In February ‘23 we learnt that our application for Creative Scotland’s Open Fund, to research and develop an artist’s book, had been successful. Our proposal was to research and develop a visual artwork in book format, based on a story called
The Child Who Heard Too Much.
The story itself was written during the pandemic and is loosely based on Matilda’s childhood, growing up in a large city with two profoundly deaf younger siblings. We wanted to explore the ideas and imagery relating to a child growing up in the sixties, in an era where there was much less awareness of deafness, pollution and environmental harm, rare genetic disorders, autoimmune diseases and of neuro-diversity.
Having been in the Scottish Shielding group throughout the Covid19 pandemic due to Matilda’s compromised immune system, we saw the Fife Contemporary opportunity to become part of a Scottish Covid Recovery Group, culminating in an online exhibition, as a way of easing ourselves back into the visual arts community. We are exhibiting our artist’s book, The Child Who Heard Too Much, as a work-in-progress.
The pen name of the book’s author is a tribute to Matilda’s late grandmother, Renee Davis, who trained as an artist in the 1920s, but died age 38 of sepsis at start of the second World War, having pricked herself with a tapestry needle a few years prior to the release of Penicillin.
See, hear and read excerpts from the story The Child Who Heard Too Much below…
Extracts from Chapter One: Mole
She wasn’t just the first born. She wasn’t just the oldest of three sisters, and she wasn’t just the one who could hear. She was a unique child with her own story, which breathed at her through the Dutch Elm and ancient oak and called to her through the wood pigeon song.
Home was in a big city and some days the world was boring and loud. If she moaned Mum would say “only boring people get bored”. So on rainy days she taught herself to scrape through the narrow tunnels to reach a walled garden. Every few weeks the walled garden became real and Grandma showed her mole hills on the mossy lawn, introduced her to bees and wild strawberries and let her play all day. She learned to seek out moles with their tiny pink hands and snouts, peering at her from pulsing, grey, silken forms. Grandma explained that moles had poor eyesight, so they probably couldn’t see much more than worms, bugs and light. They relied mostly on sound, touch and smell.
The child couldn’t imagine not being able to see much, but she wondered if it was like looking into a kaleidoscope, seeing coloured shapes lit up, dappled, shifting into new patterns. Once she found a dead mole lying on freshly moaned grass. Grandma gave her a small spade, and later that morning the child buried it near the top of its earthy mound with her Palm Sunday cross from the village church planted on top. It seemed a good time to sing a hymn, starting “there is a green hill far away” trying not to cry because salty tears made her eyelids sore and hurt the bones under her cheeks. Grandma said every creature, including us, would die one day. This was inevitable.
In the mirror, the child saw a boy adventurer from story books with white tufts of hair staring back. Her skin itched with something called eczema, and Grandma told her that she had been an ugly baby with a bruised horn on her head. She decided she wasn’t the girl of her name, or even a boy, as grown-ups often assumed because of her short hair and jeans. She was Mole.
Extracts from Chapter Two:
Sounds and Noises
Mole’s life was a mixture of sounds and noises and she was always on high alert to both. Dad said that all music was noise. So as not to feel his temper she tried to practice her school cornet quietly but learnt that it was best to wait until Dad was away. Mole also found she could blow farts into the mouthpiece with her bedroom door closed and whistled into her cupped hands, through a gap between her thumbs. The tighter her hands, the higher the note.
It was a noisy household. Hearing aids whistled, Mum and Dad shouted up or down the steep stairs. Dishes clanked. The vacuum roared. Flies buzzed. Daddy Long Legs stroked the walls. Car horns tooted in anger. The Neighbour’s dog chased them barking. In the early hours of the morning, cats fought under Mole’s bedroom window. Sounds were good. Drifting into her ears, carried by the nearby river and garden. Bees, birds, the piano, the rumble of trains and laughter all made her heart calm.
Noises were raised voices, quarrelling whispers and water being run into the bath for hair wash day. The dentist drill was the worst noise of all, and fireworks hurt Mole’s brain. At school, the gym echoed, especially when the Headless Horse came out. Her legs and arms refused to do what they were told, and her teacher said she was uncoordinated. Playground activities meant her palms and knees were constantly scabbed and bruised. But Mole was a brave adventurer and soon learned not to fear being chosen last or worry about bloody grazes. Mum and Grandma told her to just suck it up, so she did.
