A Melting Wall in Jerusalem

Peggy Andersen
Tacoma News Tribune
30 September 1999

Glass wizard Dale Chihuly, a flamboyant showman whose dazzling, delicate, outsize works have dangled over the canals of Venice and now glitter amid ancient stones in Israel, is building a new wall in Jerusalem's walled Old City.

But this wall—up to 60 feet long and 20 feet tall—will be made of ice, melting in the desert sun as a symbol of how the barriers dividing people in the tense Mideast may someday melt away.

Ice from an artesian well in an Alaska quarry—64 tons of it, in 6- by 5- by 3-foot slabs—is en route to Israel for Sunday's planned installation, which may be the first Chihuly undertaking in decades that does not involve glass or plastic.

"Alaska is about as far away as you can be from Israel," Chihuly mused one recent sunny morning at his Seattle boathouse studio on the shores of Lake Union. But the ice is "unbelievably clear" and perfect for this project.

"I've always liked the idea of ice in the desert," said Chihuly, 57, who lived in an Israeli kibbutz in 1962.

Chihuly stopped glassblowing in 1976 when he lost one eye in a car accident. Now he oversees a Renaissance-style studio operation in which dozens of glass artists execute his visions. For this one, they'll be working with ice and light.

Coddled, beneficent and unmistakable with his electric ragdoll hair and black eye patch, he spins his dreams of light and color in a rambling boathouse crammed with workers, friends and family.

For his latest work, he had considered projects in the Negev Desert and the Dead Sea. But he decided on Jerusalem, where a yearlong exhibit at the Tower of David Museum—"Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000," featuring thousands of pieces of fantastically colored and shaped glass—has drawn 200,000 visitors since July.

It seems fitting, he said.

"Jerusalem proper was a walled city—one of the great walled cities of the world," Chihuly said. It had fortifications up to 60 feet high around the citadel that houses the museum.

The ice barrier will be outside the citadel near a busy highway, enabling motorists and passers-by to see it free of charge.

It will melt within a week, which could be seen as symbolizing the dissolution of other kinds of barriers. Or "melting tensions. Anything I could do to help melt tensions over there," he said.

"I'd like to think it will make people feel good," Chihuly said. "Jerusalem is still pretty divided, east and west. This happens to be right on the border. It could bring together Jews, Muslims and Christians from different parts of the city."

The wall's form is still undecided, but some portions will probably be collapsed, Chihuly said. The big blocks will be fused together using dry ice.

"Everything changes—color, form," as ice melts, he said. The wall will initially be transparent, but over time "the sun will make it more textured, more milky" as the blocks melt, with "water running between them."

Chihuly's glass exhibit at the museum includes the Blue Tower, a fanciful 46-foot pillar made of hundreds of undulating kelp-like pieces, delicate chandeliers, iridescent and brightly colored spheres and oblongs, and forests of glass spears taller than the artist.

In an e-mail to Chihuly's studio, Israeli singer Noa Asher said that since "the Glass Magician . . . set foot in the holy land, people have been obsessed with color and beauty rather than hatred and war. Now that's an achievement."

Chihuly's art is all about light.

"I work in plastic, glass, ice and neon—all transparent materials that light can go through," he said. When people see these materials, "you're looking at light itself."

His earlier ice installations—dating back to the 1960s at the Rhode Island School of Design—were laced with brilliantly colored neon tubing.

The ice wall will be lit from the outside—by the sun in the daytime and by 4,500-watt airport landing lights at night.

"Shooting color through it" will be as dramatic as neon, Chihuly said—"in some ways more dramatic."

The light will sear through the ice in beams, he said—"No movement. Just—boom!"

Ice sculptors in Alaska call the ice he has chosen "Arctic diamonds," said Team Chihuly member Philip Stewart.

Last month, the ice was loaded into refrigerated trucks by Ice Alaska of Fairbanks and hauled by rail to Anchorage, barged to Tacoma, put on a train to New Jersey and then put aboard a ship for delivery last weekend to the Israeli port of Ashdod, where it was offloaded and trucked to Jerusalem.

Chihuly's studio workers are now at Ashdod to help prepare the ice—cleaning off the sawdust that cushioned it during shipping and shaving the block edges smooth and level for stacking.

News Tribune staff writer Jen Graves contributed to this report.

©1999 The Tacoma News Tribune