ALTERNATIVE SPACE, DALE CHIHULY


Lois Tarlow

 

Glass as an art form is in its infancy. Unlike other media, it has no history of individual artists creating unique pieces either functional or nonfunctional. The famous names-Lalique, Tiffany, and Steuben-belong to designers of glass for commercial production, often of high quality as well as quantity.

Dale Chihuly, then, is a new breed of artist in a medium barely two decades old. It is safe to say he is the most noted artist working in glass today. He makes up for the centuries of well-kept technical secrets, the inaccessibility of equipment, and the relegation to a second-class medium that have prompted artists to ignore glass as an art form. In his flamboyant approach to glassblowing Chihuly is like a theatrical director of a road show. So far, in 1982, he has assembled his crew in six states to make glass. With his energetic, peripatetic ways, Chihuly is greatly helping to take creative glassblowing out of obscurity and into museums and galleries across the country.

D.C.
It's a big show, this glassblowing. One critic who watched me at work with my group said I reminded him of P.T. Barnum.

L.T.
Where do you get your workers?

D.C.
I fly them in from here and there. It's not always the same crew. They interchange. From 1970 to 1974 I always worked with Jamie Carpenter. Now, I work with three or four people, usually former students, who are now artists or craftsmen with their own careers. When we don't work here at RISD, we go to different places and work intensely for about two weeks. I get up at 4 A.M. and get to work by 5. We work straight through without a coffee break. I don't want to stop the momentum. For meals I have a cook provide whatever they want to eat and drink. After two weeks everyone is exhausted. I work less than a quarter of the year. When we reconvene, it's in a different location. It spurs energy. Coming back to the same place is anticlimactic.

L.T.
Do they do the glassblowing for you?

D.C.
Yes, and I do it, too.

L.T.:
And, of course, it's your design.

D.C.
Yes, I do drawings while they're working. I never drew until a couple of years ago.

L.T.
Your drawings are wonderful, very vital and natural.

D.C.
As the years have gone by, I have relinquished more of the making of the glass. I am more effective as the director of the team than as a finisher or gaffer. I oversee all the positions. Each person has a specific thing to do. The first person starts with the color and must know just what I want. Then, it goes into the optical mold. Then, it's decorated, and ultimately, it goes to the master. Sometimes I'm drawing; sometimes I'm working. I go where I'm needed. And if something goes wrong with the team, I can sense it. I know when the relationship between two people is not right or if someone is hung over or depressed. I can jack them up. If one person is a bit off, it throws off the whole team. If the master in a glass factory doesn't feel well, everyone goes home. He's like a prima donna.

L.T.
Do most glass artists work in teams?

D.C.
Oddly enough, not now. Through the two thousand years of the blowpipe, however, it has always been done in teams. Glass itself has been around for four thousand years. It has a great history. The equipment is the same as that invented by the Romans. From the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, the Venetians developed the craft to a high degree. They put all the glassblowers on the small island of Murano in the Venetian Lagoon. The purpose was to maintain the fires and to preserve the secrets. There were two hundred factories with several hundred workers each. You can imagine how many glassblowers there were on this small island a couple of miles long. They were not allowed to leave on penalty of death. If they managed to escape, their families were executed. If they got to England, they were knighted. It took a couple of centuries for the secrets to get out into the rest of Europe. Because of the strong tradition of secrecy, even in this day it's very difficult to get into glass factories, and then, nobody tells you how to do anything. So, it was never possible in all the centuries of glassblowing for any artist interested in working with glass to learn anything about it. You know how artists are-if they can't get to glass, they'll use clay or some other material.

L.T.
So glass then was maintained for commerce rather than art.

D.C.
Yes. You'll find no individuals emerging as you do in other media like sculpture, painting, or architecture. Tiffany and Lalique were really designers whose glass was mass-produced. I don't know how many windows Tiffany made-maybe tens of thousands. Since the windows were commissioned, you could say there were art. But I have some trouble with the windows, even though the glass was wonderful. Someone may be very good at making glass, but the attitude is very different when it's made for a factory. Picasso made more drawings than Tiffany made designs, but he did it with a noncommercial attitude. The first glass artist to emerge was Maurice Marinot, a Fauvist. His friend owned a glass factory, so he was able to learn how to blow glass. Tiffany and Lalique didn't know how to blow glass.

L.T.
Where do you rate Steuben?

D.C.
This is the most famous of American glass factories. It makes wonderful glass, but I'm not interested in glass factories and designing glass. I have designed for Steuben and for Venini, a famous glass factory in Italy. I prefer to make unique pieces of my own choosing. If someone wants to buy them, fine; if not, fine.

L.T.
Then you're really a sculptor.

D.C.
I stay clear of the argument between art and craft.

L.T.
How did glass as an art medium get started in this country?

D.C.
What's called the studio art movement started at the University of Wisconsin through the efforts of Harvey Littleton, a ceramist and the son of a glass scientist at Corning Laboratories. Now, after two thousand years of the history of glassblowing, it is the universities that are the patrons of the studio glass movement. Unless you are independently wealthy, you couldn't afford to build a studio and blow glass for a few years until you got good enough to have sales. It costs me over a thousand dollars a day to work, but I'm excessive. I'm excessive in most everything I do.

