Untitled Document

Man of Glass

Liz Seymour
November 1998

If you find yourself in Seattle with a spare $25,000 in your pocket—if you have, say, just sold out back-to-back concerts at the Key Arena, or just taken your software company public—you might give Dale Chihuly a call. If he isn't in Venice or Australia or the Bahamas or Kansas City, he'll probably invite you to drop by to see what's new. You'll go to the address he gives you on the north side of Lake Union, just under the I-5 highway bridge. When you arrive, you'll wonder if you're in the right place: The ragged shoreline strip of weedy lots and nondescript industrial buildings hardly looks like the place where you'd find the first American to be designated—as Chihuly was in 1992—a National Living Treasure. Then you'll notice that one building is slightly different from the others. It's the only one whose parking lot is ankle-deep in bits of colored glass.

Seattle ranks second only to Venice in the number and quality of glassblowers that crowd within its city limits. That surprising statistic is due almost entirely to the presence of 57-year-old Chihuly, a barrel-shaped man with wildly tendriling hair and a black eye patch, whom Newsweek once called "the glass leprechaun." Obsessively inventive, tirelessly self-promotional, constantly challenging himself and the medium, Chihuly has stretched and pummeled and twisted art glass out of its museum case and turned it into the visual equivalent of rock and roll.

"Glass is fast," he says. "You make your decision and you stick with it. There's no in between."

It's easy to recognize a Chihuly piece. He works in several distinct styles—pale as smoke nesting bowls called Basket Sets; brightly spotted Macchia; fanned and folded Seaforms and Persians; robust Floats; ornate Venetians; and even more florid Ikebana. But all of Chihuly's works share an exuberance and a sure sense of color that is hard to counterfeit. Each new invention spawns a flurry of Chihuly-esque work from other glass artists, but Chihuly's work—a single piece can cost well into five figures, and full installation can run to a million dollars—remains in a class by itself.

Most important art museums own at least one Chihuly: the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Louvre (where Chihuly is one of only four Americans to have had a one-man show); the National Gallery of Australia; London's Victoria and Albert Museum; and the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, to name just a few on a long list. Chihuly's giant chandeliers and jellyfish-like wall pieces decorate places as different as Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room, GTE world headquarters in Dallas, and the set of "Frasier," where a Chihuly Macchia sits next to the living room fireplace.

Chihuly, who grew up in blue-collar Tacoma, Washington, came to glass almost by accident. In the mid-1960s, when he was a student at the University of Washington, glassblowing was in eclipse. Technology has virtually done away with the commercial need for handblown glass, and decorative glass had drifted into a kind of craft-show backwater.

Still, he was fascinated by the medium. As an art student Chihuly wove bits of glass into tapestries and blew glass bubbles in a makeshift basement workshop. He then spent a summer working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska to raise tuition for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, the only school in America at the time where glassblowing was taught as a serious art.

From Wisconsin Chihuly went to the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, first to study, then to teach. In 1970, while the school was shut down during antiwar protests, he and some friends dreamed up another kind of school, a half commune, half summer institute for glassblowers. Within a year, on a remote hilltop 50 miles north of Seattle, the school was a reality. Twenty-seven years later a visit to the Pilchuck School, now a world-famous glass center, has become an obligatory pilgrimage for anyone with a serious interest in art glass.

In 1976, while traveling in England, Chihuly was severely injured in a car accident that left him sightless in his left eye. Ironically, that same year the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought three of his pieces for its permanent collection, and suddenly Chihuly was on the art map. The Renwick Gallery in Washington mounted a solo exhibit; galleries in Austria and Brazil gave him one-man shows. In 1980, when his income from the sale of his work—$18,000—matched his salary as head of the sculpture department at the Rhode Island School of Design, he quit teaching and began devoting all his time to his work.

Since the car accident, Chihuly has not done his own glassblowing, since his lack of depth perception makes working with hot glass too dangerous. He has developed a team method of glassblowing, with himself as conductor, and the blowers—themselves talented artisans—as the orchestra. Using squeeze bottles of acrylic paint, Chihuly translates his ideas onto paper in wildly colorful paintings that now themselves sell for as much as $5,000 apiece.

