Into the Land of Chihuly

Jay Dawson
Gulfshore Life
November 2000

On Nov. 7, the Naples Museum of Art opens with an exhibition featuring the work of Seattle artist Dale Chihuly. Chihuly, who has created two chandeliers that will be part of the museum's permanent collection, is a larger-than-life figure whose personal life commands media attention and whose glass creations can bring up to $1 million. Jay Dawson visited the artist's studios in Seattle and talked to Chihuly about his work.

"Imagine turning sand, the cheapest substance in the world, into that," marvels Dale Chihuly, holding up a crystal drinking glass filled with Diet Coke. "If that isn't alchemy, I don't know what is."

It's a mid-summer's day in Seattle, and Chihuly is talking about his lifelong obsession with glass. He is on his way to San Diego, where he will create seven abstract paintings on stage at the University of California while a chamber orchestra performs seven pieces of music. "It's another new direction," explains Chihuly. "It interests me."

Dale Chihuly

In the land of Chihuly, where borders are indistinct, life itself seems mercurial, inventive and surprising as his art. It is a magical land, and Chihuly, with his trademark pirate's patch, paint-splattered shoes and untamed tendrils of dark hair, is clearly the magician at the center of it. When Chihuly began glassmaking 30 years ago, the medium was considered a factory craft in decline. Today, Chihuly's spectacular glass art is displayed in museums worldwide and in massive installations such as the one currently mounted at the Citadel in Jerusalem or the series of giant chandeliers that hung above the canals of Venice, Italy, in 1996. Seattle in recent years has become a mecca for glassblowing, second only to Venice in volume and quality of artists.

No other substance, Chihuly maintains, transmits light, color and form as beautifully as glass; but something else is at work, too: "It breaks. I think the fact that it breaks is one of the reasons people want to own it."

Dale Chihuly

The discovery that glass could be shaped by human breath is 2,000 years old. But only recently has the full potential of glassblowing as an art form been recognized. Chihuly's fantastic, complex shapes and dazzling color combinations—he draws from a palette of 300 color rods—have broken boundaries by not recognizing them. The appeal of his work is visceral, like a child's wonder at seeing something beautiful for the first time.

Not surprisingly, Chihuly traces his fascination with glass to his childhood in working-class Tacoma. "I remember taking walks on the beach as a child and picking up pieces of glass in the sand. And I remember being fascinated by stained glass in church.

"But I don't think that's unusual. If you go to the poorest neighborhoods, you'll see glass bottles in the window that kids are saving. It's as we get older that we lose the ability to see things."

Chihuly blew his first glass bubble in his basement in 1965; he says he became hooked right away. He went on to study at the University of Wisconsin, which then had the only glass program in the country, and the Rhode Island School of Design, where he later taught. In 1971, he and a Seattle couple created the influential Pilchuck Glass School.

To the often-repeated idea that Chihuly changed glass from craft to art, he says, "To me, the best of everything is an art form. A movie can be wonderful art or it can be poorly made and purely commercial. If it moves people in some way, that's what's important. Did I have an influence on people accepting it as an art form? Yes, because I was interested in having shows in museums. But art or craft—I don't think much on that."

Chihuly lives and works in a former boat-storage warehouse beneath Interstate 5 on a narrow curve of Seattle's Lake Union. Outside, logging barges and pleasure crafts ply the waters. The 40,000-square-foot building is unassuming from the street, but inside it is a kind of Chihuly storybook land, chock-full of whimsy and color. In the long room at the back of the house is an 87-foot dining table cut from a single Douglas fir tree.

The floor is spattered with paint, the walls and ceiling hung with Chihuly artworks. The ceiling of an adjacent hallway is made up of fabulously colored glass pieces he calls Persians, which cast multi-colored shadows on the walls.

In the "Indian Room" are rare Indian blankets, photographs, baskets and two Indian motorcycles. Sunken glass pieces glitter like jewels in a treasure chest at the bottom of Chihuly's swimming pool in the Seaform Lap Pool room. Upstairs, in the library, books are displayed by their front covers, instead of their spines; and a collection of accordions hangs from the ceiling.

Dale Chihuly

At the front of the boathouse is the hot shop, where Chihuly creates his glassworks, which sell for $20,000 to up to more than a million dollars. Chihuly likens himself to a movie director, who provides the vision and the guidance for his team of glassblowers, who work in the hot shop each day from 7:30 a.m. until about 2 in the afternoon.

Over the past decade, Chihuly's vision has become bolder and broader. His work can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Louvre, but it's also in concert halls, casinos and Disney cruise ships.

As part of the Jerusalem project, he created a 64-ton wall of ice in front of the ancient stone walls of the Old City and let it melt—the melting ice was meant to symbolize melting tensions between Arabs and Jews. One of Chihuly's most cherished projects is the Hilltop Artists-in-Residence Program in which Chihuly teaches at-risk kids how to blow glass. "Children totally understand in about 10 minutes," Chihuly says. "You don't have to tell them anything. We're amazed at what young people can do when you encourage them." He also started a foundation called Seniors Making Art, which has 250 programs.

One of the world's most successful artists, Chihuly is a corporation now, with nearly 150 employees. But he retains a childlike enthusiasm for what he does, saying, "an artist has to be on the edge, not afraid to do new things. One of the rewards I get is to see that my glass brings joy to such a wide range of people of any age."

He is leaving for his flight now, en route to San Diego. Another new direction.

"I just take things as they come. We'll see how this works out. It's like a lot of good things," Chihuly adds. "If you follow your heart, sometimes you get lucky."

©2000 Gulfshore Life