L.T.
You've been teaching for a long time.

D.C.
For about ten years at RISD. I've been an artist-in-residence for the past two or three years. I also started my own school on the West Coast, the Pilchuck Glass Center, in Washington State, the only school devoted entirely to glass. It now has a faculty of thirty-five in the summer. For ten years I was at RISD in the winter and Pichuck in the summer, in addition to putting on lots of exhibitions. I wanted to spend more time with my work. So now I function as an example to students. That's how I learned.

L.T.
How did you get into glass in the first place?

D.C.
I was taking a weaving course toward a degree in interior design. The teacher asked us to incorporate other materials. I chose glass, which was an odd idea. I had to fire the glass so it would have smooth edges and not cut the weaving. By the time I graduated in 1965, I had a pretty good knowledge of glass. Even though I went to work as a designer for an architect, I spent most of my time working with glass. One odd part to this story is that without ever having seen glassblowing, I melted some glass and blew it with a pipe I found in the basement. That was really exciting. In the meantime I had received a Fulbright for weaving. But the host country, Finland, rejected me, because so many Americans had ripped it off in the sixties. So, as fate would have it, I ended up studying glassblowing at the University of Wisconsin and really got into it. As an interior designer I didn't really know anything about fine art, but right away I started to do sculptural things. I also started for the first time to hang around artists. I was twenty-three. It opened my eyes to see how artists thought, worked, functioned, and even cooked. The best possible way for a young person to get an art education is to be in the presence of artists. In school you learn the most from your peers. Pilchuck is set up under that premise. The faculty is there to work and the students assist them and do their own work. The teamwork approach is right for me. The life of an artist can be a very solitary one, and I like to be around people and to work with them. So the essence of my work is in two things: collaboration and spontaneity.

L.T.
They would seem to be mutually exclusive. To get spontaneity with a group effort seems nearly impossible.

D.C.
That's an interesting point. However, the system works for me. The people I choose have to make a lot of quick decisions. Glass is a very quick medium. My work relies on heat and gravity. It develops in the furnace. We use hardly any tools.

L.T.
Can you make changes?

D.C.
Usually not.

L.T.
Can you reheat?

D.C.:
Hardly ever. In fact, I push my workers to eliminate steps. I like to be able to do it in one breath. Poof! There it is!

L.T.
There is definitely an immediacy to your work.

D.C.
That's what I strive for.

L.T.:
Your forms always seem to relate to the sea.

D.C.:
The Seaforms series came from what I call the Pilchuck Basket series, which began in 1977. It was inspired by Indian baskets standing crumpled in a museum storage area. I wanted to blow glass as thin as a basket. I started piling my pieces together although that was not the original intention. So they became sculptural. Without my realizing it, they evolved into sea forms: shells, jellyfish, and urchins. I was so involved in making the shapes and working with the color that someone else had to point out that similarity to me. I'm not concerned with my source material and I'm not particularly conceptual. The shell forms got bigger, thinner, and more elegant. We couldn't make them thinner or more refined. I had reached the maximum and felt I wanted to work in a cruder way-not that this new series is really crude.

L.T.:
It's very varied and rich looking. What do you call it?

D.C.:
It's called Macchia, which means "spotted" in Italian. It also means sketch or speckle. The name was suggested by Italo Scanga, and Italian artist, who is my mentor. Some of the colors are very garish. They are still vessel shapes. Often there's an opaque color inside and an almost opaque contrasting color outside.

L.T.:
This one is my favorite. I can hardly keep my hand out of it. It's a marine hideout.

D.C.:
No matter what I do it seems to come from the sea. A diver told me the colors I'm using are in the depths of the sea.

L.T.:
Well, you practically live in it in this boathouse on Pawtuxet Cove.

D.C.:
And I have a green bathtub four feet by seven feet in front of this huge window. I like the idea of being in water while looking at water.

L.T.:
Your assistant, Danny, told me how vital photography is to your work, that most people know your work through reproductions in magazines and journals and that photography is for you a way of controlling how people see your work. The multitudes of slides and the combination storage and viewing cabinets with built-in lights and sliding panels of transparencies are worthy of the finest museum slide library.

D.C.:
That's right. I have a particular interest in photography. As we sit here there is a photographer downstairs photographing my work to my specifications. I will be having shows in four museums: Phoenix, Tucson, San Diego, and St. Louis. We are taking the occasion to produce a catalog with fifty-three color plates nine by twelve inches. There will be a few black-and-whites.

As Chihuly said of himself, he does everything in excess. His is also able to do many things simultaneously. While giving himself over to the interview, he was aware of and in control of the sights and sounds around him. During our conversation he designed ensembles of his work for the photographer and discussed with him the music filling the room. Without compromising his work, he can be involved fully in both the aesthetics and economics of his career. Only a highly charged, magnetic personality can direct a team of artists in producing a unique creation in such a no-room-for-error medium as glass. Not only does he perform as a circus ringmaster, he could, no doubt, fill in for the juggler at the same time.

 

Published in Art New England. (July/August 1982): 16-17.