Transcription of a slide lecture given by Dale Chihuly on March 29, 1990 at the Glass Art Society Conference
Since 1975 I've done about eight or nine series of work. Each started in a different way: Some evolved from one series, others started abruptly, and still others began out of frustration. Today I want to talk about one body of work, the "Venetians," and delve into the process of what it's like to start a new series. What kind of chances have to be taken, what sort of choices have to be made, and then how to make the decision asto whether or not to continue, whether it's even going to be exhibited. In the case of the "Venetians," I didn't originally think it was going to be a series.
We have had a lot of great master glass blowers at Pilchuck over the years, but almost from the very beginning of Pilchuck, I worked in a way that didn't lend itself to using master glass blowers from factories. They are normally used to working from drawings and making symmetrical works. So I chose through all the years not to work with a lot of great masters like Checco Ongaro and Lino Tagliapietra from Italy and Jan Eric Ritzman and Wilke Adolfsson from Sweden.
And then about two and a half years ago, Lino came to my studio. He came down from Pilchuck to make a series of goblets and plates for my fiancée, Sylvia, and myself. Lino's wife, Lina, was there and she cooked lunch for the entire team every day. In the process we had a good time. I decided to do it again and set a time for a year later in August to work for two weeks on some project I was to design.
Throughout the year I thought about this reunion with Lino and what I was going to do. That winter we went to Venice, which I love to do in the winter, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to this palazzo and saw this extraordinary collection of Venetian glass from the 'twenties and 'thirties. I had never seen any of this sort of Art Deco Venetian glass. It really isn't in any museums that I know of. It's not in any books. It's quite different from the French Art Deco work. It is a little more garish, the colors bolder: green and gold leaf, green and red. I'm a bit of a collector myself and I was thinking that I would try to collect some of this glass. I talked to different Venetian glass dealers to see what was around, and it just was not available. This one guy would snap up just about anything for sale. So I said to myself, "Well, I'll just have Lino make the damn things." It also solved my dilemma about what kind of project I might do with him. I thought I might be able to expand a little bit on what the designers might have been thinking at that time. I'd only seen about a dozen pieces, and I had no idea what else might have been done.
So Lino arrived in the middle of August, eighteen months ago. We were to meet at six o'clock in the morning at the shop. I had the best American crew I could put together to assist him. I hadn't even made a drawing until that morning, but I had my drawing paper and pencils there. So we started off. I made a drawing of an Etruscan classical vase. I put a few handles on it. Lino looked at it and walked down to the pad and, of course, made it exactly like the drawing. I watched him work and after he made that piece, I walked back to my drawing table and made another drawing that was a little more complicated and that's the way the series began. I simply watched Lino work, never correcting anything that he did while he was working. I had thought about how I was going to interface with Lino on this, and I felt it would be better if I didn't try to tell him what my drawings were supposed to be. I have to say that there is probably no better glass blower in the world than Lino. He knows all these secrets; he knows all these ways to do things. If I drew a leaf, I wanted to let him pick what kind of leaf he wanted to make. Each leaf in one piece was blown and then flattened, something that I wouldn't have thought of as a technique for making a leaf. If I meant to have six rows of handles and he read it as eight, I didn't care. I wanted to take advantage of his tremendous skill and Venice's fantastic history and his knowledge of it.
At the beginning of a piece, Lino and Ben Moore would usually walk over to the drawing table. Although Lino's English has gotten considerably better than it was eighteen months ago, Ben was there to help interpret what I might be saying. I could sometimes tell what might be easily misinterpreted, and I tried to explain it. Usually there was very little to say; it was just a question of Lino looking at the drawing.
So I did the drawing. Lino went down and made the piece. While I was watching him, it was very inspiring, so naturally I would walk back to the drawing board and make another drawing. I would either take off on the piece before or try another idea. I began using other sources. In the very beginning I was just searching around for what forms these pieces might take. I later rejected some types of decoration as too decorative or too Venetian or too something.
As you know, in glass blowing with a team—and these pieces required a large one, sometimes as many as eleven people—there are a lot of things happening at the same time. I would start a drawing after calling out the colors to Peter Hunreiser or to whoever was starting the piece; I would give the colors by number like "Give me a K-227 base, Pete" and he would start the next piece. Lino would rest for a minute before taking over on the piece that the rest of the crew had been preparing these parts for. Lino would normally put the final touches on the part and then apply it to the piece. Some of the pieces were quite complicated even from the beginning. They might take as long as an hour to do. Each bit had to be prepared individually and the piece reheated between each attachment. It takes another master to back up Lino, the Primary master, just to reheat these complicated pieces, and Benny was doing the reheating.
