For his 14th birthday last November, Tate Testa’s friends gave him a bunch of their old TVs and computers that didn’t work. One of his friends gave him a broken food processor.
He was thrilled. Seriously.
“It was just as good as if they would have given me something else,” Tate said. “If I can get it for free, I’ll use it.”
A freshman at Howard High School, Tate estimated that he has dismantled about 50 computers during the past year and a half. Since 2010, he has been taking electronics apart, stripping each device down to its raw metal components.
Tate mostly keeps the parts made of aluminum, zinc and gold, but he’s not cashing in the metal for pocket change.
Tate accidentally discovered a more lucrative way to repurpose the elements when he was trying to make a pineapple ingot last year. The pineapple was an experiment to see if he could make gears to use in electronics, but he ended up making a necklace.
“The first time I tried (to pour liquid aluminum) was a total failure, and I just didn’t bother to clean it up,” Tate said. “Then, one day, I was cleaning up the mess that I had, and I found this really pretty (piece of aluminum). The ground was frozen, and it just looked really pretty.”
The byproduct of his “failure” was a glob of molten aluminum that had accidentally dripped on the ground and hardened in the dirt.
Tate saved the metallic puddle, drilled a small hole in it and made a necklace for his mom, Katherine Denton. She said lots of people started asking her about it.
Before long, the requests for Tate’s handiwork started coming in.
“I got some big orders,” Denton said. “People were like, ‘Oh, I like your necklace! How much are they?’ And some of them were like, ‘I want 10 of them.’ So then he’d go to work.”
BUILDING A BUSINESS
It was January 2013 when Tate began to clear a path in a heavily wooded area a few lots away from his house in north Macon.
“We knew he was going down there,” said Stephen Denton, Tate’s stepfather. “He’d walk down there with a hatchet, an ax and a saw. We just thought he was messing around.”
At the end of the trail, Tate built his own work site from small tree trunks that he banded together with ropes and old belts. A blue tarp hangs overhead, providing a ceiling of shade. Beside his fort, he made a forge out of bricks and attached two long pieces of pipe to serve as a chimney.
“I walked down there to see what the heck he was doing, and I was like ... ‘This is impressive!’ ” Denton said.
The necklaces that started out as gifts for family members soon became a source of income for Tate. He uses the money he makes to support his other hobbies, including chemistry and computer programming. He’s saving money to buy a new computer, more chemicals and a steel crucible to continue melting metal. Privately, he sells his necklaces for about $15 each.
“I didn’t think there was any money in the business, really,” Tate said. “I thought people would like something that’s actually professionally made and not something that I screwed up.”
Amy Hellis, a local potter and family friend, bought a few of Tate’s necklaces about a year ago.
“Every time I wear one, somebody stops me and asks me what it is,” Hellis said. “Then I tell them that a 14-year-old young man made it, and then they’re really taken aback by that.
“The necklaces are ... one-of-a-kind (pieces) of jewelry that absolutely nobody else in this entire world will have.”
Tate and his mom made an appointment to have his work reviewed at the Macon Arts Alliance last month. Heatherly Wakefield, director of fine art for the alliance, said the two stopped by the store with several necklaces.
“Since we have a very eclectic audience that ranges all ages, I thought it would be a good sell,” Wakefield said. “He does have a card that explains to someone who’s buying it how he made it and what kind of elements it involves. I think that’s really interesting. It adds a kind of depth to the piece.”
Tate said each of his necklaces has its own story and that’s why he includes the card.
“That’s how I distinguish them. ... They’re not all the same,” Tate said.
Wakefield said Tate is the youngest artist from Macon to sell his work at the alliance, but Tate doesn’t brand himself with the title of “artist.” He said the main reason he continues to make the necklaces is to fund his other hobbies. However, he does feel some satisfaction when the necklaces work out well.
“I’m not sure how many of these necklaces he’s going to make,” Stephen Denton said of his stepson. “I don’t know what he’s going to end up doing, but I suspect as long as people are giving him money to do it, he’ll do it.”
Denton called his stepson a “little Thomas Jefferson.” He said Tate subscribes to Popular Science magazine, grows his own peppers, mines for his own kaolin, and he even made plant fertilizer in beakers that were a birthday gift last year.
“I’m just having a good time watching this kid grow up, because he does a lot of interesting things,” Stephen Denton said. “In some ways, he is 14 years old, and in some ways, he’s much older. It’s neat. It’s a lot of fun.”
To contact writer Laura Corley, call 744-4382.