Dale Chihuly, Glassmaker 1982 NCECA Conference Slide Presentation

Authors: Dale Chihuly Transcribed by Dion Myers Edited by Kate Elliott
NCECA Journal 1982

It's nice to be here and it's nice to be a glassmaker talking to clay people. There's a lot of parallels between the clay movement and the glass movement and I think the clay movement had a tremendous influence from the 50's and 60's on what got to be known as the glass movement. As you probably know, there were no glassblowing schools in the United States prior to 1962 when Harvey Littleton started glassblowing at the University of Wisconsin. Now there's something like 50 to 75 schools that teach glassblowing, of which a couple of dozen are pretty strong programs. One of the main differences between glass and ceramics that people often don't talk about is that clay, as you know, has a great 7,000-year history of artists working with clays in personal development. Glass was a very mysterious material, and still is to a degree. It's been around for about 5,000 years. They've been blowing glass for about 2,000 years, since the time the Romans invented the blowpipe.

It was the Venetians who really developed the art of glassblowing to the degree that we know it today. The Venetians put all the glassblowers on a little island outside of Venice called Murano, and this tremendous skill flourished because these people lived there for generations. If you were a glassblower in, say, the 15th century in Venice and you tried to leave Murano you were executed, or if you got away your families were executed. It took a couple of centuries for them to actually break away from Murano and spread the information throughout the rest of Europe. Because of the way that secrecy was instilled in the medium from that point on, as well as no one ever really being allowed to go into a glass factory, right up to today you can't get into factories very easily. Artists never had a chance, or a craftsperson who was interested in glass could never go in and try to learn how to work with glass. The fact was that throughout Venetian history you couldn't be a master glassblower unless your father was. There were no opportunitites for peopleto learn how to do this unless they were involved in factories. Another big difference was glass was very commercial, very production oriented, made for trade. They very rarely made unique pieces. It was usually items they made hundreds or thousands of, and for that reason they developed no new techniques.

Now people are starting to work with glass who never have before or are just interested in glass as a material. That's what happened to me. I was interested in glass so I looked into where I could learn how to blow glass and then went to study under Harvey (Littleton) in 1966. If I had had that interest 10 years before it would not have been possible to study glass. Glass was also very expensive like clay has been, but unfortunately glass is even more expensive. If it weren't for the university system starting glass departments, there would be no way to really develop. (I speak mainly about glassblowers.) There's a lot of cutting and engraving and working with sheets of glass, but primarily I'm talking about glassblowing when I say it's very expensive. It's really the university that has allowed students to be trained for three or four years, and have enough skill when they leave school to do something with it. It would otherwise be prohibitive to build a glass shop and start blowing glass when you didn't know how.

Pilchuck Glass Center consists of a series of buildings for blowing glass and for stained glass. Coincidentally, stained glass had sort of a renaissance as well in the late 60's, quite apart from glassblowing. We tried to build this into Pilchuck. Pilchuck is located 50 miles north of Seattle, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. When I went out there in 1971 with some friends and a group of students, the idea was that artists and craftsmen would come there to work on projects of their own. Along with them we would invite students to come and work with these artists and craftsmen. It was like an apprentice kind of system, which is, I've always believed, a good tool in terms of education. Sothat was the original concept behind Pilchuck. People would assist the faculty, work together and collaborate on projects. It's changed over the years. There have been different directors and different people guiding it though. It's not changed into a kind of an international glass center where we have 30 faculty during the summer, about half of whom come from Europe. We have 200 students and at any one time there are about 75 or 80 people at Pilchuck. There are two- or three-week sessions where people learn about stained glass or glassblowing. In 1971 I came out and met John and Anne Hauberg, art patrons in Seattle, who let me start Pilchuck on their property, 16,000 acres. The only building on the property was a little railroad shack and other than that there was nothing there. Two weeks after we arrived we had finished a little structure which was the original glass shop of Pilchuck. The next year we got a couple of Army tents and this is where we showed our slides and ate, back in the early 70's. Slides have always been a big emphasis at Pilchuck, with two lectures a day. The first year everybody who was there, because there were no other structures, had to build their own place to live. Some of them were built in a day or so, and others were more elaborate - made up of salvage windows and lumber. We kept about five of these original structures at Pilchuck and people still live in these. Now, of course, with modernization, came more elaborate faculty housing. There've been probably a couple of hundred faculty at Pilchuck in the last 12 years. At any one time there are ten teaching assistants at Pilchuck and they really keep the program going with a lot of the technical teaching. Another thing we do is we bring in Italian and Swedish glass masters. They're extraordinary craftsmen and, sad to say, none of the students at Pilchuck will ever be as talented in terms of craftsmanship as these men are. They are the best that Venice has to offer, Venice having the best glassblowers in the world. But it give people the opportunity to see what really great skill is and they can take from the Italians and take from the Swedes and try to put those together. All the Pilchuck staff, and even most of the cooks and people like that, are all glass artists or craftsmen.

