AND THE INDIAN CONNECTION
Dale Chihuly made his first trip to the Southwest in 1974, when he voluntarily veered away from his berth as the imminent head of the Glass Arts Department at the Rhode Island School of Design to accept my invitation toset up a hot shop in a old 1890's barn on the campus of the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) in Santa Fe. There he would introduce glassblowing to a small group of Indian students. He was aware of but not deterred by the fact that he was about to introduce a radically different form of art and technology into a stream of Native American art/craft traditions going back thousands of years.
Interest diminished amongst the students following that exciting introductory session but did not die. Spores of interest in glassblowing lay dormant in the walls of the Old Barn for years, and began to fluoresce a few student generations later in the mind and hands of a singular Pueblo student graduate.
Looking back some twenty-five years to those times, I have often wondered why young Chihuly, whose illustrious career was already well under way, would voluntarily give up his time and energy to engage in this experimental teaching venture in Santa Fe.
Was it Kismet? Or was there some mysterious pull between this opportunity to work with young Indians and some unconsummated feelings about nature left over from a childhood spent on long walks by the sea and wandering through rainy Tacoma forests filled with the ghosts of an ancient Norwest Indian culture?
Who can tell? But we do know that his world and that of Indians have come together more than once in his "wildly wonderful" rise to the pinnacle of international success as a peripatetic glass artist. We also know that he likes to install his finished works in natural settings, as though not to do so would leave his statements incomplete: glass Seaforms shown underwater; huge icicle chandeliers set on boulders and left there to sparkle in the summer or freeze in winter snows; and oversized glass Macchia strewn like giant flowers across grassy lawns.
It is as if the creative act for him is not enough - it must be in context with the oneness and time flow of nature. Early on, he set colored neon tubes in blocks of melting ice; glass balls were thrown into rivers to float away; colored wheels of glass were mounted to catch the sunlight sky; tipi, stick, and animal forms were placed in the woods and abandoned to the elements like ancient totem poles.
In 1975, the year after his trip to Santa Fe, Chihuly was deeply and directly affected by a collection of Navajo blankets that he discovered in a museum collection. He was compelled to divert his mind and studio resources to the development of a very significant collection of simply shaped glass cylinders decorated with blanket designs. The Navajo Blanket Cylinders are notable in the lexicon of glass art for their unusual surface textures, and their inspired patch designs, ingeniously created by composing bits and threads of colored glass on a flat surface and then picking them up by rolling molten glass cylinders over them. The finished designs appear as softly fused multicolored vignettes of Navajo blankets. In some instances, these designs were expanded to hug the entire cylinder. Often the texture of the woven blankets is portrayed through emphasis on artistic interplay of richly colored warp and weft threads, with an occasional overlay of finely drawn colored yarns floating about like a weaver's unruly hair.
The concept of formal cylinders was expanded later to include irregularly shaped forms, to be categorized as soft cylinders. The beauty of both the straight cylinders and the soft ones lies in their creamy surface textures and the way fluidly applied colors appear to permeate them, sinking into the ivory glass surface like ink on blotter paper. The soft cylinders' walls are more flamboyantly decorated than those of the blanket series. Their undulating walls serve as a receptive surface for a suffusion of brilliant colors worked into miniature abstract paintings, which spread around the entire cylinder. These stable, thick-walled, semiopaque cylinders of either series come as close to container vessels as Chihuly ever gets. As such, they contrast sharply in concept with the fragile, transparent free forms so ubiquitously employed by him throughout the larger body of his renowned work.
The Indian connection showed up again in an even more poignant way in 1977, when Chihuly responded to a pile of nested, misshapen old Northwest Coast baskets that he happened upon at the Washington State Historical Society Museum. The inspiration gained from this serendipitous encounter led to his invention of the oversized, free form baskets that are now associated with the Chihuly look in glass art. These revolutionized the five-thousand-year-old world history of the art of glassmaking. The concept of nesting one or more glass forms into another, in often precarious groupings, constitutes a unique approach to the exhibition of glass. This is now acknowledged as another facet of Chihuly's genius. Such basket forms and their modifications underlie many of the other forms in the Chihuly repertoire.
A recent development indicates that the circle of Chihuly's involvement with Indians, which began with his 1974 visit to Santa Fe, has not yet closed. A connecting thread linked to that early IAIA venture has been carried forward through the intervening years by a singular graduate, Tony Jojola, of Isleta Pueblo. Tony's persistence and his commitment to the glassblowing discipline following those seminal days in the Old Barn eventually carried him to the doors of the Pilchuck Glass School north of Seattle, which Chihuly had cofounded. There he rejoined the world of Chihuly, glass master.
Largely through Tony's suggestion, Chihuly's blessings and support, and that of the management team of the Tacoma Hilltop Artists in Residence school of glassblowing, the circle continues. The Governing Council of the Taos Indian Pueblo has recently announced the imminent opening of a major glassblowing studio on the outlying lands of the Pueblo.
Welcome home, Dale Chihuly!
Published in Chihuly: Taos Pueblo, Portland Press, 1999.