Turner Contemporary
Sue Tomkins, Foyle Rooms, Turner Contemporary (photo taken by Moya Stirrup)

Sue Tomkins, Foyle Rooms, Turner Contemporary (photo taken by Moya Stirrup)

Sue and I took our seats in the empty auditorium. We were in one of the Foyle Rooms at Turner Contemporary on a Tuesday evening, 50 white seats faced towards the sea. In half an hour, the seats would be filled with voices and faces, the voices of a collective; ‘The Big Sing. For now, one voice had surfaced, it was Sue’s and she had volunteered to tell me her story.

An unexpected conversation with two old friends had convinced Sue to take a seat at ‘The Big Sing’ a year and a half ago. “They said, “Oh come to ‘The Big Sing’, it’s wonderful” […] I was a bit nervous but there were no auditions…” She had settled in immediately; “people were just so friendly, so I just felt very comfortable from the beginning!” Between then and now her seat has endured occasional periods of emptiness. The first was due to sheer enthusiasm: an ambitious attempt to learn 26 pieces meant that Sue was unable to sing in her first concert due to a sore throat.

The second was distinctly sadder. After her first hushed interval, she had hurriedly returned. Though Sue was determined to take up seat again, this time life interjected:  “I’d had ongoing problems with my father and his health over the previous year or two, and my own. And he was very ill and I just couldn’t come any more […] I was very down […] and my daughter had gone to university […] so, I had a big gap from it and then my father died in the April.” Sue recounted her second absence from ‘The Big Sing’ in quiet but strengthened retrospective.

One year on from being lured in to ‘The Big Sing’ by her two friends, she happened to bump into them again.  It was a few months on from her father’s death; “I was sort of getting over things, and I’d left my work as well, my whole life was changing […] and they said – you must come back […] so, I was in the next concert in October!” From October onwards, her seat has remained resolutely occupied.

Sue’s return to ‘The Big Sing’ has defined a change in her stance; “its just so good for my confidence, and my wellbeing…” She’s made new friends and reconnected with her old ones. She spoke, with unassuming vivacity, of her solo at the Christmas carol concert. Sue had been selected to perform the last verse as Turner Contemporary’s Christmas tree lights were switched on. Her memory was untarnished in relaying how the moment had made her feel; “That just gave me such confidence, I felt wonderful […] just being chosen, I practised and everything and then my daughter came to the concert […] I felt like I could do anything after that…” Sue’s ‘anything’ has become manifest in her newfound ambition to change the course of her career. Her job as an Occupational Therapist had begun to loom as a daily reminder of her father’s deteriorating health. She’s now looking elsewhere to find something different, something new.

As our conversation came to a close, Sue looked around at the empty seats: “I think even just coming here to rehearse is fantastic […] this whole Turner thing is making me feel creative.” When I asked Sue how she would capture Turner Contemporary in three last words, she settled on an “energising, creative place.” It became clear that Sue’s insurgence of confidence was as much about the place itself as her part in ‘The Big Sing.’ It was here that she had found her place, in the Foyle Rooms, looking out at the sea and singing on Tuesday evenings; taking her seat.

This conversation was conducted and written by Moya Stirrup. To read more of Moya’s conversations for Turner Contemporary, click here.

Moya is an avid conversation conservationist. In April 2013, she initiated a project to capture Margate in conversation. To read her ever expanding archive of distinct voices, each bound by their ties to the town, click here.




Posted by: Moya Stirrup on 15 April 2014
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