Chihuly and Venice

Dan Klein
Chihuly and Venice

When Dale Chihuly gets hold of an idea he is unstoppable. He seizes it wholeheartedly, explores it, experiments with it, turns it upside down, expands it beyond any known limits, involves others in the development of his dreams (though they remain his very own), and in the process surprises and delights an audience with something that is completely original. He believes strongly enough in his own vision to make the impossible happen, as he did at Pilchuck Glass School, which he co-founded in 1971 at the age of 29, as he did with the 'Chihuly Over Venice' project twenty-five years later in 1996, as he has done with every new chapter in his life. He has the courage to re-invent himself on a regular basis. His zest for living has had a profound influence on both the masters and the pupils who have been around him. His appetite for learning, particularly about Venetian glass, inspired a whole generation of glassmakers in America at the end of the last century and continues to inspire those new on the scene today.

In 1968, at the age of 26, he made his first prolonged visit to Venice, having been awarded a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant for work in glass as well as a Fulbright Fellowship. By this time he had received a B.A. in interior design from the University of Washington in Seattle, an M.S. in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin at Madison studying glassblowing under Harvey Littleton, and an M.F.A. in ceramics from RISD (the Rhode Island School of Design at Providence, Rhode Island). Before going to Venice he had written three hundred letters requesting some sort of internship on Murano. Ludovico de Santillana, the son-in-law of Paolo Venini and the director of the Venini Fabrica glassworks, was the only one from whom he received a reply. Although he was involved in an architectural project at the factory during his stay there, the main purpose of Chihuly's visit was to understand and absorb the magic of Venetian teamwork and technical wizardry built up over seven hundred years.

Chihuly and other American glassmakers who visited Venice were not able to bring much technique to Venice, 'but they took away inspiration that elevated the whole look of [contemporary] blown studio glass'. [i] In America generally and under Littleton in particular, the emphasis was on the individual. During the 1960s, Americans working in glass sought to explore how feasible it was to express oneself as an artist in this medium. How far could a glass artist go working alone in a studio? Chihuly found a very different ethic in Venice, where 'individual signature styles were shunned in favour of teamwork and intense technical experimentation'. [ii] He returned to the United States having absorbed the 'collaborative master and team approach'. [iii] In 1969 he established a glass program at RISD, where he taught for eleven years, encouraging both individuality and the discipline of teamwork. His students there included a formidable array of names such as Hank Adams, Howard Ben Tré, James Carpenter, Dan Dailey, Michael Glancy, Flora Mace, Mark McDonnell, Benjamin Moore, Pike Powers, Michael Scheiner, Paul Seide, Therman Statom, Steve Weinberg, and Toots Zynsky.

Benjamin Moore, one of Chihuly's students at RISD, had also visited Venice (in 1977), where he had met Lino Tagliapietra, whose brother-in-law had been the first Venetian to teach at Pilchuck, during the previous year. Moore wrote to Chihuly, 'As far as a Venetian glass master for Pilchuck '79, I have another dandy lined up. His name is Lino Tagliapietra. . . . [He] speaks no English, but will be great with the students. . . . [He] is a very unique and rare Venetian glass master'. [iv]

Tagliapietra had always wanted to visit America and was amazed by what he found at Pilchuck. 'I was astounded at the freedom of the students, their lack of hesitation. The boldness was so new to me. On the one hand it was a shock—the lack of cultural base, the absence of traditions. But on the other hand it was very exciting—very inspiring for my own work . . . the lack of restraint in the process, the exciting results'. [v] Norman Courtney, an American glassmaker, commented, 'Lino brought us technique, and everybody realised we had been doing it all wrong'. [vi] Talgiapietra's Venetian virtuosity has had a profound effect on American glass artists generally, and of course on the art of Dale Chihuly. By 1994 the influence of Venice was such that Tagliapietra is quoted as saying, 'I'd say that at least 70% of the technique evidenced in current American glass is absolutely Venetian'. [vii] The fact that Tagliapietra has established a close working relationship with America's leading glass artist, in a collaboration that began in 1988 with Chihuly's 'Venetians', is an important contributing factor in this statistic. Chihuly is by no means the only American artist with whom Tagliapietra has collaborated. He has also worked with Dan Dailey, Dorothy Hafner, Marvin Lipofsky, and others.

Chihuly only began working with Tagliapietra after the summer session of Pilchuck in 1987, in a rather casual way and more or less as an experiment. Before that, Chihuly had felt that his own looser and freer style of glassmaking 'had nothing in common with the technically intensive Venetian one'. [viii] In fact, when they started working together more seriously in 1988, working with Tagliapietra on the 'Venetians' freed Chihuly. Implicit faith in Tagliapietra's technical skills allows Chihuly to concentrate on the gestural charcoal, ink, pencil, and watercolour drawings which pour so naturally from him. The drawings are done to music blaring in the background: they are a feast of colour, a reaction to the excitement of the glassmaking activities all around him, the outpourings of an imagination bursting with ideas that spill over onto the drawing paper. Chihuly trusts and admires Tagliapietra. They inspire each other. Tagliapietra, used to interpreting the ideas of others, interprets the drawings perfectly. One of Chihuly's great talents is to be able to recognise talent in others, and he is generous as a team leader when using that talent. He allows the virtuosity of his collaborators to assume importance, and the unexpected happens.