I graduated from the University of Washington in 1965. I got a degree in interior design which doesn't have much to do with making art. But in the process of doing that I learned about weaving and about 1963 I started weaving bits of glass into wall hangings and it got me very interested in glass. I went on to get the degree in interior design and I worked as a designer and then I quit and went on to, as I mentioned before, study glassblowing in 1966 at the University of Wisconsin. I stayed for a year and I went to the Rhode Island School of Design where I studied glassblowing and then went to Venice where I lived for a year. In 1969 I came back to head up the program at the Rhode Island School of Design. At the very beginning of my blowing glass I worked with people. It just seems to be a medium that lends itself to having lots of people around. When I came back from Venice, for the next three or four years I worked primarily on large-scale environmental projects and in collaboration with Jamie Carpenter who was a student of mine. We froze neon inside of 20,000 pounds of ice and later, in 1971, had a modern exhibition of white glass, some of which was filled with neon, nine feet tall. During that time, in '72 and '73, Jamie and I also did a series of 10 stained glass doors. In each door we used a different technique that we felt hadn't been used in architecture, such as cast glass elements. We never really could get the support from architects or builders.

In 1974, Jamie and I quit working together and I started a series of glass cylinders called the "Blanket Cylinders." They were done using a technique that we developed at Pilchuck where we could take little bits of glass and threads and lay them down and then pick them up with molten glass. I had decided I was really more interested in drawing on glass and so I decided to take this cylindrical shape and I sued the motif of the Navajo blanket. I've always loved Navajo blankets, but often people confuse the issue. They think I'm concerned with American Indian art. I was really just using that as a design concept. Later, in another series, I used Northwest Coast Indian blankets. It was a takeoff point, just to develop the series. It really had more to do with drawing on glass. I also picked an opaque glass, not unlike ceramics, so that you could see the drawings better. Starting about eight years ago I quit trying to make colored glasses and started using imported glass rods. I guess it would be a little bit like whether you make your own glazes or whether you used commercial glazes. I, and a lot of people, use these color rods, they come in a palette of a few hundred colors and you cut them up. It is very concentrated color and we heat them up and pull them into threads in the case of these drawings on the Blanket Cylinders. I never made the drawings myself. I had first Kate Elliott, then Flora Mace, working on blankets or me, trying to copy them, sometimes out of a book. They would set up these meticulous little drawings out of glass sticks and glass powder and then I would pick them up with molten glass. Hot glass coming down of that drawing would fuse to the cylinder and then it would proceed to be reformed and blown out. Later I dropped the blanket motif and did some other cylinders that didn't have Navajo blankets on them.

In 1977, after working in cylinders for a couple of years, I got sick of doing the cylinders and had seen some Northwest Coast Indian baskets in a museum and thought about the possibility of trying to blow glass very thin like a basket. Many of the baskets that I saw were sort of old and crumpley and soI took on that idea of making very, very thin glass in 1977. Originally, I used the drawing on the pieces, but I dropped that idea and just began to make a lot of little pieces and big pieces and then put them together in sort of these clusters or groups.

