Interview with Dale Chihuly

Elsa B. Parry
Art Glass

American Art Glass Quarterly Let's discuss the dynamics of studio teamwork.

Dale Chihuly: Sure. It's obviously very important to my glass. I've got strong feelings about teamwork although I'm not sure I fully understand it myself. I'll try and answer your questions and maybe together we can figure out how it works. I do know that the way the team goes together is unique and that most of the teams are made up of artists that primarily do their own artwork. They blow for me a month or two out of each year (very often in different locations).

AAGQ Why did you start using a team?

Dale From the beginning, I've always liked collaborative efforts and teamwork. In 1966 when I was first starting to blow, I asked Fritz Dreisbach and Michael Whitley, who were graduate students, to help me on projects that I felt I couldn't do on my own. As I recall, I was the only student that sought assistance from my classmates. For example, I asked Fritz to blow a bubble at the same time that I blew one. We stuck the two bubbles together simultaneously and blew into our blowpipes to form a complicated piece of sculpture. It's still a part of the University of Wisconsin collection.

AAGQ Who else did you work with?

Dale The following year in 1967 I heard Italo Scanga lecture at the Rhode Island School of Design. I befriended him after the talk and began making glass parts for his sculptural pieces. That was a wonderful time for experimenting and trying a lot of wild combinations of materials. I'll never forget the smell of burning garlic. It was great. That was from trapping garlic bulbs into molten glass. It was about this time that I really started utilizing neon in glass and began building environmental spaces.

AAGQ Did this encourage your interest in teamwork?

Dale Well, after getting my MFA in 1968, I studied glass in Venice at Venini, and that reconfirmed my notion that in order to take full advantage of the medium you needed at least one assistant. I don't think you could find a glass studio anywhere in the world where a glassblower wouldn't be working without some kind of team or assistants-at least I've never seen a workshop where they didn't work in teams.

When I returned from Italy I began working with my prize student, Jamie Carpenter. We began collaborating on various projects in 1970. We did lots of neon in ice blocks and dry ice, and we also combined blown forms with large pieces of bent commercial glass. Actually, from 1967-1972 most of the concerns were with environmental spaces utilizing glass, ice, neon, and a number of other transparent materials.

AAGQ Like what?

Dale Various forms of lighting, different types of plastics, and translucent films.

AAGQ When did you finish your collaboration with Jamie?

Dale In 1975 we went our own ways and I started the Navajo Blanket series. Incidentally, Jamie and I are currently collaborating on a large project for St. Luke's of the Field, one of the oldest churches in New York City….Anyway, at this time I began utilizing a greater number of students on my team. Ben Moore, Therman Statom, Jim Harmon, and Michael Sheiner were assisting me. Some of my former students still work with me. Ben Moore has been blowing for me for eleven years, and Flora Mace has helped me off and on since 1975. Now Billy Morris, on the other hand, was not one of my students-he was hired as a truck driver at Pilchuck six years ago. He's been working for me on and off ever since.

AAGQ It must be very rewarding to you that so many of your former students and assistants have been successful with their own work.

Dale It makes us all happy, and it does make me very proud.

AAGQ You compare your methods to that of a film director.

Dale I feel like I move around my studio team during a blowing session as a director might tour a set while shooting a film. Let's say my master blower is the head cameraman and my color person is similar to the lighting or makeup person on a soundstage. Film is so clearly a collaborative team effort that I use it as an obvious comparison. I'm also fond of drawing parallels between the way I work and the way an architect relates to his group.

AAGQ You have an artistic idea. How do you communicate the image you want to create to the people that are working with you?

Dale I never have really figured that out. It seems to sort itself out naturally. I've worked with most of the gaffers for so long that the lines of communication are difficult to explain…a few words, a gesture, or a drawing and they're off. The real communication and discussion come the next morning when we take the pieces out of the annealing ovens. For example, on the day you visited Pilchuck to watch a blowing session, I spoke to the gaffer, Ben Moore, and said something like, "This is more like the form I want. Now let's make it longer." To the starter, who was David Schwartz that day, "David, I would like a little less color in general and more concentration toward the lip. Or to Lee Koveleski, who applies the surface color, "I want the body wraps to be thinner," or to Rich Royal, who prepared the pieces for Benny, "I want more definition from the optical molds and fewer jimmies."

AAGQ How have you attracted such talented people to concentrate on your pieces and not on their own? Does their artistic ego interfere?

Dale I don't know, you might have to ask them. Maybe it's because none of them are able to work on their own pieces all of the time, and they would rather blow for me than work for somebody else when they're not doing their own thing. Or maybe they just enjoy it….We do have some good times and travel to some exotic places. Maybe it gives them something they can use in their own work. Most of the teams have been together for a long time and if they didn't like it I'm sure they wouldn't continue….It feels right.

AAGQ You said that you used to be the gaffer that finished the pieces and now Billy, Ben, and Flora are the gaffers who finish your pieces. How did that change take place?

Dale Until a few years ago, I finished the pieces when they went onto the punty. In 1979 or '80 I dislocated my shoulder while body surfing during a visit with Italo in La Jolla. I wanted to continue the series I was working on. So I asked Billy if he thought he could do the finishing under my direction. Billy had already assisted me for a couple of years and it was obvious he was going to be a great glassblower. He was quick to accept the challenge and the transition wasn't that tough or difficult, although it was frustrating for me after all those years, not to be on the punty. Finally, after six months and as many doctors, my shoulder mended.

