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Glass Act: Dale Chihuly in Seattle, London and Jerusalem

Sarah Greenberg
Art Newspaper, International Edition
May 1999

Setting off to see Dale Chihuly is a bit like searching for the Wizard of Oz. The celebrity glass artist resides in Seattle, the nearest thing to the Emerald City that America can offer, and, like the famous wizard, he dwells in a colourful world of his own making—one in which he changes his mind from a moment to the next and his entranced team of assistants hurries to keep pace.

The day our interview had been scheduled and a flight to Seattle booked, he decided the weather was too cold and jetted down to his desert home in Palm Springs. "This happens all the time. His plans change daily, even hourly. There are 150 people working here. Our sole purpose is to keep up with him and we cannot keep up," explains his chief assistant, Joanna Sikes. "After you've spent a few days seeing everything here just fly down to the desert and visit him there," she suggested, as I arrived for what was supposed to be an afternoon appointment at the Boathouse: the "hot shop," headquarters and home of the master of glass, whom people around here refer to as "the rock star." Glass art's answer to Nirvana has a lot to answer for.

For one thing, he has pulled glass off the shelf and into the world. Whether one calls them garish or glorious—or both—Chihuly's fantastical glass forms are growing bigger all the time and they are multiplying. From the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas to the new line of Disney Cruise ships, the Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas and the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Center to the American embassies in London, Paris and Dublin, Chihuly is spreading. In 1995-96 he embarked on one of the largest art projects ever undertaken: leading his team of glassblowers around the world to make and exhibit his trademark chandeliers in four different places famous for their glass—Finland, Ireland, Mexico and Venice. In "Chihuly over Venice," organised to coincide with the first Venezia Vetro Biennale, he placed nineteen quivering glass installations all over the city, from the Doges' Palace to the gondola yard of San Trovaso.

At present he is busy planning his next and biggest project: building a twenty-five-foot mountain of pink glass at the ancient Citadel of David in Jerusalem's Old City to mark the millennium. This autumn, he is breaking ground on the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in his hometown of Tacoma, Washington, which will link the city's new International Glass Museum (scheduled for completion in 2001) with Union Station, a train depot filled with Chihuly's glass installations. This November he has been invited to make a piece for London's Victoria & Albert Museum to emphasise their new commitment to contemporary art. In the year 2000, he is planning "Chihuly over Britain," for which he will bring his team to blow glass at factories in Belfast, Edinburgh and Sunderland, in addition to doing a demonstration at London's Royal College of Art.

In any given month there is at least one Chihuly museum show underway somewhere in the world. And those with a spare half a million dollars can commission a Chihuly for the bottom of their pool, floating as a garden ornament in a pond or hanging as a chandelier. Prices start at around $10,000 for small pieces, rise to $75,000 for more modestly sized installations and stretch to $1 million or so, which the Bellagio ceiling is rumoured to have cost. Chihuly does fifty private commissions a year. "We started making the chandeliers in 1992 and we didn't sell any for three years. Now they're the bulk of our business," says Joanna.

Chihuly himself does not know exactly how many pieces he executes per year but he registered 1,600 finished pieces in 1998 and does about 600-800 drawings per year. On the morning I have reached him on his cell-phone in the desert, he is completing a set of ten drawings, calling out orders to his assistants like "don't put it in too logically." His helicopter film crew is whirring overhead (he owns a film company, which records all of his work, as well as a publishing company which distributes all of his books and catalogues) and the call-waiting on his phone constantly cuts in. Demand for Dale is high. I am made to feel lucky.

Still, how can a man who claims that glass is the cheapest material known to man, since it is almost entirely made of sand, ask such high prices? "Why do people pay a lot for a piece of steel bent by Mark de Suvero or Richard Serra? It's not about the price of the material, it's what you do to it," he says. "I made the market. I say what the price is and people pay it. But it took me over ten years before I sold my first piece."

Chihuly became interested in glass as an interior design student in the early 1960s, when he wove it into his tapestries; he blew his first glass bubble in 1965, when he experimented with melting glass on his stove (don't try this at home). He then attended the University of Wisconsin to study art because it had the only glass programme in the country. But he did not have his first museum show until 1971 or his first commercial gallery show until 1977. "I still remember pricing the glass cylinders at $1,000 a piece—higher than had been asked for a craft item before," says Chihuly. Eight sold and he has never looked back.

Since then, Chihuly has created an art form, infrastructure and market for glass where none existed before. In 1968, Chihuly built Seattle's first "hot shop"—the workshop with furnaces and ovens where glass is blown. Today Seattle boasts ninety "hot shops," 3,000 people working in glass and over 300 glassblowers—a total higher than that of the island of Murano, where he found his inspiration.

