Dale Chihuly: Godfather of Glass

Dozens of deep blue and clear stems of crystal lay spread across a padded blanket on the floor of a gallery in the Columbus Museum of Art. Each of the elongated pieces ends in what looks like the fingers of cresting waves frozen and captured split seconds before crashing, or, as their creators see them, frog feet.

These raw elements, wired together into suspended clusters, become Dale Chihuly’s chandeliers, originally created for his citywide installation “Chihuly Over Venice.” Hardly comparable to the light fixtures that hang in traditional ballrooms, Chihuly’s designs are more like wild, oversized sea anemones or patches of coral reefs that might exist in some marine version of Alice’s Wonderland.

Vibrant, abstract forms in blown glass have become Chihuly’s trademark, and his personality parallels his work in its esoteric flamboyance. Credited with escalating the medium of glass from the realm of craft shows to fine art museums, his name has become a veritable institution.

Born in Tacoma, Wash., Chihuly studied his craft throughout the ’60s in the United States and other parts of the world, including a year-long stint as the first American apprentice of ancient glass blowing techniques at the Venini Fabrica on the island of Murano in Italy.

In 1971, while he was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, Chihuly founded the now world-renowned Pilchuck Glass School on a small donated tree farm outside of Seattle. In 1975, he began a series of glass “Navajo Blanket Cylinders” designed with detailed thread drawings, executed by Kate Elliott.

By 1976, however, Chihuly’s work changed dramatically. A car accident that year resulted in the loss of vision in his left eye. With his depth perception destroyed, Chihuly was suddenly unable to work with molten glass without putting himself and his collaborators at risk of injury.

Fortunately, the methods of glass production that Chihuly had uncovered in Italy included the tradition of “hotshop teamwork,” led by a designer. He redirected his energy toward making paintings that could be used as the inspiration or concept for glass pieces, then working with a group to see them into their final form. Uncovering techniques employed the world’s master glass artisans also widened the possibilities for design in the medium.

“Glass was never really out there for individuals to use and understand,” says Chihuly. “It was always created in seclusion in factories where these secrets were hidden. When they started to finally come out of the closet in the ’60s, we could do things with glass that had never been done before, and our objectives were different.”

Using heat, air, circumferential force, and the skilled hands of some of the best glass blowers in the world, Chihuly’s designs have added an element of chaos, color and sensuality to an art form that had been about elegant precision. As Chihuly’s empire has grown, the development of computer technology that regulates the precarious cooling process for glass has helped make his wildest imaginings possible.

Over the last several years, those imaginings have grown in scale. Using acrylics, watercolors, brushes, brooms and squirt bottles, Chihuly paints on an outdoor platform at “The Boathouse” – the compound that houses his massive studio, home, archival gallery, and hotshop on Lake Union in Seattle. He throws his whole body into creating these paintings, which are sometimes used as a literal interpretation, other times as a rough guide, for the hordes of glass pieces that now bear his name worldwide. Recently, he upped the ante on the size of his paintings by having a harness and bungee developed that will allow him to paint while suspended in the air.

“I can’t work like a regular painter on an easel; I can only work on the ground,” he says. “I like to work big – I tend to like big things. Until now, I could only work as big as I could reach.” If enormity itself was Chihuly’s goal, he has reached it on nearly every front in his career. His current chandeliers themselves are often 10 to 20 feet high and composed of hundreds – sometimes thousands -of pieces. He speaks about immense possible projects with a child-like brevity, expectant that anything he sets his mind (and staff) to is possible.

“I’d love to be able to do chandeliers that are 200 feet high instead of twenty, or a sculpture that was 500 feet high – a glass building that you could be inside of,” he says. For the millennium, the thousands who pilgrimage to Jerusalem will see a massive Chihuly installation. He hopes to create something out of raw chunks of crystal to represent clarity and hope for the future. Because of the notoriety he has achieved in his work, Chihuly’s aspirations, if technically possible, are likely within his reach.