The idea of doing a series called 'Venetians' came to Chihuly during a visit to a private apartment in Venice in 1987, when he had seen a collection of 1920s Venetian glass by Martinuzzi, Archimede Seguso, and Artisti Barovier. Much of the vernacular of these Venetians is quoted in the mad multiple handles, the acanthus leaves, and the swirling and twisted add-ons found in Chihuly's 'Venetians'. In typical Chihuly manner, ideas are taken and exaggerated out of all proportion, resulting in a riot of colour and extravagant surface decoration all his own. The 'Venetians' have been described as 'ill-behaved, irritating and threatening', [ix] and yet at the centre of these works, uncharacteristically for Chihuly, is a perfectly formed symmetrical vessel. Chihuly takes a certain pleasure in being irreverent and a bit shocking, but only up to a certain point. 'I do like my things kind of to be universally accepted and not only for a small audience'. [x] He likes to challenge his audience with new ideas, does not allow them to get comfortable with what they have become used to: 'When I begin something new, people usually don't like it. But at the same time when I go into the series for years, they begin to understand it. You have to see something for a while. What looks ugly right now might not look so ugly after a couple of years'. [xi] The 'Venetians' took some getting used to.

Chihuly's collaboration with Tagliapietra was of course not his first encounter with Venetian glass. Venetian glass has with him been a lifelong passion, and as a hot glass artist his way of making glass even in the earliest days of his career must always be associated with Venetian glass history. The aim of the early American pioneers was to work on their own in glass in an atmosphere as far removed as possible from the factory floor. But hot glass requires teamwork, and from the very beginning Chihuly realised this. The more he learnt about Venetian teamwork, the more he visited Venice, and the better he got to know Venetian glassmakers, the more Venetian techniques were used in his way of working. This in turn had a knock-off effect on all who were around him either as students or as associates.

Chihuly also worked with two young American 'maestri', Benjamin Moore and Richard Royal, on the 'Venetians'. Moore had already been seduced by the Venetian way of glassmaking on his trips to Murano. Both he and Richard Royal, as well as the virtuoso glassblower William Morris, learnt and taught at Pilchuck and, with Chihuly, Tagliapietra, and others, are responsible for turning Seattle into what has become known as the 'Venice of the West'. With each new gaffer or 'maestro', there are changes of detail in the pieces. Chihuly always remains the master of ceremonies, standing at his table with drawing paper and painting materials, the pro-active side of him drawing and designing pieces, the re-active side alive to what is going on around him, to the creative possibilities that a member of the team might bring to the game. A gesture or a chance happening will suddenly inspire him, and he goes back to the drawing board to capture it. 'Drawing is a fluid process like glassblowing is a fluid process', [xii] Chihuly says. He has always been a talent spotter and uses the talents of others as a springboard for his ideas. In so doing he enriches both his own work and the creative energies of those who work with him. Today Tagliapetra is a world-famous artist in his own right, but his work with Chihuly greatly widened his horizons, unlocking potential that he might otherwise never have discovered in himself.

It has been very much the same pattern with Pino Signoretto, the other great Italian 'maestro' to work with Dale Chihuly. In 1992, Signoretto was teaching a class at Pilchuck and asked Chihuly to make a drawing for him to execute in glass. 'I made a drawing of a piece of glass with several cupids on it. Normally I don't like the look of figures in glass, but the putti look just right in glass', Chihuly said. Putti are more commonly depicted in paintings or in wood or plaster sculpture, but in 1999 Chihuly commented, 'The Putto is happier in glass'. [xiii] Over the years the collaboration between Signoretto and Chihuly has developed. A first series of 'Venetians' with Signoretto used the Italian 'maestro's' talents for sculpting in hot glass to add figurative elements to the series. Signoretto spoke little English, as did Tagliapietra in the beginning. The main language of communication in the glass community is body language and the language of glass choreography. In the frenetic processes of handling hot glass, there is little time for language anyway. A thumbs up or an expressive gesture of some sort is the best way of communicating.

