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Glass Half Full

He was told he he didn’t have long to live. So he started living his dream.

Photograph by Stephen Voss.

Tim Tate was working as a family therapist in 1990 when he was diagnosed with HIV.

“I suddenly needed a legacy,” says Tate.

Always interested in art, he decided to try his hand at glassblowing: “I was going to leave behind a vase for my nephews and nieces to remember me by.”

Since then, Tate’s glass sculptures have been exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery, and the Steps Gallery in London.

In 2001, he cofounded the Washington Glass School, carving out a communal studio space in an old Mount Rainier warehouse to mentor young artists. It’s here that he conceptualizes large installations, such as a donor wall for the DC-based charity Food and Friends, which features stained-glass squares.

Tate’s most compelling work may be his reliquaries—bell-shaped glass cases like those used in museums to safeguard artifacts from dust and sticky fingers. But Tate’s versions feature video loops such as a clip of a young girl walking down the street or another showing pages turning in an encyclopedia. The focus of his art is memory and loss, and video allows him to evoke a shared sense of nostalgia.

As a boy growing up on Capitol Hill, Tate, now 50, nursed an obsession with film, sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to watch movies on the living-room TV. He wanted to be a filmmaker or painter, but his parents disapproved. His father, a comptroller for the US Navy, and his mother, a housewife and craftswoman who plied Tim with art supplies, feared their son would end up jobless. He became a therapist.

Over time, as critics began praising Tate’s work, his parents accepted his decision to leave psychology. Under normal circumstances, he might have enrolled in film school, but his HIV diagnosis changed his thinking. To make a movie would take a few years; a glass reliquary would take a month.

“For ten years, they said I was going to die in a year—so you do things very short-term,” says Tate. “And then I just kept living.”

This article first appeared in the November 2010 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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