Somewhere after a few days I think the real "Venetians" started. We made eighty pieces and I'm not sure, but maybe Lino dropped one piece out of eighty, or maybe he got all eighty. Anyhow I had this body of work, and it was during the summer, so a lot of my friends came by to visit after teaching at Pilchuck. I distinctly remember Klaus Moje, Bertil Vallien, Clifford Rainey. Everybody who came by was very interested in the series, which in my mind wasn't a series at all. I was just making the pieces. I was having a good time, getting very involved in the drawing. I wasn't planning on exhibiting, but I was very much encouraged by the people who saw the work saying, "You really ought to go for this, you know." I was starting to think "Well, maybe they're right. Maybe there is something here."
This raises the question: "How far do you experiment with an idea?" Then at what point do you decide "I'm going to really pursue this." And at what point do you decide "not only am I going to pursue it, I am going to exhibit it." It is a question of taking chances and it is a question of "yeah, you can listen to your friend," but if Bert and Klaus and Clifford really like it, that doesn't mean I show it either. Naturally I have to decide for myself.
Now after Lino left and the eighty pieces were done, I decided—well, actually my crew came to me and said, "Look, let us try making these pieces." It was Rich Royal in particular. Rich took it upon himself to take the initial Venetian ideas and to turn them into something different than what Lino had been making.
With Rich as the master, we started off with some of these very heavy prunted pieces, obviously not the sort of delicacy that we saw in the early Lino pieces. We started adding gold and silver foils. (Charlie Parriott, my Venetian colorist, helped me a lot with the colors and the foil.) These pieces were pretty hefty, and around forty pounds; and they took a long time to make. Each prunt had to be put on individually and reheated, sometimes as many as eighty times; it would take an hour and a half to two hours to complete a piece.
I started working with Rich a great deal with these leaves. We did a lot of variations on pieces with leaves, trying different shapes, different forms. For some reasons we could never put the leaves inside and outside the piece. There is some dynamic of the annealing that would not allow us to do this. We made many, many pieces were the leaves were both inside and outside, and I don't think one of them, well, maybe one, survived. There was just something about the process that we could not resolve, and at a certain point you just give up and go on to some other idea.
So Rich worked on them for a while with the American crew, and then Lino came back. I made more drawings. I was using a lot of watercolors in the beginning. The drawings later began to change and become more colorful. I started using pastels, which I had never used much before. And most importantly I switched from graphite pencils to charcoal sticks, so my line became much bolder.
I want to emphasize how important the drawings came to be, to figure out what it was I wanted to make. I have this luxury of not having to blow glass, so while the team is working, whenever I want I can walk over to the drawing board and begin to draw. This back and forth, going from the pad back over to the drawing table, is what really allowed this series to move so quickly. After Lino would leave, I would still work on the drawings. In a way I could still continue the series, but I am most inspired to draw when I'm in the hot shop and there is blowing going on. I can see what is happening, but I am isolated enough to feel comfortable to draw. I have a lot of space around me, big sheets of drawing paper. Sometimes I just draw. Sometimes I forget about the glass entirely, and just make drawings. Drawing is a fluid process, like the glass blowing is a fluid process.
I think Lino has come over five or six different times in the last eighteen months. He has become very loose with the glass, very free. It's been so exciting to work with this attitude. But he's very determined to get that piece in the box. If there's a mistake, if something happens, if something breaks off, you know right away a great master like Lino can decide how to remedy the situation, get another piece of glass going and adapt it, and he's had fantastic assistance from a well-tuned team.
Every time Lino comes back, he seems to work larger, and that's really been great. Our new ovens in the Boathouse studio are all thirty-six inches high on the interior and the pieces that we were putting in yesterday barely (at a special demonstration for G.A.S.) fit into the ovens. So that is a new scale for the "Venetians." Not that big is better. I don't mean to imply that bigness makes this series better, but I like them about this size. I don't want them to be larger than this, but I like them to be big enough so that when you walk into the room you really notice their presence. They're sort of flamboyant things.