I was anxious to get back on the stick and I finished the pieces for several months. Then I went back to having Billy finish the pieces. There were several reasons….I found I had better control when I wasn't on the punty. I can really "see" the piece better when I am a step removed. The gaffer doesn't get a good view of the piece when he's on the punty anyway, because he's looking right at the bottom of the piece while it's being opened. If I stand back, then I deal with all aspects of the development of the piece, because if you're finishing that's all you can think about. Then my loss of sight in one eye in 1976 had something to do with it as well. And, finally, because we tend to work on the edge so much, the gaffer is placed in a very emotional position. He can get very frustrated.

AAGQ Then if it's going badly you can balance the master out?

Dale That's right. I can change the music or open a better bottle of wine or talk things over and find out what's wrong-which can be difficult to correct because it's so psychological-maybe like sports. It's a delicate balance out there on the pad.

AAGQ You do a lot of drawings while the teams are working. Do you use drawings to communicate?

Dale In the beginning when people first started finishing the pieces for me I made working drawings in order to illustrate the forms. Now we usually just look at the actual pieces themselves and talk about them. Today I draw because I enjoy it. Drawing when we are blowing helps me to think….It inspires me and I pass that on to the team. So maybe I do use the drawings to communicate. When we're starting a new series or a new form I use working drawings to help the team. Sometimes when I start a new idea it's a difficult time. For some reason the team may not like or understand the new concept. It's an adjustment for them. But they try to bear with me.

AAGQ To communicate your concepts do you have to be on very close terms with the gaffer?

Dale Yes, but not just the gaffer-I have to be pretty tight with most of the team, because they are making aesthetic decisions and they have to understand what I want. However, I like to stay off their backs and not say any more than I have to, otherwise I put a damper on their own spontaneity. Spontaneity…the one element I most strive for in my work. I'm good friends with all the team. But I'm tighter with the gaffers, because we've worked together longer in many challenging situations and traveled to many strange locations.

AAGQ I understand you might be taking the team to Venice in the springtime.

Dale It looks that way. You never know with the Italians…and with us for that matter. If we go as scheduled, it will be the first time an American team has worked in Italy. It'll be a lot of fun…very interesting to see how the Italians react, especially at Venini, the most famous of the Italian factories. I plan to take a three-person team and we'll have an exhibition in Venice in the summer of '84 during the Biennale. It'll be a nice trip for all of us, and a chance for the Italians to see what we've learned in the past fifteen years.

AAGQ Was it fifteen years ago you studied there?

Dale Yes.

AAGQ How do you find new people for your team, and what attributes do you look for?

Dale When we travel to a new location to do a workshop at a University or an art school, we will often use a couple of the local students for the simple tasks on the team, like opening and shutting the doors to the glory hole for the gaffer. Seems like a simple job, but it takes a lot of concentration and the gaffer depends upon this person to be at the right place at the right time. If we can find a person who can handle this kind of mundane job, is agile, has quick hands and, most importantly, can concentrate, then we'll begin to use them more often. As they move up in the team they have to have more organizational ability. Ultimately, the gaffer, in addition to being very skilled, must have the ability to control the rest of the team.

AAGQ What about personalities?

Dale No matter how skilled or organized a person might be, if they don't fit into this road show and aren't accepted by the rest of the team, it won't last.

AAGQ In closing I would like to ask you about the Foster/White exhibition. I was very impressed with the ambiance. Did you design the exhibition?

Dale Yes, with assistance from the gallery people. I'm generally very concerned with the installation, and in the last couple of years I've installed a number of shows. I've been able to afford to experiment, and to purchase some new lighting systems which I've been using, in particular, low-voltage spots which are very bright but, because they don't use much energy, give off very little extraneous light and keep the overall lighting quite low-more like one's livingroom.

AAGQ How did the interest in the lighting develop?

Dale Sometimes people think it's because of my education in interior design and interest in architecture. I guess that's part of it, but more accurately, or more importantly, it came from working with photography. I found that some of the photographs of my work were looking better than the real-life pieces being shown in an exhibition, and it was because the glass was not being lit properly. So I began to do lighting research and discovered low-voltage pin spots.

AAGQ So it was your interest in photography that affected your installation more than anything?

Dale Yes, photography and I guess my earlier environmental installations….I like it when the installations are really more like environments than a straight exhibition. I've also used photography to help me discover the pieces themselves. When we finish with a blowing session I usually spend two or three days photographing glass. Then, no matter where I travel, I have a record of what I did the last time I blew, and that will influence what we do next.

AAGQ What about the reflective black glass platforms at Foster/White?

Dale That came from photography as well. We found in photographing the glass that the pieces often looked better on dark backgrounds. Although not always….My next show at Braunstein Gallery (in San Francisco) and Habatat galleries (in Lathrup Village outside Detroit) I plan to do on white or gray. The installations, photography, the lighting, are all part of the process. Making the glass is stage one-the most important stage and certainly the most fun. But I spend as much time on stages two, three, and four: photography, lighting, installations. I've learned to enjoy these follow-up aspects as well. It doesn't have to be drudgery. These are fascinating stages which add new dimensions to further your art. You have to be as creative with the lighting and the installations as you are with the work itself. I spend a lot of time on these other areas. I want the glass to be presented in the best possible light. These are all important extensions that influence how the glass is viewed.

©1985 American Art Glass Quarterly