Sylvia Earle


Effortlessly I glide through a sapphire sea, admiring sparkles on the underside of slick, moving wavelets rimmed with light, gently cupping an ephemeral bit of living jelly in my hand, then turning to glimpse a dazzling sight: corals, sponges, anemones, in a riot of soft pinks, blazing reds, luminous oranges, all marked with the disciplined wildness that I love in nature - and in the Seaforms. I want to touch my tongue to the ice-clear blue smoothness of one, taste the colors allow the texture to merge with the skin of my fingertips, feel the links between humankind and that realm where most of life on earth is concentrated - the sea. With great care, I tilt one shimmering creature toward the light and am rewarded with brilliant flashes of iridescence. I am not underwater -, rather, I am looking at remarkable photographs of Chihuly's glass, remembering encounters with deep sea creatures who, if they could meet their glass counterparts, would sigh with envy or move in close to get better acquainted.

Others have eloquently described Chihuly's artistic predecessors and colleagues, his highly respected place among them and his growing legacy of students, collaborators and admirers. Here, I would like to describe something that goes beyond the realm of art - how the Seaforms and the beauty and spirit reflected in each glowing rendition inspire those who see them to value and care for the living sea. Whatever else these wondrous glass objects are as reflections of skill, passion, teamwork and sheer genius, they are also tributes - a celebration of the sea that the child Chihuly first knew near Seattle, the wild ocean where he later sailed as a fisherman, the New England shore where he developed as an artist at the Rhode Island School of Design, the oceans and archipelagos that he has sought worldwide, and, in due course, the Northwest Coast near the phenomenon known as The Boathouse, where he and the creative team who works with him now create miracles with glass.

When I first met Dale Chihuly, what caught my eye was not his curly hair, his cherubic, smiling face, the halo of blue-fire energy that surrounds him like a flame, or even the crowd of people listening to his every word. Rather, it was the drizzled mix of colors arching over the rounded toes, sides, heels and laces of the shoes peering out from the impeccably-creased trousers of his tuxedo that provoked my inner voice to whisper, "Pay attention. This is someone special."

I have yet to see a scientific tome introduced by an artist, but it is just like the consummate artist and beloved maverick Chihuly, the man with the rainbow shoes, to ask a scientist - a marine biologist - to introduce a volume illustrating his art. Perhaps he did so because I had described to him my personal love for the magical properties of glass - a passion that he shares, but for different reasons. "My dream," I told Chihuly, "is to have a glass submarine, a clear sphere within which I can sit, warm and dry, and fly to the ocean's greatest depths, seven miles down." The idea is not as fanciful as it sounds. Of all the materials engineers could select to withstand the pressure in the deepest sea - 16,000 pounds per square inch - glass is perhaps most appealing. It is, after all, virtually incompressible. With increasing pressure, glass behaves as a liquid; the molecules move closer together and, in so doing, make the structure stronger. Engineers hoping for an easy way to create loud sounds underwater for acoustic research made the astonishing discovery that a hollow glass sphere is so resistant to breaking when deployed thousands of feet underwater that high-powered bullets fired at close range merely splay harmlessly on the sphere's smooth surface. Other strong durable materials can be used to build deep-diving submarines - titanium, steel, even certain synthetic composites - but no material other than glass or glass-like ceramic is also transparent, a vital consideration for those such as I who like to see where we're going underwater. "And that's not all," I said to Chihuly. "I am inordinately fond of tektites, those smooth, founded, hollow, glassy bits of space debris that are found most commonly in the sea." My attraction for this other way of looking at glass began for me when I was an aquanaut living for weeks at a time underwater in a partly clear hollow laboratory dwelling known as "Tektite." The name was chosen to signify the sea-space parallels involved with living underwater during a program partially sponsored by NASA.

Chihuly's fascination with glass may have started as a child, he says, when he discovered gem-colored bits of it while beach combing. But serious work in this versatile medium began in 1963, when he wove small pieces of fused glass and copper wire into creative tapestries. Using suitably aquatic terms, Chihuly notes that gradually, "I learned more about the technical and fluid possibilities of the material and soon became immersed in my glasswork."

The real adventure began one night in 1965 when Chihuly snared a dollop of molten glass on the tip of a steel pipe and, with an experimental puff, created a small but wondrous bubble that triggered a new direction for his talents. This was the first step towards the exquisitely-controlled mastery of fire, gravity, glass, air and centrifugal force joined to Chihuly's distinctive exuberance and spontaneity that is so apparent in his glass sculptures today. Three decades later, Chihuly conveys an undiminished sense of wonder when he says, "To this day, I have never gotten over the excitement of molten glass.... The process is so wonderfully simple, yet so mystifying.... I'm still amazed to see the first breath of air enter the hot gather of glass at the end of a blowpipe." Part of Chihuly's genius, of course, is in making something supremely difficult and complex appear easy, as simple, say, as a perfectly-formed nautilus arising from a nondescript mass of eggs.

The sustained thrill may relate to the distinctiveness of each and every creation. While there is an underlying vision, dozens of split-second decisions determine the outcome. On a coral reef, just as in a Chihuly series, no two creatures are alike; nonetheless, there are recognizable themes that run through the entire system like organic melodies. The dynamics of a reef require close but ever-changing interactions among the players. The life and beauty of reef corals are utterly dependent on relationships such as the symbiosis between plants and animals, and the partnerships among small shrimp and large fish and between opalescent crabs and craggy sea cucumbers, all of which come together harmoniously to create much of the tangible music we admire and call "coral reef." Just so, Chihuly makes much of the teamwork underlying his art. He speaks of the vibrant and vital symbiosis between himself and his colleagues and students. To these I would add the enduring partnership he has with nature - with the sea, with life around him and with hosts of people such as I who are forever grateful to the wondering, caring spirit of the Chihuly child that continues to live within the adored and undisputed grand master of glass.

Sylvia Earle is an author, explorer, oceanographer, conservationist and former Chief Scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Published in Chihuly Seaforms, Portland Press, 1995.

More essays about Seaforms:

Chihuly Seaforms, Joan Seeman Robinson
Swept Away by a Show of Beauty, William Zimmer
Dale Chihuly: Shell Forms, Linda Norden