DALE CHIHULY

Interview by Koji Matano
Glasswork

To answer your question about how I started Pilchuck, it goes back to when I was a graduate student at the Rhode Island School of Design. I was asked to teach at Haystack, a summer school for crafts on the coast of Maine, and I taught there for four years from 1967 to 1971. In the winter of 1970, I decided that I would like to try to start a school, something like Haystack, only just in glass. I was very inspired by the director of Haystack, Fran Merritt. He was like a mentor-hero to me. I was so impressed with his school and the way he was. I was encouraged to start a school. I got a little $2000 grant from Union of Independent Colleges of Art, to start an alternative school in Washington State, where I was born.

It was non-institution time. Non-establishment. The whole idea of being in an established university or art school like R.I.S.D just didn't seem to be the right thing. It was a time for experimentation. I wanted to teach in a different way, without the confines of the traditional institution. I thought the Northwest had an ideal climate for a glass blowing school. I went out there with the $2000 and two students from each of the eight art schools that are in Union of Independent Colleges of Art. The sixteen students showed up on the designated day at my mother's home in Tacoma in the beginning of the summer, and we started working on the site, which was donated to us for the summer by John Hauberg and Anne Hauberg. We went to work and fourteen days later we had finished a little facility to blow glass.

That impressed John Hauberg to a great degree, and it was this energy level that we exhibited that made him want to help fund this institution. It wasn't an institution then, but he helped fund this little project. He came to me at the end of the summer and asked me how much money I had spent. I told him $7000. He gave me some of the money back that I had spent, and said "How would you like a budget for next year?" I told him the budget next year would be $25,000, and he paid for it and the school continued to grow. The budget now is about $900,000 for this summer. So it goes.

Fortunately, the Haubergs don't have to pay for this anymore, because there are other people involved in funding Pilchuck. In the early days of Pilchuck, the concept was that students would act like apprentices more or less. It was like an atelier in Europe, you might say. Myself and friends and faculty from around the country would go there and work. Students would help us and get to work on their projects as well. When we got there, of course, there was no place to live. There was no gas or electricity or any housing. So we each built our own little shelter. I remember that the first year, I lived in my van, because I didn't have any time to build a shelter. But everybody built a little this or a little that, a teepee or a house out of plastic or a house out of a parachute. One guy lived in a stump. That's how it was. We had to rough it. We cooked outside on an open fire, and during the day, we made our glass. It was very primitive and very rough in the beginning, but over the years, of course, it became more of an institution. Now, I think, it is an international glass communications center, where people come from all over the world.

What they make at Pilchuck is less important than the fact that they come there, meet people, have experiences, and learn techniques. That's the essential thing. There are lectures every day. It used to be that the faculty was able to make a great deal of their own work while at Pilchuck, because the emphasis of Pilchuck was always on making art objects by the faculty. So it was traditional that the faculty would work and students would help them on their projects. Over the years, the programs were shortened to three week sessions. Originally they came for the whole summer, and now students come form all over the world. It has become more expensive and they expect a great deal more: they don't want to just come to be an apprentice. The faculty has had to become more like teachers.

By the way, it turned out that I wasn't a very good director, that I didn't have the talents that Fran Merritt at Haystack had. I saw that I couldn't really be a good director and so shortly after we got started, a couple of years or three years later, we got a new director. This allowed me to deal with the teaching. In the beginning, I taught every summer. Then eventually I quit teaching and now my title is artistic director, and I simply pick the faculty and programs that are taught at Pilchuck.

Since I graduated from college and started teaching, I have always been able to balance the concept of making my own work and teaching. This is not a very easy thing to do. In most cases, people are not successful at this, and that's why you don't have many college teachers who make their own work. I was lucky and found a way to do this. The way I did that is that I taught school when I felt like teaching or when I didn't have the energy to make my own work. When I got inspiration for the artwork, I made art and let the teaching sort of go by the wayside. That's the way I did it year after year. When I was making my work, I found that the best time to come into the studio was four in the morning. So I would work every morning from four am until eight am, and the students would assist me.

From the very beginning I used the team approach to make glass work. It came form my being in Venice after I graduated from R.I.S.D in 1968. I went to Italy on a Fulbright and I learned from the Italians. I was the first American glass artist to go to work in Venice, I believe. I had also worked in a team before I went to Italy. I could see right away that blowing glass was not an one person operation. One of the very first people that I worked with, when I was a graduate student, was Fritz Dreisbach. He helped me make some good pieces that required two people. Then when I went to Italy, I saw these Italian teams working together, and as you know from watching me work, I utilize the team concept fully. That gets me to your question about collaboration.

Working with the team, of course, is a very collaborative process. All the work I do is collaborative. I do not necessarily collaborate artistically, although Ii did from 1970 to 1974. I worked with Jamie Carpenter. We collaborated on all the projects that I did for four years. They were signed by both of us. That was a true collaboration, both in the making of the glass and in conceiving the glass. It wasn't always glass but most of our projects dealt with glass or ice or neon. We worked on the ideas together and we worked on making them together. Now working with somebody like Lino Tagliapietra or the rest of my teams, I can see the project, I make the drawings, and they execute them. So they are not so much collaborative projects on the conceptual level. I take advantage of and use whatever ideas that the master has or the other people on the team have, to help extend and project ideas and to find techniques. I encourage them to try something, if they want to or if they say they know another way to make this or another type of piece. The works are collaborative in certain ways, on the conceptual level too. But as you know, I sign the pieces myself and I don't cosign them with Lino or cosign them with Rich Royal or Benny Moore or Martin Blank. I use about five different master blowers, and the team working underneath the masters changed around. Some of the same people work with different masters. I often compare the way I work, a little bit to being the director of a film. My gaffer is like a camera man, and my color person is my lighting person. But ultimately, it is a project directed by me. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to find a way to give credit to everybody, like you can with a film with titles on a screen. It is just too complicated. I wish people could do that; there are a lot of other important people involved with my projects.

