The Spaces Between

The Spaces Between

Tim Tate no longer feels invisible, but that doesn’t mean he’s stopped looking within.
Tim Tate Intimations on Immortality

Tim Tate has been enamored with “infinity mirrors” ever since he bought one at a Spencer Gifts store at age 10. Much of the artist’s recent work, such as Intimations on Immortality (2017), uses this device, where images are reflected in a dozen layers of mirrors.

Pete Duvall

Tim Tate has spent his life looking for a place to be himself. It’s not a physical home he needs – he’s been ensconced in suburban DC for 16 years at the Washington Glass School, which he co-founded, welcoming more than 4,000 students. He lives nearby with his husband of two years. He’s the development chair on the board at the Penland School of Crafts, a place he’s visited so often it’s almost a second home.

No, what Tate has craved is a psychic space, an emotional terrain, where his work can evolve as he sees fit.

Actually, “evolve” may be the wrong term, bringing to mind a series of small modifications over a long period. What stands out about Tate’s work is how it transforms so much from one stage to the next.

When he finishes a series – such as the reliquary works he made between 2004 and 2014, which drew attention from journalists and galleries – he tends not to look back. Although each series relates to the one before, “they have their own identity,” he says. And he’s been an outspoken critic of artists whose work doesn’t change.

He is as much explorer as artist, seeking out the uncharted. “I try to find the ‘in-between’ spaces for my work,” he says. “Never fully fitting into any one definition of steampunk, studio glass, or video artist, I chose to embrace the gray spaces that surround them.” It’s taken years, but he has created his own domain.

Tim Tate has a big presence, a brash sense of humor, and friends in every corner of the craft and art worlds. And yet, he says, for many years, he felt invisible: “I never fit in anywhere. In the studio glass world, I seemed to be the only gay man,” he recalls. Plus, he had no artistic community nearby as he found his footing in glass – DC was not a hub for his medium. “As far as studio glass was concerned, I was a homeless man with no voice,” he says, looking back 20 years, “pressing my nose against the window to get a glimpse inside.”

Tate was born in DC. His mom was a housewife and avid maker who needlepointed, appliquéd, sequined, glittered, painted, glued, and sewed just about any material that would hold still. His dad was an accountant and ardent conservative who worked at the Pentagon. The relationship between father and son was adversarial, but the analytical skills Tate inherited have contributed to his success: He’s well organized, dependable, and rational.

Tate studied special education at the University of Maryland, graduating in 1979, and spent five years as a family therapist, working with troubled children. He realized he was too soft-hearted for the work, frustrated that he couldn’t save all of the kids. A friend offered him a job in his design business, and Tate spent the next 15 years working with artists, designers, and galleries.

Beginning in 1989, he started taking classes – 26, all told – at Penland and other non-degree programs. “I took all my vacation time for 10 years to go to Penland, all while working full-time,” he recalls.

For the first 10 years, he focused on glass bowls, and from the beginning, making things was therapeutic. Which was fortuitous, because he experienced a great deal of loss as a young adult. During the AIDS epidemic, he recalls going to 14 funerals in a single year. He had been part of a close group of about a dozen friends who “functioned as a family,” headed by a beloved man who acted as a father figure. The experience of community was powerful, if ultimately painful. “I am the last of them living,” Tate says, recalling the period of relentless grief. “I’m the last vessel holding those memories.”

Diagnosed as HIV-positive himself, he was told in 1989 that he had one year to live – and each year thereafter heard the same prognosis – until several years later, when effective medicines became available. In the interim, his creative work was essential. “Penland and the artwork I was making during this time saved my life,” he says. “When you are told that you have one year to live, you choose the path that works for you. Many commit suicide, others drink and drug themselves to death,” he points out. Instead, Tate was seized with a desire to follow a dream that took hold when he visited the Corning Museum of Glass at age 9. “I wanted to create as much as I could before I died,” he says.

That explains the fever that gripped him as he drove to North Carolina for more classes. “The diagnosis worked as if the sword of Damocles was hanging over my head, ready at any second to plunge down,” he recalls. “It made me singularly focused to achieve this goal. It was as if I had a blowtorch behind me, and I had to keep moving fast or get burned.” His creative work provided not only a purpose, but also a hopeful respite. “In my imaginary world, my dear friends did not pass away. In my head, they still lived, played, spoke to me,” he says. “Inside my art, time and reality held new meanings. In these spaces, the invisible boy was always visible.”

