"I call myself an artist for lack of a better word," Dale Chihuly, whose medium is glass, told an interviewer in 1995. "I'm an artist, a designer, a craftsman, interior designer, half-architect. There's no one name that fits me very well." The difficulty of categorizing him notwithstanding, Chihuly is universally labeled a glass artist, and in the domain of contemporary glass art, he is probably unsurpassed in his artistic and technical inventiveness and boldness, professional success, and influence. "An unquestioned genius," as Robert T. Buck, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, has called him, he has become the most celebrated glassmaker in the United States since the turn of the century, when Louis Comfort Tiffany made stained glass a prominent feature of American interior design. Thanks in large measure to Chihuly, hand glassmaking, long considered a craft or decorative art, has gained recognition as a fine art, and the market for blown-glass objects, which was virtually nonexistent as recently as the mid-1970s, is thriving. Since 1976, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, purchased three of Chihuly's pieces, more than a hundred museums worldwide have acquired works by him for their permanent collections, and many major corporations and institutions have installed his creations in their public spaces. His work has been exhibited at dozens of museums and galleries, including the Louvre, in Paris, which honored him with one of its rare solo shows in 1986.
Trained in interior design and fine art at American universities, Chihuly was introduced to centuries-old techniques of team glassmaking when, in 1968-69, he served as an apprentice in Italy. Since the late 1970s, when he lost the sight in one eye and a subsequent injury to a shoulder forced him to abandon glassblowing, he has led his own teams of artisans and thereby produced a body of work remarkable for both its size and its diversity. His collaborative approach revolutionized contemporary American glassmaking and is considered one of his most significant contributions to his field. With the imagination and intuition of a master choreographer, he has drawn on his teammates' talents and ideas to transform his artistic concepts into brilliantly colored, uniquely shaped creations that "dazzle the eye and tantalize the mind" and that, while firmly grounded in tradition, "push the edges of art glass beyond anything made anywhere in the world," as Maryilynn S. Mason observed in the Christian Science Monitor (July 15, 1993). Chihuly, who taught at the Rhode Island School of Design for a dozen years, cofounded the Pilchuck Glass School, near Seattle, which in a quarter of a century has become what Jon Krakauer, writing in Smithsonian (February 1992), described as "the hub of the vast and continually expanding art-glass universe."
The grandson of immigrants from Czechoslovakia and Sweden, Dale Patrick Chihuly was born on September 20, 1941 in Tacoma, Washington. He was the second of the two children of George Chihuly, a meatcutter and union organizer, and Viola Chihuly, a homemaker, who worked as a barmaid after being widowed. In a profile of the artist for ARTnews (April 1993), Margaret Moorman described his mother as "industrious, encouraging, [and] progressive in her child-rearing" and as "perhaps the most important force" in his life in adulthood as well as childhood. Raised in a working-class neighborhood of Tacoma, as a teenager Chihuly fell in with a group of juvenile delinquents, but he refrained from participating in his friends' more egregious acts of lawlessness. After his brother was killed in a navy flight-training accident in 1957, and his father died of a heart attack a year later, his interest in school evaporated. Nevertheless, in 1959, following his graduation from high school, he enrolled at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma. "I only went to college because my mother told me I should," he admitted to Margaret Moorman.
In 1960 Chihuly transferred to the University of Washington, in Seattle, where, at least partly because he had enjoyed the process of decorating a basement rec room for his mother, he majored in interior design. He has attributed to his undergraduate education, which included courses in architecture, his habit of visualizing his glass creations "as part of a space," in his words. As a freshman and sophomore, he devoted much of his time to the activities of his fraternity. He took a leave from college in 1962-63 to travel about Europe and to work on a kibbutz in Israel. During his year abroad he befriended several people whom he has described and "older father figures," who he has said helped him to mature emotionally and from whom he learned some of the finer points of middle-and upper-class social behavior.
Chihuly returned to school determined to "do it right," as he recalled to Margaret Moorman, and he became, in his words, "a great student, kind of a workaholic." While studying weaving under Doris Brockway, he created tapestries in which he incorporated strands of copper wire that he had fused with melted strips of glass. His tapestries earned him the Seattle Weavers Guild Award in 1964. That summer, while traveling by train across Canada on the first leg of a trip to Ireland and the Soviet Union, he filled an album with thousands of painted color samples that he mixed from a complete set of Winsor & Newton watercolors. In 1965 he received highest honors from the American Institute (now Society) of Interior Designers and earned a B.A. degree in interior design.