The Pilchuck Glass School outside of Seattle, which he started as a hippy commune with a $2,000 grant in 1971, has turned into a world famous summer school for glass, attracting the top international glassblowers, training 250 students per year and with an annual operating budget of over $2 million.

In the past decade, says Chihuly, the market for glass has really revved up. "All the things you need to make a movement have finally come together: artists, galleries, collectors and museums." He has opened up a new market for collecting among people who did not traditionally collect art and increasingly places his glass creations in non-art environments: baseball stadiums (players for the Yankees and the Mariners collect his work); cars (he redesigned a Jeep for General Motors), forests and ponds.

"Everybody responds to glass as a material. Just think of the way people respond when they walk into a medieval cathedral. And if you had to pick one material to define twentieth-century architecture, it would be glass. It is both accessible and exotic. It is ancient and modern, fragile and strong, mysterious and transparent."

And it is fun. Nothing can prepare the uninitiated visitor for the thrill of walking into Dale's "hot shop," his glass studio housed in a former crew boathouse on the shores of Seattle's Lake Union. The sheer scale of it is breathtaking. One wall is covered floor to ceiling in pigments—colour comes in rods, powder, gravel—like chips to create the different effects. Samples of Chihuly's spun candy glass chandelier forms hang from the walls, like pots in a professional kitchen. On another wall, the "glory holes" of the furnaces burn with an orange glow.

The shop floor is teeming with young men who epitomise the Seattle grunge rock look, wearing wraparound shades to protect them from the heat of the furnaces, ski hats, layers of T shirts, baggy trousers and wrist bands to support their wrists against the weight of the blowpipe—if they weren't blowing glass they'd be snowboarding. Wailing refrains of what the lone female glassblower here describes as "angry white boy music" fill the vast room. Joanna assures me that when Dale is here he listens to the Beatles and opera. He also relaxes in his den, filled with a collection of Picasso pots, Pendleton blankets and Northwest Indian baskets, and he exercises in a lap pool lined in his own flower-like "Persian" glass forms.

Paint covers every available surface in the studio; it is dripped on the floor, on the walls, tables, shoes, his workers' clothes. "He draws on every available surface, including us," says Joanna. Dale has tacked up sketches everywhere as models for his blowers. He communicates his ideas with drawings, squirting tubes of acrylic paint wildly to illustrate a form to his team, streaming on veils of colour and shimmer, using a Pollock-like flick of paint to show a reflection—all in a matter of minutes. When he is out of town he sends up to 150 faxes a day, most covered in a web of intricate scribbles. To an innocent bystander, these look like abstract drawings; to his team they are blueprints.

Since 1976, when he lost one eye in a car accident in the English countryside (on the way to visit the artist Peter Blake), Chihuly has worn a patch over one eye and has no depth perception, so he is no longer able to blow glass himself. Instead he draws two-dimensional, "flattened" visions of what he wants to see and then choreographs his team of ten to fifteen glassblowers in a manic dance of blowing, forming and painting the molten glass at a breakneck pace, since the minute the glass cools it can no longer be worked. The master will coach and cajole, gesticulate wildly and embrace his workers as he watches his vision take shape in their hands. He is utterly engaged in the work and even when he is away calls out his instructions in hundreds of daily voice mail messages.

After the studio visit, Joanna leads me out into the glass-strewn gravel driveway and says, "Now I'm taking you to see where it's all put together." A short drive leads us to a sound-stage-like structure where Dale's team builds life-sized "sets" to test the installations. For the Bellagio, they built a mock-up of the casino ceiling; for the Disney cruise ships they built the two-story lobbies. Sound, light and structural crews will do anything from hauling in dirt, if a work is supposed to go on the ground, to creating the reflections of water and the effects of wind. The presentation to the client here is a dress rehearsal for the way the work will look and behave once it is installed in situ.

At present they are experimenting with ways to build the Jerusalem mountain, a hollow structure for viewers to walk in and around. Should it be a cone or a pyramid? Should they build it out of glass, or the Polyvitro which Dale prefers, a plastic polymer that looks and acts like glass but is substantially lighter and shatter-proof.

All of this is a far cry from Murano, where Chihuly first learned the art of glassblowing while on a Fulbright scholarship at the Venini glass factory in 1968. "I first applied to go to Finland to study ceramics, but it was a period when Americans were stealing a lot of Scandinavian design ideas and marketing them in the States, so the Finns rejected me," says Chihuly. "Then I decided to apply to do glassblowing, and Venice is the Mecca. I sent slides and letters to 300 companies all over Italy and the only one to reply favourably was Venini, the best glass company in Venice. They said I could come for a few weeks only to watch—not to blow. But they did let me make a model."

