Tompkins was born in Leighton Buzzard in 1971. She studied painting at the Glasgow School of Art, and graduated in 1994. Since 1997 she has worked collaboratively with the collective Elizabeth Go (Victoria Morton, Sarah Tripp, Hayley Tompkins and Cathy Wilkes). She has held multiple exhibitions at The Modern Institute.
Sue Tompkins uses the spoken and written word delivered in a deceptively simple and direct fashion. The written word comes first: she accumulates copious notes over a period of time then edits and refines them to create disjointed yet succinct texts that combine repeated words with constructed phrases to evoke imagery, emotion and ideas.
Tompkins had an interesting way of coming to her unique style of work in art school:
"I studied painting. And then by the fourth year at Glasgow School of Art, I remember really thinking, I really don’t know what to paint. I really have no idea. I just don’t know what I’m doing. There was a patch where I remember thinking, god, I just want to go and sit in the library and look at stuff. I was really into looking at art. I really liked looking at art books. So my degree show ended up being this big tissue paper installation, really quite big on the wall. I used to go the library and they had these little rooms that you could book. And I used to just book a room and take a massive stack of books off the shelves, really random, but everything I liked – it could be Frieze magazine or Artforum or it could be Picasso’s greatest hits. I would go into this little room and I had a dictaphone and I used to just record myself looking."
Tompkins also provided the vocals for indie rock band Life Without Buildings, along with other students of the Glasgow School of Art. Spin magazine described Tompkins' vocals as "nervously chirped evocative phrases" and credited her as the band's central attraction. Following their debut album Any Other City in 2001, the band split up.
Her twin sister is the artist Hayley Tompkins
Tompkins lives and works in Glasgow.
- The Showroom, London (solo, 31 October - 9 December 2007)
- 'Bare Words', Lautom Contemporary, Oslo (group, October 2007)
- 'in the poem about love you don't write the word love', installation and live performance, Overgaden, Copenhagen (November, 2007)
- Sue Tompkins, Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, (solo, 27 February - 24 April 2011)
- 'Expressions', The Modern Institute, Glasgow, (solo, 7 September - 2 November 2013)
- 'When Wayne Went Away', Lisa Cooley, New York, (solo, 21 February - 27 March 2016)
- Higgie, Jennifer (April 2006). "In Other Words". Frieze Magazine (98).
- "Sue Tompkins' first major solo exhibition in Scotland". The List. 24 February 2011.
- "Sue Tompkins". Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
- Buonpadre, Silvia. "10 Female Artists from Scotland You Should Know About". The Culture Trip. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
- "Sue Tompkins and STANDARD (Oslo) at The Modern Institute, Glasgow". Mousse Contemporary Art Magazine. 18 September 2013.
- "The Quietus".
- "Unsung: The 100 Greatests Bands You've (probably) Never Heard". Spin: 72. August 2009.