After his college graduation Chihuly got a job as a designer with a major Seattle architectural concern, where he soon discovered that playing a small supporting role in large corporate undertakings did not suit him. By that time, moreover, he had become, as he has put it, "obsessed with glass." He has traced his fixation to an incident that had occurred one night a year or two earlier (and before he had ever seen anyone blow glass), when, while casually experimenting with glass in his basement apartment-cum-studio, he melted a few pounds of it in a makeshift kiln and then dipped into the hot liquid a pipe that he had found in the basement. When he blew into the pipe, a bubble formed. "It was kind of a miracle, because you have to get it at exactly the right moment." he told Margaret Moorman. "But it happened! Then I was hooked completely."
In 1966, after leaving the architectural firm, Chihuly worked for six months on a commercial fishing troller in Alaska. Then, with his savings from that job and a substantial scholarship, he entered the graduate program in glassblowing at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He studied under Harvey K. Littleton, who is considered the founder of the contemporary studio-glass movement in the United States, having demonstrated in the early 1960s that glassmaking did not require large factorylike settings but, with the use of a new kind of furnace, could be blown by independent artists in small studios. After earning an M.S. degree in 1968, Chihuly enrolled in another master's degree program, at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Providence, where he began teaching undergraduates. He also began creating large environmental sculptures (so-called because each piece formed a mini-environment in space that potentially could literally surround the viewer). He received an M.F.A. degree in 1968. That summer and during the next three summers, he taught at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, in Maine.
Chihuly's first solo exhibition was mounted at the University of Wisconsin's Madison Art Center in 1968. Later that year, eager to expand his knowledge of glassblowing techniques and armed with both a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant and the first Fulbright fellowship to be awarded for glass studies, Chihuly went to Murano, an island near Venice that has been the center of the Venetian glass industry since the thirteenth century, to serve a year-long apprenticeship at the famed Venini glass factory. At Venini, which had never before allowed an American artisan to study its operations, Chihuly joined master craftsmen who worked as a precisely coordinated team.
Back in the United States in 1969, Chihuly established a glass department at RISD. (He subsequently helped to set up a glass program at the Snowbird Art School, a division of the University of Utah, and to build a glass studio at the Institute of American Indian Art, in Santa Fe, New Mexico.) One of his glass sculptures was included in the 1969 exhibition "Objects U.S.A.," which was organized for the Smithsonian Institution's National collection of Fine Arts and traveled to museums in the United States and Europe. In 1970 Chihuly formed what was to become a four-year collaboration with the sculptor James Carpenter, who was then an RISD student. Their uncommon talents and imaginativeness were recognized immediately: in 1971 the American Craft Museum (then known as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts), in New York City, displayed their work in a solo show. For "20,000 Pounds of Neon and Ice," which premiered at RISD in 1971 and which is perhaps the best-known product of their collaboration, Chihuly and Carpenter embedded U-shaped, neon-filled glass tubing in huge blocks of ice, the slow melting of which was an intrinsic aspect of the work. The sculpture was later fabricated for Chihuly's enormously successful 1992 retrospective exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum. In 1993, working with his long-time studio assistant Charles Parriott and using five times as much ice and neon tubing as before, Chihuly recreated it indoors for the first time, on the ice floor of the Tacoma Dome.
In 1971, with two thousand dollars in startup money from the Union of Independent Colleges of Art, Chihuly cofounded, along with the art patrons John H. Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg, the Pilchuck Glass School. The Haubergs donated the land—sixty-four acres in the middle of a tree farm—for the school and also obtained additional funding. Currently, thirty faculty members, among them world-famous glass artists and people of note in other fields of art as well, ten gaffers (master glassblowers), fifty teaching assistants, and 250 students participate in Pilchuck's annual summer workshops. A dozen artists in residence work at the school year-round. "The impact of Pilchuck on the studio-glass movement, not just in the U.S. but around the world, is immeasurable, and Dale's contribution to that success is almost beyond description," the glass artist Benjamin Moore, who has served Chihuly as a gaffer for many years, told Margaret Moorman. "He has personally pushed glassblowing farther than anyone ever imagined it could be pushed, and his whole impulse is to share his knowledge with anyone and everyone he can bring together." Although Chihuly resigned his position as Pilchuck's artistic director several years ago, he remains an active member of the faculty. He also regularly gives talks and demonstrations at junior high schools, high schools, and colleges in the Seattle area and elsewhere.