Chihuly's real accomplishment was to bring Venetian glassblowing techniques and Venetian glassblowers, such as Lino Tagliapietra, Italo Scango and Pino Signoretti, to America, transforming what had been the tiny studio glass movement. As a day-job, he began teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he set up the glass department. In 1971, he gathered a bunch of like-minded people together and started what is perhaps best described as a glassblowing summer love-in at Pilchuck, a tree farm outside Seattle. Tuition was free but students had to bring their own camping gear and food.

"We were part of the Woodstock generation and that whole hippy thing. We wanted to get back to nature. I didn't think we were doing it for anything more than a summer," said Chihuly. The first year they blew glass at a makeshift "hot shop" under a tent in the woods. For ten weeks they tripped-out on glass, experimenting with it in every possible way, from cooking pancakes on hot glass, to floating glass bubbles in the duck pond. "I spent my $2000 teacher's grant and was $7000 in hock," recalls Chihuly. "Then John and Ann Hauberg, who owned the tree farm, donated the land and gave me $20,000 to keep going."

The amazing thing about Pilchuck Glass School today is that despite its world-class status, it still looks like a summer camp. The wood cabins and tree-houses, the tipi-style "hot shop" and laid-back attitude all belie the fact that the school now attracts around 800 applicants for the 250 spots it offers in its series of intense two-week summer school courses. Everybody who is anybody in the glass world has come here as a student or a teacher, including the Libenskis from Czechoslovakia, Jan Erik Ritzman from Sweden and several Venetians. This year Jim Dine and Judy Pfaff are among the artists-in-residence. The current artistic director, the artist Pike Powers, describes Pilchuck's mission as, "One foot in the experimental, one foot in tradition. We are committed to remaining very open and very intense. We were started with a 'you-can-do-it' attitude and everyone who comes gets ignited by it." The school is a private, not-for-profit organisation which raises most of its income through a benefit auction (last year's sale of ten items raised around $1.3 million) and private donations.

Lino Tagliapietra, the master glassblower whom Chihuly describes as "the best glassblower in Italy, which basically means the world," has come to Pilchuck every summer since 1979, when he replaced his brother-in-law Cecco Ongaro. Thanks to him, the terms "filigrano," "battuto" and "inciso" are standard vocabulary here for the delicate effects kept secret by centuries of Venetian glassblowers. Although it was no longer punishable by death to transmit these techniques, as it was in the Renaissance, glassblowing remained veiled in mystery in Italy well into the twentieth century and consequently was becoming a dying art there.

"People sometimes say terrible things because I went to the States," Tagliapietra said in Pilchuck: A Glass School (1996), which charts the history of the place. "The reason I left Murano is because Murano did not give me the opportunity to stay there." At Pilchuck Tagliapietra found the students' freedom exhilarating. "The boldness was so new to me. On the one hand it was a shock—the lack of a cultural base, the absence of traditions. But on the other hand it was very inspiring for my own work." Lino opened all of the secrets of Venetian glass and once he arrived at Pilchuck, everyone realised they had been doing it wrong. In the early days, he observed that American glassblowing was like "working with a wood chisel—but holding the knife end in your hand and working with the handle."

"Lino is a force. He loves to cook as much as he loves to teach people about glassblowing," says Chihuly. "Glassblowing is a group effort. It requires a team of between three and fifteen people and to be a great artist, you have to be a real leader. You can't just be good at it; you have to be able to inspire your team."

Tagliapietra now shuttles between Venice and Seattle and his career has taken off in both places, with his one-of-a-kind works selling in the five and six figures. His refined, sculptural pieces are a far cry from Dale's free-form creations, but there is enough room for both at Pilchuck and in today's thriving market for glass. "Lino is more of a master, whereas Dale is more of a ring-leader," says Josiah McElheny, a young glass artist who has worked with them both.

It is this "ring-leader" role that best defines Chihuly. For though he admires fellow artists such as David Hockney (Chihuly recently bought one of Hockney's "Grand Canyon" colour Xeroxes for his desert home and Hockney has two Chihulys on his grand piano), it is Andy Warhol with whom he most identifies. In the early 1980s Chihuly and Warhol traded pieces with each other: Warhol chose a "Sea Form" and Chihuly chose a dollar bill silk screen. Andy had the factory; Dale has the boathouse. Group participation is essential to both of their work, although where Warhol had a darkly ironic side, Chihuly runs on manic enthusiasm. It is as hard to imagine Warhol shouting "Wow! Cool stuff" as it is to imagine Chihuly wearing black.

"Warhol is my favourite artist, and there are still so many sides of him that haven't been completely explored: his movies, magazines, bands," enthuses Chihuly. "What struck me most about meeting him was that he seemed honest. Unlike most artists, if you asked him how long a piece took to make, or how many pieces he had made, he would never lie. Artists, of all people, should tell the truth."


©1999 The Art Newspaper