In the insular society of glass education, he flew under the radar for years. But as he became more comfortable, especially at Penland, the isolation lifted. In 2001, he helped to found the Washington Glass School to focus on sculptural glass made by kiln-casting and mixed media, rather than on traditional studio glassblowing techniques. Founding the school also served a very practical purpose: It gave him a permanent studio he could go to daily. It was modeled after Penland, where he had spent so much time, and the Crucible in Oakland. It was also a way, he says, to give something back to Washington, “the city I love.”

As he developed narrative-focused work with a clear vocabulary, he needed to make it in his own way. Between 1999 and 2005, he made about 30 large blown-glass hearts, which represent healing in his vernacular. But making the hearts required a gaffer and a team, which he didn’t like, because the objects felt so intensely personal. (And, as he bluntly puts it, “I’m a control freak and like to rely upon myself.”)

Tate has long been ambivalent about being part of the glass community. He likes to joke that he spent 10 years trying to master glass and 20 years trying to escape it. In 2011, he took a step toward visibility and community by starting (with this writer) a Facebook page devoted to glass secessionism. In a controversial move, the secessionists posited that a new generation was moving beyond the technical and aesthetic ideals of the 20th-century postwar studio glass movement. The backlash from the glass establishment was immediate; the new Facebook conversation was called uninformed and even mean-spirited.

Tate was flabbergasted. “I was totally shocked that something so benign and well-intended as a Facebook discussion page could be so upsetting to so many people,” he says. At conferences and shows, he sought to explain his intentions, and the furor eventually died down. The GS page remains active, with more than 3,300 members, thousands of curated images, and a million words of dialogue in its archives.

As Tate has found his voice about his work and contemporary work by his peers, he has also found new acclaim. In 2009, he won the $35,000 Virginia A. Groot Foundation first-place award for sculpture. In 2012, he was named a Fulbright scholar. His work is part of several museum collections, and he shows at expos such as Scope at Art Basel in Miami and Switzerland and Frieze London.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tate’s concepts today originate far from mainstream studio glass. He admires artist and filmmaker Joseph Cornell and his assemblages of found components that tell a story – a cryptic one, but deeply evocative nonetheless. He reveres Josef von Sternberg, whose 1934 movie The Scarlet Empress “taught me that more is never enough and to fill a frame with as much narrative information as will fit.” He describes himself as a “Victorian techno-fetishist,” with steampunk associations from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and the 2008 Telectroscope installation by Paul St George that linked London and New York via live video feeds. “The more centuries I can span, the happier I am,” he says with a laugh. Within this world, Tate has expanded his hearts-equal-healing vocabulary, with bell jars and flames connoting memories and delicately etched inscriptions defining boundaries between spaces.

In the work he’s making now, he has found new territory all his own. The two series he has developed since 2010 might come to be known as his most iconic: video frames, which suggest healing but also surveillance, with a nod to surrealism when they’re centered on a mysterious blinking eye, and his Eyewitnesses to Infinity pieces, which use mirrors to help create those special secret spaces Tate so longs to inhabit.

Endless mirrors, in particular, have fascinated Tate since he saw them in the movies All About Eve and Citizen Kane. At age 10, he decided he had to own one. “I saw a Spencer Gifts catalogue with an endless mirror in it,” he recalls. “I convinced my mom and aunt to drive from Washington, DC, to Paramus, New Jersey, because that was the closest store. I bought one there and took it apart to see how it worked.” As an adult, he admired the mirrored work of Chul Hyun Ahn and decided to pursue the model himself. Today, he follows Yayoi Kusama, Iván Navarro, and Peter Gronquist.

“The spaces seen in the mirror do not exist in reality,” he points out. “These spaces are formed only by the viewer’s interactions.” They’re an illusion, and we all know that, he says. But there they are – “visible to the invisible boy within all of us.” In those spaces are possibilities.

“It is said that if you see past 13 images in an infinity mirror, you are seeing into the next world,” he says, and his mirrors are vessels of mystical meaning. “The [mirrors] closer to the front represent the present and past, though reinvented by me to symbolize what I choose to discuss. The future, in those images past 13, is indistinct, barely visible.” The series has been ideal for him to take on societal ills, such as the recent waves of displaced people in and from the Middle East and the seemingly endless cycle of gun violence in America, followed by calls for gun control.

The “beauty of endless mirrors is in creating a space that exists nowhere else on Earth,” Tate says. If, as he says, they reflect our world in the first dozen or so layers, and deeper than that they begin to reveal infinite space, then somewhere in that ambiguous zone between our world and infinity is the place where worlds meet. That’s the place to be, Tate says. It is the place where, if only for a brief moment, everything and everyone is immortal.