Compelled by Tim Tate


Many in the DC area know the work of sculptor Tim Tate – but I am sure many are not aware of the origins of his imagery and what drives him to make such personal artwork. Recently, Tim met with a museum curator for a show later to be installed this year and Tim outlined his obsessions. It is such a fascinating story – I insisted that the school blog share it with all:

The Foundations of Tim Tate’s Artwork

My art grows out of my life filled with unusual experiences, though it begins simply enough. I grew up in a household filled with art supplies, as my mother was an artist. My original intent as an adolescent was to take ceramics at Cranbrook, but my family could not afford to send me, so I had to settle, making art on the side while beginning a different career path.

Then, as a very young man, I received a terminal diagnosis. I was given less than a year to live, a very difficult concept for a young man to get his head around. I remember that one of my first thoughts was that I was living in someone else’s life. That I was living the life others wanted me to live. I decided at that instant to try to reclaim my artistic side.

With only a year to live, there was no need to apply to grad school….so I discovered the amazing workshops at Penland and threw myself into learning. Yet, at the end of a year, I was surprisingly still alive. They told me I was lucky, but that I should sew up my affairs, as I still had but a year at most. I heard this yearly for the next 10 years.

It’s hard to imagine, I know….to live for over a decade believing I would be struck down at any minute. It changes you and your priorities. Legacy becomes imperative. To be remembered after you are gone. It affected me the most by making sure that every free hour or trip I could spare was to Penland. My entire reason for surviving became the need to master and understand the artistic medium of glass, though I could only afford the 1- or 2-week classes. I lived this way for 10 years.

Then my mother passed away. In her will she left me enough money and instructions to take a concentration class at Penland. Now I had 2 full months to invest towards my work. Prior to this concentration I had completely focused on technique. The class completely changed my life. It focused almost entirely on narrative content. My final piece was a design to hold my mother’s ashes and memories. One of these works went straight to the Renwick Museum. Today it is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

So much about glass art at this time was technique driven, but I truly believed it could be so much more. I was determined to have glass taken seriously as a sculptural medium. My work revolved around healing and memory, heaven and hell, nostalgia and resurrection. I began working in the form of reliquaries.

Glass, and Penland, had saved my life to that point. I began seeing each of my pieces as a way to connect to the viewer…to act as a healing agent for them, as well as for me while creating the piece. At first these pieces simply included objects, then they began including text. I also became obsessed with miniaturizing objects. I would make them out of clay, then use lost wax casting to make objects…..hundreds of objects. Each one I made became a language in my image library. Each one carried significance, and by combining them I could produce a dialog. These dialogs became very elaborate, but always with my true themes of healing and memory, heaven and hell, nostalgia and resurrection.

I produced over 100 of these reliquaries….each one healing me just a little bit more. In my mind, each one was truly imbued with existential healing powers not only for myself, but for whoever owned them. I still believe this.

At a certain point I realized that by adding video to my work, my narrative could be exponentially expanded. I became as obsessed with video as I was with glass. Now I could really examine the themes I had become so interested in. I also started realizing that I could leave glass behind. My work separated into two distinct categories. For shows like S.O.F.A. and the material-based galleries that supported it, my work focused heavily on my interest in miniaturization of objects in glass. When I added video, the dialog in these forums was still frequently about the technique used in producing the glass, though the intellectual property had shifted. There will always be a fascination with small glass objects.

In the shows like ArtBasel and its satellite shows, however, as well as the galleries that support them, the dialog completely shifted to the concept behind the piece. This has allowed me to fully expand my specific narrative to video, not always including glass. Now I could expand my work to larger series, and have shows that were solely video. This will be the case in my large museum show next summer.

In all this, my narrative has not changed. Knowing that I am headed to Heaven (or more certainly Hell), I love inventing heaven and hell the way I want to see them. I still am always investigating man’s relationship with healing and reliquary…even when the reliquary takes the form of video. I still work through my own angst about memory and nostalgia, but I broaden it beyond my immediate experience to make it more universal…less specific. Thus my videos may be the most healing of all my work.

You are probably asking what happened to the terminal diagnosis – which was 28 years ago. Well, the diagnosis still stands. But fortunately the doctors were wrong regarding its speed. This helps explain why I’m driven so hard. I always believe I will be struck down suddenly.

My obsession with healing and reliquary continues, even in video form. Hopefully this will give you additional insight into each piece you see. The more a viewer relates to my work, the more successful it becomes to me.

I see my sculptures as self-contained video installations. Blending a traditional craft with new media technology gives me the framework into which I fit my artistic narrative. Revelation — and in some cases self-revelation — is the underlying theme of my electronic reliquaries.

My interactive pieces can be seen as disturbing because the face that stares back from the video screen — your own — prompts a variety of responses: amusement, discomfort, embarrassment, something akin to the feeling you have when someone catches you looking at your own reflection in a store window as you walk by.

But the important revelations here are in the viewer’s response to my hybrid art form and its conceptual nature. I try to bare everything — the guts of my materials and my inner thoughts — in deceptively simple narrative videos set into specimen jars. Nothing is random, all elements are thought out.

To me, these works are phylacteries of sorts, the transparent reliquaries in which bits of saints’ bones or hair — relics — are displayed. In many cultures and religions, relics are believed to have healing powers. My relics are temporal, sounds and moving images formally enshrined, encapsulating experiences like cultural specimens. And perhaps, to the contemporary soul, they are no less reliquaries than those containing the bones of a saint.

4 thoughts on “Compelled by Tim Tate

  1. >You have an amazing story and a truly fantastic art-
    thank you for the telling of it.

  2. >Wow, Tim … I've known bits & pieces of this story, but never all at once & in order. Really well-put and incredibly moving.

    It makes me even happier to know you and proud to have been used as one of your video subjects.

  3. >Tim — what an amazing, compelling, and eloquent piece of writing. I am beyond impressed, both with the way you chose to address the unavoidable in your life, and with your explanatory statement's immediate relevance to every single one of us who reads these powerful words. I'm also grateful for your admission of a literal belief in the healing powers of your work — I've always been ashamed of feeling that way about my own, and now I feel released. Thank you. We are all blessed by you. (Now, can I say something sarcastic, please? Sincerity makes me itch)

  4. >Tim, this is really beautiful. Thank you for opening yourself to your audience with vulnerability and honesty. I love your work and now it is even richer.