So at a certain point, I would approached by a couple dealers: "Would I be interested in showing the work?" Well, because some dealer wants to show it, that doesn't necessarily mean that I should show the work. I guess it's an indication that the dealers feel they can sell it, but that doesn't mean that I should show it or when I should show the series. With the "Venetians" I had only been into it for maybe four weeks, but I decided I would exhibit them.
I suppose the first decision came midway through the first blow, when I decided I was going to branch out beyond this sort of designer-Art Deco concept and see what could happen, see how far I could push it. And then I had to decide to go to the expense of bringing Lino and the crew back, of gearing up again, which meant now that I had committed myself to at least seriously delving into it. Then I had to decide that, in fact, I would show them. I chose to present them the first time at the Charles Cowles Gallery in New York and at that point, of course, there was no turning back.
What's interesting is that when I showed them for the first time in December, after we started the series in August, glass collectors did not respond very well to these pieces. They were very, very, very slow at buying them. I felt that the glass collectors would be a little more supportive of a new direction like this. I knew it was a chancy move, and I knew that you might not call these pieces beautiful. It's a funny series, in that certain ones appeal to certain people, and others, people just can't stand, but then they'll love the next piece. I have never done a series that has such mixed reactions. And I thought it was interesting that the glass people took a long time to come around to them. But, the art collectors, a group of buyers I cross over into, people who buy my work and who have sculpture and painting collections, responded to these pieces immediately.
The next question is deciding at what point the series is finished. Because often that's the case for some of my series, like the "Cylinders." I'll just abruptly decide one day that the series is over with. SometimesI'll go back and redo a series several years later, if I feel I can bring something new to it.
I lied to you. I said I was only going to talk about the "Venetians," but in fact at the last minute this morning I stuck in some slides of what I just did in Sweden. When I went to Finland a month ago for my openingat The Finnish Glass Museum in Riihimaki, I heard that Bertil was having the opening for his retrospective in Sweden so I snuck over to surprise him. I ran into Jan Erik Ritzman. I've always wanted to blow in Sweden. I'm half Czech and half Swedish; my mother's maiden name is Magnusson. Not that that is why I wanted to work in Sweden. I knew what a great glass blower Jan Erik was, really an extraordinary glass blower. I had told him several times that I was going to come over and work with him, and I've never done it. So there I was in Smaland in Sweden, and I didn't have to get back until this lecture. I decided that I would designa new series. I asked Erik if he would give me a few days and he said he would. I said, "Great, I'll be over on Monday." We worked for three days and so my question to you, after I show these five slides, is going to be whether or not you think I should continue.
Amber Spotted Experimental Form, 1990
The idea of this series was to make the lead crystal very thick, very heavy. I added glass to the bubble when it was about halfway blown out. I sometimes took glass away, but mostly I added. Usually I would do it because it was pretty hard to explain to Jan Erik what I wanted to do. So we would add this hot lead crystal and then I would go in and move it around with these tools, usually creating some kind of pattern. Lead crystal, as some of you know, is very long working so you can get in there for a long time. I had never worked with lead crystal, so it was a new experience for me. I wanted to take advantage of that potential. The first pieces were all clear, but Jan Erik had a few glass powders lying around, and I powdered one; it somehow brought out the sculptural aspect of the piece much more. So I ran over to the factory and borrowed as many different colored powders as I could. Starting the second day, everything was powdered with several different layers. Glass would be applied, dusted, and then blown out. The pieces, which I'm calling the "Transjo" series because of the location of Jan Erik's shop, have a kind of French Art Nouveau, ceramic feeling; they've got a lot of references. I like to think that they don't look much like the "Venetian," although they are quite heavy like the "Venetians" mostly are. They are about the same scale as the "Venetians." But I don't like to think of them as an extension of the "Venetians."
Crimson Yellow and Blue Experimental Form, 1990
What I hoped this talk would do was to explain or to help you to figure out how to start something new and how to continue with it, to take the chances, to try things, to make the mistakes. In my mind there's no mistake until you begin to exhibit it. Once you start to exhibit it, then you let it out. But until then you really must find a way to make those kinds of decisions everyday when you're working.
Editor's Note: During this talk, Dale really did take a vote—twice, in fact, by show of hands. From the back of the room, it appeared to be 2-1 in favor of continuing the Venetians, perhaps 3-1 for the Transjo series.
Published in The Glass Art Society Journal, 1990, p. 36-40. (Transcription of a slide lecture given by Dale Chihuly on March 29, 1990 at the G.A.S. Conference). Edited by Karen S. Chambers.