In 1999, Chihuly, Signoretto, and their team created another body of work, and a fascinating video has been produced that captures what is required to make the complicated vessels that stand five feet high with stoppers combining putti and animals. On Murano, Signoretto has his own small factory, where he works with a team of four. Chihuly has made such demands on his extraordinary skills that in a Chihuly session both the pieces and the team have grown to massive proportions. The team grew to fourteen (and on occasion as many as seventeen) people. Once again Chihuly has expanded both his own and Signoretto's artistic and technical limits. With his usual generosity Chihuly says that Signoretto is 'the greatest glass sculptor of our time'. [xiv] The putti and animals combined are, apart from anything, extraordinary feats of technical virtuosity. Sculpting a figure in hot glass with expressive gestural details (let alone curly hair) is complicated enough, but to have a putto sitting on a rabbit or kneeling on a fish entails making two complicated figures and joining them together in a feat that demands engineering skills. Only Chihuly would dare making such demands from the world's most famous sculptor in glass; only Chihuly had the vision to know that the idea was do-able. Chihuly makes light of the brilliance of it all with a characteristic Chihuly sentiment: 'Once I give him the concept, I let him run. . . . Nobody knows better than "The Master"'. [xv]

'Chihuly Over Venice' was equally visionary. The plan was to make a series of chandeliers in glass factories around the world. They were produced at Hackman Nuutajärvi in Finland, at Waterford Crystal in Ireland, at the Vitrocrisa factory in Monterrey, Mexico, at The Boathouse in Seattle, and at Vetreria Signoretto on Murano. In a sort of grand finale, the chandeliers were to be brought together and suspended over the canals of Venice. It was only by chance that in 1996, at very short notice, a glass biennial was planned with the blessing of the Venetian authorities. Chihuly seized the chance of making the 'Chihuly Over Venice' project an important part of the biennial. Against all the odds, permission was granted (sometimes at the eleventh hour) to hang fragile glass sculptures in or near famous Venetian landmarks.

The chandeliers are brilliant structures, composed of simple blown elements, each tied with wire to a central metal armature. Once assembled, the elements hang in a cluster like a gigantic bunch of grapes. They are not chandeliers in the true sense, as most are not self-lighting. They are hanging sculptures. In Venice local by-laws prevented them from being hung. Instead they were suspended within custom-built metal tripod-like supports. The clear glass chandelier in the Ducal Palace was one of the most successful of them. It rose up from the floor like a giant climbing plant that reached upwards to a traditional Murano glass chandelier that hung directly above it, creating a lively dialogue between past and present. The effect was magical. The other chandeliers were monochromatic jewel-like clusters in brilliant colours. As always, the Chihuly colour palette is a thrilling one. Reminiscent of the transformation process in Christo's wrapped buildings and bridges, 'Chihuly Over Venice' cast 'La Serenissma' literally in a new light.

'Chihuly Over Venice' was a festival thought up by an entrepreneur. For Chihuly the glass structures were only a part of the whole. The act of making the work in glass at locations all over the world and assembling the body of work in Venice was a symbolic gesture, a recognition of his debt to Venetian glassmakers, a 'thank you' to Venice. The whole undertaking was more like a Hollywood studio production than a glass exhibition. Filming the story was an important part of the whole. Both the works and the way they are made lend themselves to cinematic treatment. The grand finale in Venice was also used as a grand occasion for celebration and for the most wonderful parties. It is all a part of the Chihuly experience and what has made him such a popular artist.

Artistically speaking, the chandeliers as a whole have added enormously to Chihuly's oeuvre. In conceiving them and making them, he brings together his many talents as a colourist, innovator, and conceptual thinker. The structure devised for making the chandeliers allows Chihuly a great deal of artistic freedom and suits his gestural and instinctive way of working. Creation happens in the process of making. One form suggests the next, allowing his creative juices to flow even as a chandelier is being made. The structural solution also allows Chihuly to think big. He can add almost as many parts as he wishes in this way of working. The chandeliers are not simply random clusters of their individual parts. Their final shape grows organically, so that they take on wholeness in their finished state. One almost forgets that they are made of individual parts in looking up at the single blaze of colour and light that emanates from them.

The book 'Chihuly Over Venice' is dedicated to Ludovico de Santillana, 'an extraordinary man, who took me into his factory when I was a student and allowed me to work and watch the great masters of Venini, an experience that changed my life'. [xvi]


  1. 'Neues Glas' 2/90, p. 88
  2. 'Dale Chihuly Installations, 1964–1992', Seattle Art Museum, p. 29
  3. idem
  4. 'Pilchuck: A Glass School', p. 160
  5. 'Glass' No. 39 1990, p.13
  6. 'Pilchuck: A Glass School', p. 163
  7. 'Glass' No. 56, Summer 1994, p. 39
  8. 'Vetro' April/June 2000, p. 15
  9. 'Glass' No. 39, 1990, p. 22
  10. 'Neues Glas' pp. 17/18
  11. idem
  12. 'Chihuly', second edition, revised and expanded, p. 154
  13. Quote from video 'Chihuly working with Pino Signoretto'
  14. idem
  15. idem
  16. 'Chihuly Over Venice' 1996, dedication

Published in Chihuly at the V&A, Portland Press, 2001

Also from Chihuly at the V&A:
Chihuly at the V&A, Jennifer Hawkins Opie
Venetian Traditions, Reino Liefkes