In the mid-1970s, with the help of the first of the three National Endowment for the Arts grants that he received during that period, Chihuly produced a group of glass objects that he named the Navajo Blanket Cylinders. The cylinders were shown in 1975 in solo exhibits at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, in Salt Lake City, and the Institute of American Indian Art. The next year Chihuly worked with Seaver Leslie to create his Ulysses and Irish cylinders, which were adorned with drawings that Chihuly merged with glass by means of an innovative "pickup" technique that he had recently devised. The Navajo Blanket, Ulysses, and Irish cylinders initiated the succession of series in which, with what Carol Strickland, writing in the Christian Science Monitor (October 13, 1994), called "admit-no-limits bravado," Chihuly has explored the aesthetics and techniques of glassmaking. Many of the series constitute works in progress, because, after varying lengths of time, Chihuly has further developed them, often by increasing the sizes of individual pieces and making them more colorful or flamboyant. "Dale's real forte is in sensing the value of an idea and executing it in all it permutations," James Carpenter has observed.
During a lecture tour of Great Britain in 1976, the car in which Chihuly and Seaver Leslie were riding crashed, and Chihuly was thrown through the windshield. Critically injured, he spent about a year recuperating. The damage to his left eye, however, could not be repaired, and he emerged from his ordeal with sight in his right eye only. Despite his loss of depth perception (which requires binocular vision), he continued to blow glass. In 1979, after dislocating a shoulder while bodysurfing, he turned over to other glass artisans all the physical activities that are entailed in glassmaking. "I think maybe I was ready to give [hands-on labor] up anyway," he told Jon Krakauer for Smithsonian (February 1992). "You lose the big picture when you're sitting at the bench all day." In People (November 18,1994), he was quoted as saying that he has "always [been] more interested in the product than in glassblowing itself." In any case, the idea of working alone has never held any appeal for him, and his apprenticeship at Venini had sparked in him a strong affinity for the team approach. "I love to work with people," he has said. "It inspires me to be working with a group of people on an idea. It's the way things happen for me."
By his own account, in the first decade or so of his career, Chihuly's total yearly income from sales of his artwork never topped a thousand dollars, and he supported himself on his earnings from teaching. Then, in 1976, the art historian Henry Geldzahler, who was at the time the curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bought three of Chihuly's Navajo Blanket cylinders for the museum's permanent collection. Geldzahler's purchase attracted the attention of other museum curators, and Chihuly's professional fortunes quickly began to rise. By 1980, thanks to his steadily increasing sales, he felt secure enough financially to give up his position at RISD, where he had been named head of the glass department, and devote himself to his art.
Earlier, in the summer of 1977, he had begun working on another series of glass objects. His inspiration for it was the pile of Indian-made baskets that he had seen in a storeroom of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma. "I was struck by the grace of their slumped, sagging forms," he recalled in a quote that appears in Chihuly: Form from Fire (1993), by Walter Darby Bannard and Henry Geldzahler. "I wanted to capture this grace in glass. The breakthrough for me was recognizing that heat was the tool to be used with gravity to make these forms." The hundred or so baskets that Chihuly completed by mid-1977 were exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum that fall and at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington D.C., in the following year.
Chihuly's Baskets evolved into his Sea Forms series in 1980, when he began experimenting with ribbed molds and a traditional Venetian decorative technique in which he "trailed on," or spiraled around, the body of the baskets a thin thread of colored glass, giving them the appearance of seashells. "The inner structure produced by the ribbed molds allowed us to work with much thinner glass, and we pushed the blowing process as far as we possibly could . . .," he explained in his book Chihuly: Color, Glass and Form (1986). "I felt I could make things with the blowpipe that had never been done before." Another of his projects in 1980 was the creation of large, acid-etched stained-glass windows for a synagogue in St. Louis, Missouri.