His mountains of awards and honorary doctorates, are only part of his accomplishments. He is one of only four Americans to have a one-person show at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Palais du Louvre in Paris. He has been commissioned to do a wide variety of architectural installations all over the world: from a Shinto Shrine in Japan to a 4,000-piece work at La Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. He is currently working on the design for the Chihuly Bridge in Tacoma that will connect the new International Glass Museum to the city’s University District with platforms bearing towers he’s designed. Not to mention the fact that Chihuly’s Pilchuck School and North Pacific Coast presence has helped make Seattle the glass capitol of the world, with over 3,000 people working at the city’s more than 90 hotshops.

His credentials notwithstanding, Chihuly’s savvy – or simply instinctual – marketing ability has helped him develop a rock-star’s brand of notoriety in the art world. His designs borrow from natural and man-made forms, but are rarely recognizable, so the element of fantasy is a large part of the appeal of his work. His own eccentricity embellishes his ability to convince people that his medium is nearly otherworldly. He utters lines such as, “glass is like alchemy” with a look of awe on his face – his wild curls slightly tamed by the elastic that holds his black eye patch in place.

To him, it would appear that glass does have a fairy tale quality. “I don’t know what it is about glass,” he says with a storyteller’s intonation. “It’s the most durable yet fragile material in the world. It’s the most intriguing. It’s the most mysterious. It reflects light. It’s also the cheapest material known to mankind – it’s made of sand. It costs 10 cents to make a glass bottle and that bottle will retain it’s shape for 10,000 years.”

His work is well documented, available for those who cannot afford the thousands of dollars that one of his pieces commands. There are more than 15 coffee table books chronicling his works, as well as a video that documents his Chihuly Over Venice chandelier project. A comprehensive web site features streaming RealVideo clips of pieces being created and Chihuly discussing his work. A documentary about Chihuly made for PBS was one of the first-ever high-definition, full digital broadcast aired across the nation. Collectors and just-lookers can also see examples of his work year-round at the Hawk Galleries in Columbus and Thomas R. Riley Galleries in Cleveland.

He’s also got fans in high places. First Lady Hillary Clinton was featured on CBS This Morning in 1995, enthusing about one of Chihuly’s “Macchia” bowls (a series of pieces Chihuly has done in a variety of colors with walls that ripple like seashells or flowers), which is part of the White House Craft Collection. Pronouncing it one of her favorite pieces, Clinton effused that she liked to keep it in the bedroom quarters so she could look at the colors in the bottom every day. She demonstrated her adoration on camera by sticking her head into the bowl and speaking loudly to hear her voice echo.

Clinton also drew Chihuly away from Columbus in September, causing him to miss a fundraising gala at the museum when “Chihuly Over Venice” opened. Not one to leave a bitter taste in anyone’s mouth about him or his work, he donated one of his chandeliers – with a six-figure value – to the museum’s permanent collection in lieu of his presence.

Chihuly may be one of the most commercially successful artists of this era. Jennifer Lewis, who handles public relations for Chihuly, says, “He runs his own show. It’s the closest thing I can think of to working for Elvis.”

The staff working at the Boathouse, along with those who travel around the country several months out of the year to install the work, is also immense. And beyond their technical expertise, they can answer questions that any curator, gallery owner, or architect might have about the medium – how it was designed, what it might resemble, or how it needs to be installed. The end result is an educational entourage that keeps the wheels of Chihuly’s empire in motion.

But, while always visible, always traveling around the globe and always working on multiple projects, Chihuly says that marketing has never been his game.

“I don’t ever think in terms of marketing – I think it’s something that just comes,” he says. “I don’t think you set about with a plan to be successful; but on the other hand, you shouldn’t pass up opportunities. You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time or those breaks aren’t going to happen.

“I suppose there are some artists in the world who do work that they never show to anybody, but I can’t fathom that.”

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