Tatum Gentry has sex on the brain. While the fourth-generation jeweler is just as obsessed with coitus as your average Millennial with a Tinder account, Gentry’s candy-colored work looks at sex through the eyes of a 13-year-old girl coping with puberty. Through this often ignored lens, the Colorado-based artist challenges our assumptions about both definitions of the “s” word: the physical act, as well as sex characteristics and expected gender expression.
Gentry, who comes from a long line of jewelers, makes work that stems directly from memories of her adolescence. “Growing up in a very eclectic house, I have become fascinated in how the body revolves around objects and wearables, how we decorate ourselves with the things we like,” she explains in her artist statement. Her imaginative creations, crafted from precious metal, yarn, and found objects, are soft and welcoming, like a baby’s handknit sock. Other pieces resemble brightly colored trinkets, friendship necklaces, and candy jewelry.
Gentry’s work prompts us to think about our best middle school friend, plastic Barbie shoes, and Ring Pops. But we also think about sex. We think of pancaking our zits with makeup and bleeding through our jeans in the middle of social studies. “My work harnesses the confusion of sex, innocence, the obscene and the clean,” she notes. To underscore her point, Gentry’s work intentionally muddles gendered associations with color. Soft pinks and blues pop up often, modeled interchangeably on men and women, while more gender-neutral colors like yellow and lavender also make an appearance.
Ultimately, Gentry’s goal is to bring “the viewer or wearer back to a time of adolescence, a time when you question everything.” Admittedly, some very awkward memories resurface. But there’s also wonder, and crucially, curiosity. Gentry’s 13-year-old self wonders why some bodies bleed, and others don’t. She wonders why only some bodies are OK for her to touch, and others aren’t. And she wonders why some bodies are punished, while others are rewarded for the same behavior. As adults, we have “answers” for these questions. It seems safe to say Gentry’s 13-year-old self isn’t buying any of it.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Tatum Gentry discusses the value of embracing bad taste, learning to sew on her grandmother’s old machine, and the challenges of shifting analog work into the digital realm.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Tatum Gentry: This won't sound very philosophical, but I am obsessed with "how-to" books. I collect them at thrift stores, anything crafty, from quilting and beading to woodworking, boat building—it doesn't matter what it might be, I'm sort of obsessed with learning how to make things. I like to collect techniques in a way, and often my pieces are born from this sporadic way of making. If I ever feel stuck on a piece, I like to open these books, sometimes random books, sometimes a specific technique that I think would fit. The one thing to remember is: you don't have to follow instructions (ever). Often I just get inspired by seeing how people figured something out and it gives me confidence that I too can make my own processes.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
TG: My work is informed by my experiences growing up, primarily focusing on family relations and my own relationship with my body. A lot of my pieces were made to reflect the time right before puberty, that moment of confusion as you watch your body change in front of you, and being handed too many emotions to deal with. This moment of wonder and confusion I try to capture in my pieces, to reflect nostalgia of childhood and the excitement of becoming an adult. It is because of my family that I have a making career, and I try to share that by including many different techniques and materials informed by each of them, as they were clearly a large part of my childhood.
What are you trying to express with your art?
TG: I am expressing my own confusion and insecurities of my body and how it exists in this world. My work often comes from a place of exploration towards understanding; part of being an artist, I think, is how you question the things around you. I try to recreate objects that have been in my life during a time of confusion and change. By exploring things that I've clung to for support and comfort, I can further understand myself. By recreating this object in my own way and for my own purpose I am affirming this object that was in my life. My work may seem confusing and chaotic, but that is because I try to embrace the confusion. I don't want it to go away; I want the confusion to become a new type of sanctuary.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
TG: I wish we went over the expectations of the art world more. I think that would help me better navigate galleries and other art opportunities. Right now I’m in a situation where a gallery has had work of mine for a few years, they haven't actually shown it, and there is little to no communication on whether they actually will. I know that a lot of galleries act differently and are their own entity, but I feel if I had more accounts from professors and other artists who had to stand up for themselves and their work, I would know how to better navigate this situation. Being an artist out of school, I’m realizing how different the process is from my expectations, and how little control the artist tends to have when it comes to showcasing the work.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
TG: So far I've found my biggest barrier is now social media and online shows. I've got nothing against either of these concepts, but now that everything is online I've found my work making less and less sense. I am also not that technically savvy so it has felt like a catch-up period on “how to be an online artist.” I've found that much of my detail gets lost in photos, so for me it has been a challenge to take photos in a context that can portray the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that surround the work.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
TG: This spring I had to have surgeries on both of my wrists and elbows for a severe case of carpal tunnel. I had overworked my arms pretty quickly after school, just because I had the mindset that if I wasn't working on something, I was being lazy. I would work on jewelry all day and go home and knit sweaters all night (clearly I had ZERO balance), and had a compulsion to be working on something 24/7. Now that I'm post-surgery, I’ve had to slow down a lot, and I'm trying to acknowledge how it is healthier to have down time. It has been difficult to let go of my old mindset, but by limiting my making hours to daytime, and relearning how to love a good book, I've been doing a lot better. I have noticed that I no longer go crazy without something in my hands. Not only that, but it has helped me gain a sense of clarity in the work I'm making.
What role does the artist have in society?
TG: I would say our main role in society is to keep challenging our reality. Art has the ability to ignite change in the world, to show society what it's missing. It can improve moods, move masses, comfort those in need, inspire, ect.. Art has a deeper role in society than I think most realize, but it's in everything we do, and puts things in forward motion. I always laugh when people challenge me on whether i'm an artist or a jeweler, in my mind there's no difference, it's one and the same everything I make no matter the material or function I make to create something new. It might be a small change but all change is important.
What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
TG: Unfortunately, my worst job experience was as a bench jeweler. It was a very toxic and sexist environment with just a touch of ageism. I can't wait to find a facility full of open-minded people, but until then I’m working for myself.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
TG: That is a tough question for me, just because jewelry lends itself to being commercially successful—it's often the right price and size and so on. My grandpa and great grandpa were both commercially successful in their jewelry careers. So I'm striving for that chance neither of them had, to be historically significant for making some really rad new shit. Or hopefully for changing the game, or whatever it is—I'm not stopping at just selling my jewelry. I want to put people in a new world and introduce them to jewelry they might not consider as adornment.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
TG: I lost my grandmother earlier this year, but before she passed away she taught me how to sew. She even bought me a replica of her sewing machine from the ‘70s so that she could teach me everything she knew about that machine. Sewing has been a big shift of focus for me but I'm excited to be using this new skill in correlation with my jewelry. I think there's some good opportunity to talk about wearability within those two worlds, and sewing can allow for much bigger work to be made as well.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
TG: I’ve been working on low stakes projects for the past two months. This is allowing me to make freely without expectations. It has been an interesting experiment but more than that it is letting me ignore my anxiety and insecurities and just focus on the act of making something. I've noticed my work got wild on a whole new level once I stopped working from sketches or a plan. Honestly it might be something I implement for the rest of the year just to see what happens, I'm embracing my bad taste and It's been very freeing.
How does your geographical location affect your work and/or success?
TG: Growing up in a not-very-arts-centered city, my art teachers in high school would tell me that location was something you'd have to “overcome.” Now Ive moved to a rural community, and I'm realizing that it isn't as much about overcoming my location, but embracing it, maybe tweaking what I know success means. It means I have to be a hybrid artist, online and active in my community, and I've found that is a balance I can be happy with. I’m pretty excited to join the arts community I have here locally, and really that's all I need. That, and my studio.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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