“I didn’t realize how much I could do with just feel. You can see with your fingers, in other words. I mean, for instance, people do their hair behind their head. They don’t think about it. They don’t have to see it. They don’t have to look at their shoe to tie it. We have all these things that our fingers know how to do.”Tim Prentice in a 2020 oral history with the Vision & Art Project
Born in 1930, Tim Prentice grew up in New York City and Connecticut. In the first part of his career, he followed his father into architecture after obtaining a master’s degree in architecture from Yale University in 1960. In 1965, he formed an award-winning architecture firm, Prentice and Chan, with Lo-Yi Chan, an architect who came out of I.M. Pei’s office. Over the next decade, they worked on a number of notable projects.
Yet from an early age, Prentice was drawn to the life of an artist. A particularly pivotal moment occurred during a school trip, when he saw a mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder at the Addison Gallery in Andover, Massachusetts. As Prentice writes in his book, Drawing on the Air, he immediately began to “visualize the artist’s hands bending the wire to find the balance.” Years later, while in architecture school, he would sometimes construct sculptures from found materials. And as he built his architecture practice, he continued making small kinetic sculptures on the side as time permitted. When he reached his early forties, sculpture won out, and he gradually abandoned his career as an architect to begin a new one as a sculptor.
Since 1975, his work has been exhibited regularly in one man and group shows. He has taught design at Columbia University and run residencies and workshops at Pratt Museum, Groton School, Hotchkiss School, and Goshen Center School. He has won a number of awards, including the Connecticut Governor’s Arts Award and the Transfield Holdings Kinetic Art Prize.
In addition to his smaller-scale sculptures, Prentice has spent the past 30 years doing public and corporate commissions of large-scale sculptures for institutions both in the United States and abroad. His studio’s commissioned pieces can be found in such places as the Knight Cancer Research Building at Oregon Health and Science University (Portland, OR); the Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, CT); the Phaeno Science Center (Wolfsburg, Germany); and Union Depot (St. Paul, MN). Two long-time assistants help him with this work: Dave Colbert (now Prentice’s corporate partner for large-scale commissioned works) and David Bean.
Tim Prentice’s post-macular working methods
Prentice was diagnosed with macular degeneration around 2000. As he describes in a 2020 oral history with The Vision & Art Project, in the years since, the disease has become second nature for him. In fact, he says he is “hardly aware” of his vision loss. He’s able to do many things by feel, uses four levels of magnification when he is working, and sometimes even finds that in certain circumstances seeing less well is an advantage in his work, since it better allows him to apprehend the entire context.