A CONVERSATION WITH DALE CHIHULY

Ron Glowen
Artweek
You've always been associated with glass, but as an educator and as founder of the Pilchuck Glass School, you've revealed an ongoing interest in other mediums and approaches.

Dale Chihuly
I had a degree in interior architecture when I first blew glass at the University of Wisconsin in 1966. But I met some interesting artists right away-painters and sculptors-who had a great influence on me. In the first three weeks of blowing glass, I made one vase, and then I never made another for years. I went into making sculpture, combining materials such as metal with glass slumped over it. My first show at the Attica Gallery in Seattle in the late sixties was all sculptural, using mixed materials and glass.

AW
What was the response to that work?

DC
All I remember is that I didn't really care. But I do remember that nobody else then was taking hot glass and making it so sculptural.

AW
So the work had a lot more to do with the formal sculptural ideas than with craft.

DC
I had people to help me make these glass forms. In the very beginning I worked with others, collaborating with craftsmen like Fritz Dreisbach.

AW
Why did you quit making those objects?

DC
I started making environments when I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. I already started using neon at Wisconsin. An interest in making utilitarian objects never took hold. I went from sculpture to environments-working with neon, and with ice-in collaboration with Jamie Carpenter. It wasn't until 1974 that I started making the first Baskets with drawings on them [made from glass rods and powder heated and embedded in the cylinder walls].

AW
So when you started the Pilchuck School in 1971, you actually were more involved with installation, temporal works, post-minimalist uses of materials, and so on.

DC
When we first started Pilchuck, the last thing we were interested in doing was craft. The first artists I brought there weren't interested in pure craft—Erwin Eisch, Buster Simpson, Jamie Carpenter. When I started thinking about leaving-around 1974-that's when Driesbach and those guys took over. Then I started to worry that the school might become too craft-oriented, too much like Penland or Haystack, which were really craft schools. So I kept my role as the artistic coordinator.

AW
Through Pilchuck, you've introduced many contemporary artists to glass—Lynda Benglis, Judy Pfaff, Dennis Oppenheim, Kiki Smith and Buzz Spector, to name a few. Did this program of visiting artists work out the way you'd hoped, that is, to get glass into the consciousness of mainstream contemporary artists?

DC
Well, the idea was simply to have good artists in the school environment. They could have been-and often were-good craft artists, as well. I was more drawn to Italo Scanga-type artists. He's been there as a resident artist from the very beginning, and he's not a glass artist but a sculptor and painter. He's also one of the early influences on my own thinking.

AW
Then this approach echoes your own experience of having been inspired and stimulated by the presence of active, vital artists, acting as mentors, who have different approaches to ideas and to the use of materials.

DC
You just need somebody to ask different kinds of questions in an environment like Pilchuck-and you have to figure out the kinds of things to ask them to get their real and honest responses, which may take you out of your own set ways of thinking. Or to get them to say what they don't like about your approach, which is something most artists don't want to hear.

At RISD, I was lucky because I could bring sculptors and painters into my program, because it was more open to architects, painters, sculptors, even if they didn't blow glass. They could do what they wanted in glass.

AW
What about art and crafts? Craft seems to maintain an allegiance to the making of objects, rather than idea or content, it has worked for some individual artists to venture into those realms, but not for the movement as a whole.

DC
My feeling is that it doesn't make any difference if the work is called art or craft or design. What matters is that it is good, good for those who decided what is good and can direct the work into museums. If they go into the museum, which has everything from native masks to painting, these objects become equals-one really isn't more important than another. If you went to the Seattle Art Museum right now, I'm not sure which area would prove to be most interesting. It might not be twentieth century art.

AW
Perhaps this points to the ways in which the reception of different types of work changes over time?

DC
It's a matter of the work being appreciated for what it is.

AW
Is it even useful, then, to maintain distinctions between what is defined as art object, or decorative craft, or design?

DC
It doesn't seem useful because of the way most museums divide their departments. They are used to create hierarchies.

AW
Does the issue of art and craft affect you now, at least in regard to your current work?

DC
I don't care what people call me-it doesn't make any difference, though it's hard to call me a craftsman because I don't make the glass. I like the idea of going back to using the objects I make into environments or installations, playing off architecture as some of my earlier work did. I remember my peers who were artists didn't like it when I started doing the Baskets in 1974.

AW
How do you regard the art/craft issue today in a more general sense?

DC
I think the art world is in a much better place now than it was twenty or thirty years ago. People are more flexible in their thinking. I've had more opportunities now than I might have had even ten years ago. It's helped me to get recognized by many great institutions. I don't know if others in ceramics or glass have gotten into them. People like Peter Voulkos should be in them, too, not just craft or regional museums.

Published in Artweek. (September 22, 1994): 13-14.

Also by Ron Glowen:
Venetians , Venetians: Dale Chihuly, 1989.