The basket series sort of got lost somewhere around 1980 and the work became kind of nautical. I didn't realize it until somebody pointed it out to me, actually, that it was becoming very shell-like and sea-like and all of which suited me just fine because I live a lot on an island off Rhode Island called Block Island. Ireland is my favorite country and so I'm often on an island somewhere. Although I'm not a scuba diver, and I don't collect shells, I know that the work is very sea-like. They go up to about 24 inches in diameter, which is pretty big for glass. They're sold as groups or sometimes as singles. They're not epoxied down at any time and even during an exhibition I don't use any silicone and I don't put them under glass. Very rarely do I allow a museum to put them under glass for an exhibition. I just don't like them under glass. Just from working a lot with the same people and working year after year, over and over, we're able to determine how some of these forms are going to go. We're still dealing with a lot of chance, but we try to set up the circumstances so we can control what these forms are going to be like.

I touch it as little as possible with as few tools as possible. I have a standard rule - nobody is to touch the glass unless it is absolutely necessary. Most of the work is done with gravity and heat. It's all quick movemnets. Usually five seconds worth at the end makes and determines the form. About six months ago I started a new series, most of which is opaque, called the "Macchia" series. There's opaque on the inside, polychrome opaque, usually a different color, and then spots on the outside.

Because it is a new series, I thought it would be interesting to try to photograph it outside because I had already developed the shooting in the studio pretty well. I thought it would be kind of a challenge to work with natural light, which is a lot nicer to begin with. They're all shot usually at sunrise or sunset. The light is great a sunrise and sunset. It's not very good at high noon, so if you take some pieces outside and try to shoot in the middle of the day when most people would think they should shoot, it usually washes out the color. Warm light, in general, is better for color than cool light anyway. You can get really nice slides, and you don't have to be in a studio situation to get them. I liked the idea because these pieces were spotted. My studio is on the water and the tide was out. We just went down and put one of them in the muck of the tide and shot it. I had called my friend Italo, because they were doing this catalog of my work and I said, "Italo," I've got to have a name for this new series, these brightly spotted pieces. I think I'm going to call them the spotted series." (My mother was calling them the "Uglies.") He said, "No, that's a terrible name." And I said, "How do you say spotted in Italian?" and he's from Italy and he said, "Shit, I can't remember. Let me go look it up and I'll call you back." He called me back and said "Macchia. Macchia, that's a great name." So I call it the "Macchia" series, which is spotted in Italian. I still do some of the kind of transparent pieces, a holdover from the sea form shapes. Those Macchia pieces remind me of the sea, the deep sea, too.

I've had an interest in photographing my work for a long time. Starting in 1977, I became almost obsessed with photographing my work. I work in sessions of usually a couple of weeks and then I won't work for a couple of weeks or a month. I always work with a team of people, so right after I get done working I then go to usually a professional photography studio, although lately I've been doing it outside. In a studio it's photographed on a sheet of transparent grey plexiglass on white paper and then often with a 2ΒΌ" or a 4 x 5" camera. I would then arrange the pieces and the photographer would shoot them. I could have photographed them myself; it's just that he knew more about it than I did. I'm not interested in photography per se, but I am very interested in slides of the work. I can come in and photograph a group and rearrange it and shoot it again and rearrange it and shoot it again. Fortunately, in Providence, where I do most of the photography work, we get three-hour color service so three hours later we get the slides back. In the process of that two or three days of shooting I really begin to make aesthetic decisions about the work I make the work and then I go into the studio and photograph it. By the time that's done, I really know how I want the piece to be, which elements are important. Having a record of all this has been one of the greatest tools of my development and it's something that I'd really like to encourage, especially young people, to do. Get into the habit of trying to photograph the work because it can be one of the most important aspects of the work's development. The work takes up a lot of space and I can't light it any way I want in my studio. I often refer to the slides. It helps in making a lot of the decisions, often about what I'm going to do next.

Just get into the habit of thinking photography is actually a part of the work. I'm good at it because I've done it a lot, and if you're less good at it that means you've got to go outside with you pieces and photograph and maybe fail and go back out the next day and fail again. But if you do that two or three times, you're guaranteed some good slides. My philosophy is: When one is good, a dozen is better.

Published in NCECA Journal, 3, no. 1 (1982): 49-52.