my ground fabric onto a one metre wide slate frame (I struggle to work small-scale these days!), I start pinning pieces down. I really like using felt and velvet to make a collage, on top of which I can embroider or embellish.
After the groundwork is done I work in sections. Sometimes I have a very clear vision for how to build my work, but I almost always change my mind about something as the piece develops.
Tell us a bit about your chosen techniques and how you use them
I think a feature of my development as an artist has been to become more loose and flexible. I started out learning techniques from books and being quite rigid in their application, which helped me build up confidence. But the real growth as I see it has been in the ‘unlearning’.
Letting go of rules and conventions that can often be intrinsic to traditional learning of hand work.
My early inexperience and need to ‘get it right’ gave way to desire of expression. Now, I use whatever techniques I like, to create whatever it is I’m trying to express. That always means a lot of texture, dimension, high relief, and movement. Goldwork, appliqué, surface embroidery and embellishment almost always make an appearance in my pieces.
What currently inspires you?
At the moment I am very committed to using my work as a way to explore and criticise systems of oppression. I want to draw attention to the subtle but intrinsic bias of accepted narratives around conservation, environmental and species loss.
Inspiration usually comes in one of two ways. Either I am drawn to an animal’s story, or their appearance inspires me to imagine how I can create it in textiles. Recently, most of my work is very much inspired by a story I have heard about an animal. Perhaps it used to be worshipped as a god by an indigenous community, but destruction of habitat has now prevented those practices. Or it could be a beautiful or extraordinary rare creature hunted, almost to extinction, because of its beauty. I’m am also inspired by real encounters I have had with animal, which leads me to research and a project develops from there.
I think that conservation today is very complicated; messages that get popularised are often not the whole picture. Conservation needs to be intersectional and decolonised. It’s about caring for all life.
I used to look at my subjects through a fairly narrow lens of just the species, and make work that responded to that. Since my recent artist residency my work has really broadened to encourage more conversation and analysis. In particular, I feel very strongly about indigenous rights. Indigenous communities are, and have always been, land defenders. But despite being intimately connected with their environment, they are often the first to have their rights and voices oppressed.
Tell us about a piece of your work that holds particularly fond memories and why?
My piece ‘A Benediction’ (2019), is affectionately known as Benedict. This is a special piece for me as his popularity has taken my work further into the world than any other piece I’ve made. When I made him it felt like a departure, a threshold that has pushed my work a bit further. I am very fond of him!
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
My work is developing all the time, from the techniques I use to my depth of commitment and my resolve to use art for activism. I want to be able to weave in more complex narratives, and maybe work on an even larger scale.
I’m always marrying the symbolic with the personal and transpersonal, and I hope to get more successful at that.
Did this inspire you to think about the messages behind your own work? Leave us a comment below!