A Window on Fine Craft

Artist Tim Tate Offers a Guide To the Area's Best

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

The best craft show in the country is about to get even better. Or at least a little more complicated.

That's if you believe Tim Tate, who calls the annual Smithsonian Craft Show, now in its 27th year and taking place Thursday through April 26 at the National Building Museum, the best of its kind. Of the numerous higher-level craft show around the country "the Smithsonian is at the very top of that heap," boasts the Washington glass artist, whose work is in the permanent craft collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery and was featured in the Smithsonian Craft Show in 2007.

Offering work for sale by 120 artists from across the country in a dozen categories ranging from ceramics to jewelry to wood, the annual juried show has become a springtime destination for lovers of fine craft. And this year, for the first time, it's part of a broader, area-wide celebration of the homegrown craft scene called CraftWeek DC.

Running Wednesday through April 26, CraftWeek DC will attempt to place the jewel that is the Smithsonian Craft Show in a setting that includes a host of satellite craft exhibitions at area galleries, open studios, artist demonstrations, parties and educational programming. Events take place in Maryland, Virginia and the District, and most are open to the public. The offerings run the gamut, from the silly to the scholarly, with stuff to listen to, to look at and, of course, to buy.

So much is going on, in fact, that it might easily look -- especially to an outsider unfamiliar with the lay of the craft land -- like a "pile of brambles," to use Tate's term.

That's where he comes in. To help us pick our way through that thicket to get to what Tate calls the "wonderful fruit" at the center.

Why him?

An artist whose work straddles the line between craft and fine art, Tate is an ideal tour guide to the world of craft, which by most definitions includes five materials: ceramics, glass, fiber, metal and wood . Part button-down advocate, part wild-eyed missionary for craft, the artist is co-founder and co-director of the Washington Glass School and will sing the praises of that particular medium to whoever will listen. His own work has evolved from the sculptural to what he calls "narrative glass" and frequently features homemade videos that play on miniature screens inside blown-glass vessels adorned with tiny sculptures.

But CraftWeek DC is about more than glass, whose strong presence in the area is thanks largely to the influence of Tate's school. There's also a burgeoning local ceramic art movement, as exemplified by the non-functional abstractions (i.e., no bowls and mugs) of artists Margaret Boozer, Laurel Lukaszewski (see story on Page 26) and others. Washington is also becoming increasingly known for its unorthodox jewelry artists, represented by craftswomen such as Gayle Friedman (see story on Page 25), who has turned such things as her mother's old anodized-aluminum knitting needles and reclaimed fur into jewelry.

Tate's official credentials include a seat on the board of the James Renwick Alliance, the collecting, educational and fundraising arm of the Renwick Gallery that put CraftWeek DC together in the first place. By his own description, he's "friends with most everyone" in the local craft scene, from the artists in their studios to the galleries and the museums. What's more, Tate seems to know the history of craft and to speak its language. In conversation, he drops references to latticino glass (think swirls, like in a glass marble), Damascus metal (a technique of hammering and layering that Tate calls "the fine-metal equivalent of filo dough") and pyrometric cones (a traditional way for ceramacists to gauge heat in a kiln).

We'd call him the Craft Whisperer, except that Tate never whispers.

For our sightseeing cruise of CraftWeek DC, we invited him to create three easy-to-navigate tours of next week's events, with day-by-day picks customized to your level of interest, engagement and expertise with craft.

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