One of the interesting things about my glass is that it often requires a lot of work after it is finished. Not always, for example, the "Venetians", but a lot of pieces have to be put together, and have to be worked with. I do many installation projects where I have people help me with architectural designs, and how to place these pieces on the wall. I have people design the technical aspects of these projects. So the glass blowing is one side of it, but there is a lot to be done after the glass is blown. Much if it is just in the selection of which pieces I proceed with and which pieces I don't proceed with, or which pieces I develop and which pieces I don't. This is an area where I ask people's opinions but you might say that this is an area where I don't collaborate as much. I think I'm the type of person that no matter what I would have chosen to do in my life, it would have been some kind of collaborative project or process. I'm just not the type to work on my own by myself. I like to work with people, and I love to work with creative people. It just makes the whole thing so much more interesting for me. It also makes things happen and change.

You asked a question at one point about how the new ideas develop and how the new series start. There are two different ways for me. You might say there's two distinct ways. One way, an idea will come out of something. Like the "Seaforms" came out of the "Baskets". The "Seaforms" were an extension of the "Baskets". Another way is that sometimes I'm working on a series and I got to a point where I feel like it has reached an end: I don't want to work with it anymore. So I'll be looking for a new idea or maybe I just won't be working because I'm not inspired. Then I see something that inspires me. Like when I stopped doing the "Cylinders" in 1977. I wasn't doing anything and I was teaching because when I'm not inspired to make glass I usually teach. Then I saw the baskets of the Northwest Indians at the Washington State Historical Society. And I decided to make them in glass. So that's how that series started.

In the case of the "Venetians", it had a very strange beginning. I was only going to try to make some beautiful Art Deco vases or some Italian vases, that were rather rare that I had seen. I thought I'd have Lino try to make them for me. It would be a great collection to own. Shortly after I started making drawings for that, I started making things that weren't Art Deco or weren't even necessarily Italian. Just using a vocabulary of different historical forms. That's how the "Venetians" started.

It really helps me to be able to work with people in order to keep my projects and ideas moving forward. Much of what I make comes from what I'd made in the past. You go into glass shop and you got a great team available to work with. People are charged up and inspired. Maybe I don't feel that good that day. Maybe they do. Maybe they pull up my spirit or vice versa. I pull their spirit up, and that goes back and forth. It is much more likely to have a work of art that way, I believe, than working on your own. That's just myself, of course. That's just the way I create the best.

You asked me to explain my analogy to Tiffany or Galle or Lalique or any one of these great glass artists or craftsmen. I don't feel like I fit into any category very well, whether it be artist, designer or craftsman. But yet I can't help to think of similarities with people who had atelier like Tiffany or Galle. I don't believe that any of those people that I had mentioned knew how to blow glass themselves. Whereas I led the team myself for ten years. After I had my accident in 1976, eventually I quit being a master of the crew, and I removed myself and directed it. That had advantages and disadvantages. But that's the way it turned out to be and that's probably the way that it always will, although I am tempted to go back and blow glass myself. I sometimes get involved and help on some of the techniques now and then, because I'm the only one that can explain myself very well and I have to show someone.

In my museum show at Azabu, I think I'm going to show about five series. I'm going to start with the "Basket" series, which was the very beginning of my working with several pieces together to form one composition. The "Seaforms" came out of the "Baskets" and are more complicated. The "Seaforms" were blown into optical molds, which are ribbed metal forms; this gives a certain rhythm in form to the pieces and a certain decoration to the outside as well. Then I'm going to show the "Macchia". They are sort of an extension of the "Seaforms" sets recently in bright blue and bright yellow, which are not like the original ones, some of them will be in Azabu show. I will also show the "Macchia" sets and "Macchia" singles. And I'll exhibit some of the "Persians". They are definitely "Seaforms", but they have a lot of humor and playfulness in some of the little parts, and a lot of geometric aspects.

I'll show some of the "Venetians" as well, which is the latest series, in addition to maybe a wall piece or two. Hopefully we'll do a wall piece for the show, and those are like very large "Persians" - up to five feet in diameter. They go on the wall and they have their own lighting source from within. In addition to that, I'll show several drawings from different series to round out the exhibition. This is not really a retrospective show, but it is certainly a survey of most of the series, let's say that I did in the '80s. It looks like I will be having a retrospective at the American Craft Museum in 1991, and that won't be a real retrospective either, but it will go back a little further than this one does. I really went to have a true retrospective, but I don't have time to do that. It just takes too much organization. They claim that they will do all the work, but it doesn't sound easy to me.

You asked a question about what is most important when I'm making my work. Well, what's the most important thing? I guess, to wake up in the morning with an idea, and then to have a great team to execute it. That's what's important to me.

Published in Glasswork no. 5, (May 1990):10-11.