The projects have become bigger and more spectacular. Single pieces of his art have given way to installations—assemblages of dozens of pieces massed on floors, walls, and windows. In one of his popular installations hundreds of pieces of glass rest on a dropped glass ceiling, illuminated from above. In another, a lap pool—he has one himself—has an oblong well in the middle filled with 500 pieces of glass under plexiglas.

In September 1996 Chihuly mounted his most ambitious installation yet: 14 enormous chandeliers installed temporarily over the canals and in the palazzos of Venice. The chandeliers had been created over the preceding 18 months in a series of blows in Finland, Ireland, and Mexico that themselves became well-documented events (a PBS special, "Chihuly Over Venice" will be aired November 9).

As Chihuly has been transformed into Chihuly, Inc., his staff has grown to 90; he now operates four studios, including one warehouse in Tacoma that is devoted largely to housing his bizarre collections. His headquarters, however, remains in the 25,000-square-foot Lake Union studio, known appropriately as the Boathouse, once a factory for racing shells.

From 6:45 in the morning to 2:15 in the afternoon, seven days a week, glassblowers work in the Boathouse's hot shop making Chihuly glass. The hours were established to avoid the afternoon heat, which even in temperate Seattle can grow intense when the kilns are fired to 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Despite the fragility of the product, glassblowing is a macho art, involving heat, muscle, bravado, and a certain amount of risk. Like moviemaking or architecture, it is also collaborative. A single glassblower working alone might be able to make a wine bottle or a paper weight, but the large-scale twists and bubbles and folded discs that come out of Chihuly's studio require a team of a half dozen workers, each with his or her own closely choreographed task.

The day I visit the hot shop, reggae music is blasting out of the speakers over the roar of the gas kilns and the clank of metal pipes. Along one wall, bins of stubby glass rods the size of sidewalk chalk glisten in the light of the open flames; beside them jars of colored glass gravel and powdered glass sit in neat rows. The entry corridor to the hot shop, illuminated from overhead with the even light of an overcast sky, is lined with hundreds of squirming, writhing pieces of blown glass, hung in color groups on wire grids that must be 12 feet high.

The workers, dressed in jeans and T-shirts, wear sunglasses against the glare of the kiln. A glassblower reaches a long metal blowpipe into the hot heart of the oven and gathers a lump of molten glass the color of pale root beer. He twirls and blows the glass while a gaffer deftly drips a long thread of colored glass in a spiral pattern down its side. The decorated bubble goes back into the kiln and then is pulled out again to be plunged into a bucket-shaped mold that presses ridges into its side.

Today they are making a type of flared platter that Chihuly has dubbed "Persians." As the process of twirl, blow, and heat continues, the lump of molten glass balloons into a large bubble. Suddenly the bubble spins wide into a wheel of glass. The blower deftly turns it floorward, and gravity tugs it out of shape. An assistant in a fireproof suit and hood stretches out his enormous insulated gloves and the newly made Persian looking like a jellyfish arrested in mid-flutter, is gently clipped free into his arms. Turning, the runner hurries it to an annealing oven where it will cool overnight.

Upstairs another group of assistants is fielding a constant stream of phone calls and faxes. I wait to talk to Chihuly in the living quarters that lie behind an unmarked door. The sitting room is furnished with sagging pieces of rattan furniture covered in Pendleton blankets (Chihuly has one of the biggest Pendleton blanket collections in the world). An orange life ring leans against a stack of accordions; two dozen more accordions hang from the ceiling in the next room.

On this particular day—as on most days—Chihuly is running late. He's meeting with staff members and his friend Barry Rosen, a New York art dealer, to discuss a new edition of a book of his work, but he's supposed to be in Tacoma at another meeting. UPS has just delivered several boxes of figurines representing characters from Tintin, the popular Belgian comic books, and one of Chihuly's recent collecting passions. The book meeting continues as Chihuly slices open the cartons and begins wrestling the little statuettes free of their bubble wrap.

"I'll tell you what," he says to me as Rosen disengages from him and heads him for the door, "I'll call you from the car, and you can ask me whatever you want. I promise."

While I wait, I take inventory of the collections that fill the long kitchen table: stacks to Tintin books, a sheet of slides of Chihuly floats marked "Elton John" (John visited the studio between concerts earlier in the month), envelopes of snapshots, a half dozen eye patches in plastic storage bag, and a four-inch stack of telephone messages with a note that says, "Dale, what do you want me to do with these?"

