A Glass Act

Judith Calver
Garden Design Journal
February/March 2002

Dale Chihuly's love affair with glass has endured for over 40 years, resulting in a breath-taking collection of sculptures and installations. In an exclusive interview, Judith Calver discovers how he works and what inspires the American sculptor.

While the world focuses on the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City in the United States of America this month, an exhibition in Salt Lake Art Center will feature the work of an artist whose majestic translucent installations will rival the backdrop of snow and ice outside. Dale Chihuly's trademark is transparency: he works with ice—in 1999 he erected a 64-ton wall of ice in Jerusalem's Old City to symbolise his hope that the tensions would melt in the Middle East—water and plastic. However, the work for which he has become internationally known is his range of sculptures and installations in glass.

"I've been working with glass for 40 years as an artist," he explains. "I was first taken with it as a little child walking along the beach, picking up bits of glass and shell. I was struck by its translucency, its transparency, its colour...Then I learned to blow glass in the mid-1960s, and I fell in love with glassblowing. The combination of the two [glassblowing and the qualities of the glass] have kept me interested ever since." It is the unpredictability of the material which appeals to Chihuly so much. "Glass is transparent, hard to understand," he explains. "It is formed from sand, fire and human breath—it is the cheapest material and yet the most magical."

Glass is not as fragile as one might suppose: it withstands extreme cold and heat without risk, although a quick, dramatic change in temperature may cause some damage. Some of Chihuly's installations are on such a massive scale that using only glass elements would make them very heavy. As a result Chihuly has recently been experimenting with plastics. He set up a research and development studio working with plastics and has coined the name 'polyvitro' for a type of polymer which can be introduced into his work—it weighs less than glass and can also be more durable outside if work has to be placed in an unprotected public environment.

Dream Team

Chihuly works from his studio in Washington, USA. "I work both alone and in a team," he says. "I'm an early riser, I like to get up and have three to four hours to think about what it is I want to do. Then I start working with people. I'm very fortunate that I've got a great team—a combination of artists, artisans, facilitators, shippers, packers, architects and engineers." A car accident in 1976 left Chihuly blind in his left eye and unable to blow glass any more. However, watch him work and it is instantly apparent that this does not mean he takes a back seat. Far from it—he is a large presence in the workshop, encouraging, pondering, criticising and coaxing. He draws and paints as the team works, which helps them to see what he sees. His sources of inspiration are hard to define: "I have never been good at explaining where my inspiration comes from," he says. "It comes from everywhere, from everything, from all things at all times."

The teams of glass-workers are led by 'gaffers' and Chihuly's rapport with them is crucial to the execution of his ideas. These are not always planned before work starts—he prefers to respond to what he sees and feels; to develop forms and make variations on these forms, urging his team to "Make it bigger, make it taller, make it fatter." The closeknit team is crucial to his success and Chihuly acknowledges that, "I work with different people in different ways, and at the end of the day, I feel extremely lucky that I have an immense team."

The Grand Scale

The series of works Chihuly has created has been at the forefront of the development of glass blowing as an avant-garde studio art. He has created many series of works—his 'Baskets', 'Persians', and 'Seaforms' are among his best known—but perhaps he is most celebrated for his spectacular installations. His massive chandeliers, composed of a number of different brightly coloured and dramatic glass shapes have been installed in sites around the world. "Anything I can draw, we can develop as a chandelier," says Chihuly.

Some of his pieces are site specific, while others can be exhibited in any location. Each, though, is first assembled in the studio so that the team can speculate as to what will happen when it is finally assembled on site. Each piece of glass is packed for transportation "like fine wine", in cardboard boxes and shipped by ground, sea or air. The pieces are not numbered so the final look evolves as it is put together: a metal structure is constructed and the individual elements are wired and attached to it, one by one. Chihuly directs the operation, assessing the overall shape as it develops.

Chihuly particularly enjoys working in glass houses (or conservatories): "I love glass houses—and have done ever since I was little." He currently has an installation at Garfield Park Conservatory, in Chicago, USA and states that he would "love to do a show at some point in Kew Gardens, London." Chihuly plans to complete one of his largest constructions, 'Chihuly bridge of glass', this year in Tacoma, Washington, USA. As for what the future holds beyond that, he has no preconceptions: "I tend to live in the present," he says, "If I knew where I was going at this point I'd already be there! So let's' just see what happens."

Judith Calver is a Freelance Journalist Working for Landscape Trust

©2002 Garden Design Journal