"As with the baskets, after a couple of years I felt I had pushed Sea Forms to their limits," Chihuly has said. He has traced the inception of the Macchias (1981), his next series, to his sudden desire to use all of the three hundred manufactured colors available to glassmakers and to create as many combinations and variations of them as possible. "I'm obsessed with color—never saw one I didn't like," he wrote in an article for Southwest Art (May 1994). Similar in shape to the undulant Sea Forms, each of the vessels in the Macchias series displays one color on its inner surface and a different one on its outer surface, the two hues separated and illuminated by "opaque white ‘clouds,'" in Chihuly's words, which he applied by a means of a new technique that he invented himself. "Blowing a piece that combines a range of colors is extremely difficult," he pointed out in Southwest Art, "because each color attracts and holds the heat differently." A "lip wrap"—a ribbon of glass in a third color that was laid on the mouth of each vessel—highlighted the waviness of the Macchias. "Each piece was another experiment," Chihuly recalled in Southwest Art. "When we unloaded the ovens in the morning, there was the rush of seeing something I had never seen before. . . .The unbelievable combinations of color—that was the driving force."
"Seen under bright light, [the Macchias' colors] look like nature caught on fire, nature in molten flux, nature in the process of being created," Robert Hobbs wrote in an essay for Dale Chihuly: Objet de Verre, the catalog that accompanied Chihuly's one-man show at the Louvre's Museum of Decorative Arts, in Paris. (Only two other Americans have had solo exhibitions at the Louvre.) Eventually, by solving various technical problems, he was able to increase the width of the Macchias to as much as four feet. "It turns out that size is extremely important to the Macchias, and with them I felt for the first time that a piece of my glass held its own in a room," he has said.
The Persians (1986), which Chihuly made in collaboration with Martin Blank and Robbie Miller, began, in Chihuly's words, as a "search for forms" that could be made naturally on the blowpipe. "Chihuly's control of his medium enables him to create undulating, organic forms that seem to be in motion . . . [and that] interact seductively with ambient light," Roberta Smith wrote in a New York Times (August 12, 1988) review of an exhibit of the Persians. Chihuly embarked on his next series, for which he collaborated with the Venetian master Lino Tagliapietra, by, in his words, "pretend[ing] to be a Venetian designer in the 1920s and see[ing] what [he] might come up with." Flamboyantly colored and ornamented vessels, the Venetians (1988) boldly developed the ideas of Venetian Art Deco designers. In his monograph Venetians: Dale Chihuly (1988), Ron Glowen wrote that the pieces "expand aggressively into space, like a living and growing thing. And like living things, each work of the Venetians has an individual character, . . . much more so than Chihuly's other series." "Exaggerated in size, color, and form, the Venetians surprise and astonish us—and even amuse us with their excessive splendor," Marilynne Mason reported in the Christian Science Monitor (July 15, 1993). With the addition of fanciful flowers created by Tagliapietra, the Venetians metamorphosed into the Ikebanas (1989), the design of which is reminiscent of Japanese flower arrangements.
Chihuly has worked in Seattle since 1983, and for the past five years in what he calls the Boathouse, a one-time racing-shell factory on Lake Union that he transformed into his residence as well as a glassblowing studio and shop. Functioning in his studio much like a film director who works with his own scripts, he leads a team of as many as eighteen people. According to various accounts, he has succeeded in securely maintaining artistic control while, at the same time, allowing his assistants to exercise their creativity. Many of his teammates—among them, for varying lengths of time, Flora Mace, Joey Kirkpatrick, William Morris, Richard Royal, Ginny Ruffner, Ann Gardner, Paul Marioni, and Curtiss Brock—studied at Pilchuck and have become respected glass artists in their own right. "I rely heavily on the intuition of my craftsmen . . . ," Chihuly told Jon Krakauer. "My job is to be a catalyst—to set the wheels in motion, keep the energy level high, and let things happen."
After getting an idea for a piece, Chihuly makes a very large, very rough drawing of it, applying with his hands, a broom, a brush, or other tools whatever substance happens to be close by—coffee grounds or scouring powder, for example, in addition to paint. (Executed in minutes with vigorous, sweeping motions, some of the drawings have reportedly sold for as much as three thousand dollars apiece. The prices of the glass pieces themselves range from three thousand dollars for the smallest objects to twenty thousand dollars or more for Macchia and a million dollars for an installation—a grouping of a dozen or more works.) Next, rather than proceeding to make a more precise painted rendition of the object, Chihuly discusses with his co-workers the ideas he has suggested in his drawing. The discussion continues throughout the physically demanding, labor-intensive process of blowing and shaping the glass.