The phone rings. Through the static I hear Chihuly say, "Barry, look in the glove compartment and see if there are any sunglasses." His voice becomes more distinct. "Did you know that Seattle has the largest number of sunglasses sold per capita in the United States? It's because people keep losing them. Did you know that we also have the largest number of members of the National Geographic Society? It's true—also the largest number of college graduates per capita. What did you want to ask me?"

"I was wondering about . . ."

"Also the most people who know CPR. And the fastest response to 911 calls—three and a half minutes! Barry, did you find those sunglasses?" Silence, then the roar of static cuts back in.

"Tell me about the Float Project," I say. At any given moment Chihuly and his staff are working on perhaps 20 or 30 big projects around the world. ("I only do one thing at a time," he says, "I just change very rapidly from one thing to another.") Current projects include a ceiling installation for the new Disney cruise ship; several installations in a new resort in the Bahamas; a big ceiling installation in a Las Vegas hotel; plans for a 600-foot-long pedestrian bridge in his hometown of Tacoma that will lead to a yet-to-be-built international glass museum; a Sicilian restaurant/bookstore specializing in art books; and a commission to create an installation for the Citadel in Jerusalem to mark the millennium.

Chihuly came up with the Float Project last year when he was in Japan. "When I was growing up in Tacoma you could find Japanese fishing floats on the beach after every big storm," he explains. Most Japanese fishermen have switched to plastic, but Chihuly found the last remaining traditional float maker on the island of Hakkaido in northern Japan. The float maker, Mr. Kanamori, joined Chihuly and his team in Niijima, a glass center south of Tokyo for a frenzied eight days of glassblowing. Some of the floats they made were tossed into the Pacific; future floats might be launched with labels inviting people to add their messages to a Web site.

Chihuly returned to Seattle from Japan with 1,200 of Mr. Kanamori's floats. "What will you do with them?" I ask. "Do?" He sounds puzzled by the question. "I don't know, I might hang them from a bridge. Or string them together with stainless steel wire and put them out on Lake Union. It's one of those projects that . . ." the cell phone transmission erupts in static " . . . or maybe we'll . . ." his patchy, distant voice breaks up and the phone goes dead.

Later that day I visit his second Seattle studio, a 40,000-square-foot cinderblock building on a street of modest houses. A team there is experimenting with blowing and molding Chihuly works in plastic. If they succeed, the lightweight plastic will allow Chihuly to work on an even grander scale. He has reached the physical limit on glass floats at three feet across, but polymer floats could be much larger. There are many problems still to be overcome, including the fact that polymer can't be blown like glass, so many of the components must be molded, leaving an obvious seam. Nonetheless, enormous plastic pods like upended barracudas fill a gallery at the new studio; overhead, wide plastic Persians float against the ceiling, each one secured with a single Philips-head screw. It's an intriguing sight, but clearly no match yet for Chihuly's glass work. "It's early," he says. "We'll see."

The next day I drive south to Tacoma to Chihuly's third studio. Nearby is Union Station, a restored former railroad station whose vast waiting room is dominated by a 20-foot-long blue chandelier; the station will anchor one end of the "Bridge of Glass," a proposed steel-and-copper pedestrian bridge punctuated with miniature pavilions showcasing Chihuly glass.

The three-story warehouse building is filled with Chihuly's collection: walls of suitcases, shelves of vintage television sets, baseball gloves, 15 cartons of Frisbee disks, a 1962 Chevy Impala, a 1910 Old Town canoe, a 1998 Harley Heritage Springer. ("Does he ride it?" I ask Tom McHugh, the registrar, who is showing me around. "No," he says. "He just has it.") We climb a set of stairs lined with tennis rackets; jackknives hang from the banister like a heavy fringe. On the top floor, rows of folding tables are laid out with several hundred copies of Chihuly's recent book on his Venice project.

This is where serious collectors come to see Chihuly's finest work. Broad industrial shelves hold nested clusters of Baskets, Persians, and Seaforms in wild and brilliant colors. Tom throws a switch, and hidden lights illuminate their translucent depths. Each piece comes startingly to life, unique but part of an unforgettable tableau, and I suddenly wish that I had $25,000 for a Chihuly of my own.

In a rare understatement, Tom offers his comment. "Nice, huh?"

Very nice.

©1998 Attaché