The telephone sat in a corner by the kitchen table and Grandma called it a mixed blessing. It rang a lot and her parents weren’t always close enough, so they yelled for Mole to answer it. The spiral cable attached to the wall was always sticky and knotted. Occasionally the telephone became a monster with bad news. Sometimes a creepy voice phoned and asked to speak to mum. He asked Mole to pass on messages, but he didn’t say please, so she decided that she wouldn’t. Grandma said manners maketh the man, and Telephone Man had no manners and did not know that Mole had special powers to protect her family.
Extracts from Chapter Three:
Sweet Face and Superpowers
Her first sister was born less than a year after Mole. When Mole was cross then her sister became “Cuckoo” in her private thoughts because she learned at school that cuckoos stole the place of a baby bird in a nest. Mole knew from Grandma that her sister needed Mum’s “extra attention” but Mole loved her anyway. She knew it wasn’t Cuckoo’s fault that they had to go to hospitals where Mole had to sit quietly with her homework, trying not to scratch her eczema while the “aud-iol-ogist” ran tests through huge headphones on her sister’s ears, telling Mum what they were finding out. The audiologist told Mum that Cuckoo was “profoundly deaf – probably from birth”.
Once home Mole closed her bedroom door and got on her knees, clasping her hands as she’d seen people do in Grandma’s church, making a solemn promise that she wouldn’t call her sister Cuckoo any more. She knew she had to be strong to protect her family, so Cuckoo became Sweet Face just because she was pretty. Mole didn’t think God would get the message as her cupped hands weren’t a telephone, but Grandma said a promise made must always be kept.
Sweet Face was left-handed, and could draw a great likeness and this was her sister’s superpower. She knew how to make an aeroplane look like a perfect cartoon and she could capture faces and other things really well with her steady hand. During long train journeys they coloured in sheets with lines forming patterns, but Mole couldn’t help going outside the lines with her coloured pencils because it made her feel free. With scratchy marks she imagined how a mole might see enough light when it reached the surface. In contrast, Sweet Face was so careful, leaning on a hard surface properly, organising her pencils like a rainbow, and always colouring in neatly inside the lines using her left hand. This difference made them laugh.
Sweet Face always tried to copy what Mole wore and this was annoying. Mum bought two of everything to save time and money as if they were twins. Mole hated the clothes mum chose because they itched her eczema and made her feel trapped. If it wasn’t too cold and there was no one around she took them off, although Sweet Face thought this was naughty and made a fan sign with her hands. Their own sister speak for blush. Sweet Face often spied on Mole through the bedroom door, so Mole would trick her sister by wearing one outfit and sneaking back upstairs to change into another, just to make Sweet Face and Mum realise that she was the oldest.
Extracts from The Child Who Heard Too Much are being exhibited in Life Lines as a work-in-progress – more news to come once the artist’s book is complete as a physical artefact by end of 2023.
About Tumim and Prendergast
Matilda Tumim and Chris Prendergast are based in North East Fife. They studied at Falmouth and the Royal College of Art prior to moving to Orkney in 1989, relocating to Fife in 2015. Tumim and Prendergast work with a variety of media, including stitch, paint, collage and ink and have been commissioned to make permanent installations for schools, hospitals and voluntary organisations. They exhibit regularly and their work is held in public and private collections around the world. For many of their projects, the artist duo take their starting point from playing a Surrealist game created by André Breton called The Exquisite Corpse. Matilda suffers from a rare autoimmune disease, Systemic Sclerosis. Due to her being immunosuppressed, the artists worked at home, shielding throughout the pandemic.
Recent exhibitions include Surreal Estate at WASPS Project Gallery Dundee (2021); Screen Test, an online group exhibition (2021); Little Originals at Dock Street Studios, Dundee (2019). The artist duo have had commissions with Orkney & Grampian Hospitals Arts Trust , Royal Aberdeen Children’s Hospital, the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, (London) and The Pier Arts Centre (Orkney).
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