A Style All His Own

05 Jul 2017

The colorful, acrylic paintings of Tate Nation


Talking with Charleston-based artist Tate Nation feels a lot like chatting with a friend. Discussions can veer from running (he’s had major knee surgery and is not currently supposed to run), to snowy winters spent in upstate New York (he came south seeking warmer climes), to the ins and outs of swimming freestyle (he was an NCAA collegiate athlete). 

But despite his easy, laid back demeanor, it’s clear: Tate Nation is a hard-core professional artist, in Charleston to stay.

When we spoke, Nation was on Day 3 of the 17-day Piccolo Spoleto Art Show in Marion Square. His tent – possibly bigger than his King Street gallery space – was crammed full of color: acrylic pieces on wood in bright hues with almost a Keith Haring feel. The day was hot and muggy, although what late-May day in Charleston isn’t hot and muggy? Days at the art show begin around 10, and carry on past dark, and barring bad weather, artists are expected to be present the whole time, representing their work to the throngs of Spoleto art aficionados.

And yet, despite this, Nation is full of energy, offering a handshake and a grin to every potential customer who entered his stall. “I’m Tate,” he says, as though it wasn’t his name hovering over the tent’s doorway. “If you need anything, just let me know.”

Casual talk for an artist who’s been in the business for decades, and who’s painted commissions for the United States Postal Service, Coca Cola, and Delta Airlines, to name a few. He was juried into the Piccolo Spoleto Art Show 17 years ago, and has appeared there ever since. In 2016, he entered the Cooper River Bridge poster artwork contest for the first time…and won. Thus, Nation’s art was displayed around the Lowcountry on posters honoring the 40th anniversary of the Cooper River Bridge Run.

These are no small fetes, one must admit, but show the pedigree of an artist perhaps at his prime.

Nation’s career began in conventional waters. Always interested in art, he began working for a screen-printing company after college. That lead to a career in freelance graphic design and book illustration (for a local example of this, check out his illustrations in Yo Millard Fillmore! (And All Those Other Presidents You Don’t Know) by Charleston-based writer Will Cleveland). 

But after 15 years of illustration, the gallery life called him home. Soon he began fine-tuning his style, which doesn’t have a name but is 100% Tate Nation. “I’d recognize your stuff anywhere,” a friend told him recently, making Nation’s day.

The Tate Nation style is heavy on beachy, Caribbean influences, and is chock-full of Charleston too. Sweetgrass baskets, Society Street – downtown Charleston holds sway in many of Nation’s pieces.

“I paint from my imagination,” Nation says. He starts with a sketch to nail down the composition. “Getting the composition right is everything to me.” It tends to morph as he goes, adding a bicycle here, a streetlight there. 

Then he layers on the paint. Flipping through his phone, he shows off the life cycle of a recent painting – a sketch of some irises, a layer of deep blue paint, a chalk rendering, and then lots more layers of color, creating a painting reminiscent of Van Gogh but still entirely…Tate Nation.

Recently, he’s begun doing commissioned portraits of houses. It began on a whim – a friend asked him to paint a portrait of his home, “but now it’s a large part of what I do. I have a waiting list of six or so right now. I’m not really fast, so it takes a little while.”

Commissions go from $4,500-$10,000. Gallery paintings can be less…or more. Prices are set in part based on hours spent working each piece. “I’m not very fast” has translated, in certain works, to hundreds of hours, all on a single board. To get ready for a show like Spoleto, his entire Park Circle house turned into a studio. “Since I use acrylics, I wash a lot of brushes in the kitchen. Sometimes I even paint there. There’s good light in my kitchen.”

He laughs, though, when talking about his house portrait commissions. “I wonder, when people ask me to do them, if they know what I paint. How I paint. I mean, do they really want what I’m going to do?”

Considering the price tag―the awards and accolades of an artist in his prime―and a style that’s all Tate Nation, it’s safe to say…they do. tatenation.com

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