"The Boathouse shelters a rollicking, hyperkinetic hive of art in the making, a scene so charged with heat and noise and unbridled energy that it makes the average MTV video clip look soporific by comparison," Jon Krakauer observed. The work proceeds with a stereo blasting "to stimulate the flow of creative juices," Krakauer wrote, and with Chihuly offering guidance and encouragement. In rapid succession, one assistant or another builds a sufficiently large ball of glass on a blowpipe, blows the glass into a bubble, adds various colors (in the form of tinted glass dust) to the piece by rolling it across a steel plate, fuses the color to the glass, shapes the glass by spinning it and by other means, attaches ornamental elements to it, and otherwise manipulates the glass, which must be reheated in an oven every two minutes to a temperature of up to twenty-five hundred degrees Fahrenheit and repeatedly blown. "At times a dozen hands are flying over the piece at once," Jon Krakauer reported. "Each move is tightly choreographed, and the crew performs as smoothly as a crack team of cardiac surgeons." The artistry and technical skill of a dozen collaborators was needed for the creation of the Niijima Floats (1991), Chihuly's latest series. (The name refers to the floats that Japanese fishermen in years past attached to their nets.) Measuring up to forty inches in diameter and weighing as much as eighty pounds, the Niijima Floats are probably the largest blown-glass spheres ever made.
Chihuly's recent works include his critically acclaimed designs for the sets of the Seattle Opera's 1993 production of Claude Debussy's 1902 masterwork Pelléas et Mélisande, which were fabricated in special plastics from Chihuly's glass models, and huge, dazzling colored chandeliers that have struck many observers as over the top in their design. "The greatest obstacle to a universal appreciation of [Chihuly's] work is that he's inevitably ahead of his audience," Henry Geldzahler noted in Chihuly: Form from Fire. "Chihuly challenges taste by not being concerned with it. . .. His sole concerns are color, drawing, and form." Among the more than one hundred museums in the United States, Canada, Europe, Asia, and Australia that own works by Chihuly are the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City; New York City's Cooper-Hewitt Museum and several other branches of the Smithsonian Institution; the Australian National Gallery, in Canberra; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; and the National Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. During a trip to Great Britain and Europe in 1994, President Bill Clinton presented Chihuly pieces to Queen Elizabeth II and French president François Mitterrand.
In Northwest Design & Living (Fall 1993), Dana Garrett described Dale Chihuly as "a frizzy-haired, eye-patched, swashbuckling bundle of kinetic energy." Jon Krakauer reported that he has a "Warholesque genius for self-promotion." "He's full of life and exciting to be around," Tracy Savage, one of his art dealers and his former production manager, told Dana Garrett. "People are drawn to him as well as to his work." Chihuly's honors include the American Council for the Arts Visual Artist's Award and, along with the Pilchuck school, the Governor's Art Award, from Washington State (both in 1984), the National Living Treasure Award, for the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (1992), The American Academy of Achievement Golden Plate Award (1994), and three honorary doctorates. He was named a University of Washington Alumni Legend in 1987. "What I like to do is work on my work more than anything else," Chihuly has said. "It's varied in such a way that I can work on a chandelier, do drawing, . . . design a book, make some phone calls about an exhibition. It's all creative in some way that has to do with people seeing my work. That means a lot to me, being able to put it up in a nice way, and have a lot of people look at it, and really like it."
Selected Biographical References: ARTnews 92:110+ Ap ’93 pors; Northwest Design & Living p28+ Fall ’93 pors; Smithsonian 22:90+ F ’92 pors; Chihuly, Dale. Chihuly: Color, Glass and Form (1986); Who’s Who in America, 1995
Reprinted from Current Biography August 1995 issue. ©1995 by The H.W. Wilson Company, used by permission of the Publisher.
Dale Chihuly: A Selective Biography, Tina Oldknow, 2003
Dale Chihuly 2002, Davira S. Taragin, 2002