On The Road

Dale Chihuly
Chihuly Color, Glass and Form

I'm about to leave my studio in Seattle for my Mom's house, in Tacoma, driving my 1954 DeSoto station wagon. If the DeSoto doesn't fail me, and it never has before, I'll arrive in forty-five minutes, enough time to fill up one side of this tape. My story begins just over twenty years ago, when I left the great Northwest to learn how to blow glass. But let me go back a couple years before then to let you know how I got excited about glassblowing.

I started working seriously with glass in1964 while pursuing a degree in interior design at the University of Washington. During Doris Brockway's weaving course I incorporated small bits of glass in a tapestry. I don't know where the initial fascination for glass came from, although as a child I did comb the beach for bits of colored glass. Anyway, while discovering ways of incorporating glass into the tapestries I also developed equipment to melt and fuse the pieces of colored glass together with copper wire, which I could then weave into the fabric. The glass became more and more three-dimensional, evolving into small freestanding sculptural objects. I learned more about the technical and fluid possibilities of the material and soon became immersed in my glasswork.

One night I melted a few pounds of stained glass in one of my kilns and dipped a steel pipe from the basement into it. I blew into the pipe and a bubble of glass appeared on the end. As far as I could remember, I had never seen glassblowing before. My fascination for it probably comes in part from discovering the process that night by accident. From that moment, I became obsessed with learning all I could about glass.

After I graduated from the University of Washington, I went to work for a big architectural firm, but I continued to work with glass in my basement studio in the evenings and on weekends. I resolved to go to graduate school to learn glassblowing and received a grant from Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin. In the spring of 1966 I signed on as a commercial fisherman in Alaska for six months to save money, knowing that in the fall I would be blowing glass full time.

In the beginning, my interests were primarily sculptural. I wasn't interested in the vessel form at all. I started experimenting with neon and other materials in combination with glass.

After a year in Wisconsin, I transferred to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to work with Professor Norman Schulman, who got me a stipend to teach. Under the influence of sculptors and painters, both in Wisconsin and Rhode Island, I began to develop my own sensibility. It was a revolutionary time. I was working with ice, neon, plastics, synthetic and reflective materials. But the core of my work was the amorphic shapes that I could blow with glass - dripping molten glass out of the furnace and blowing organic forms and putting them in environments, lighting them in special ways. It was one of the most creative times of my life.

To this day I have never gotten over the excitement of molten glass. All the forms we've invented and developed are based on the ability of molten glass to be blown and manipulated in a very natural manner. We use as few tools as possible, and most of them are like the original tools invented two thousand years ago. The process is so wonderfully simple, yet so mystifying. I've watched thousands of forms blown and I'm still amazed to see the first breath of air enter the hot gather of glass on the end of a blowpipe. The piece is always moving while it's in progress and one has to make decisions very quickly. I like the work to reflect these quick decisions, the end result being a frozen fluid thought - as direct as a drawing. Since the start of the Basket Series in 1977, my work has relied on spontaneous combinations of fire, molten glass, air, centrifugal force, and gravity.

Glassblowing was invented about two thousand years ago. Historically, glass was always melted and blown in a factory situation. The Venetians began refining the art of glassblowing on the island of Murano around the year 1OOO A.D. By the 15th or 16th century, glass blowers working in the hundreds of factories around Murano were confined to the island, not only for reasons of safety but also to keep the secrets. This atmosphere of secrecy restricted the flow of information about glassmaking. This is one of the reasons why the working of glass was nearly unknown outside of factories until Harvey Littleton started the first courses in 1962. Prior to that, artists never really had opportunities to work with molten glass because the equipment was too complicated. This is not to say that artists like Tiffany, Daum, and Lalique didn't produce some wonderful pieces, but they didn't know how to blow glass and had the restrictions of working with limited-production factories.

So, all of a sudden, you have hundreds - no, thousands - of young glass artists in universities exposed to a previously unavailable process. Before, almost everyone had to be concerned with the economics of the factory: what the public wanted and whether the pieces could be produced in quantity. Now students could experiment with and discover new techniques. Hundreds of new forms emerged, and only now can we look back over the past twenty years of glasswork to evaluate what happened.

Venice is my favorite city. After I graduated from RISD, I spent a year working at Venini on the island of Murano and would take the boat over from Venice every day. This is where I came to understand the true meaning and advantages of teamwork. Not that I hadn't collaborated before, beginning with Fritz Dreisbach and Michael Whitley at Madison. I had also met Italo Scanga in 1967, and we did several projects together, with me acting mainly as a gaffer for Italo. Teamwork suited me; nothing's more inspiring than blowing glass with a group of friends.

When I returned to RISD to teach in 1969, I began asking my students for help in making pieces. One of my first students was Jamie Carpenter. In the beginning, Jamie would help me blow my pieces and in return I would assist him on his. Our ideas began to merge and we started working as a team. This lasted until 1974, when we went our separate directions and I began the cylinder series. The cylinder form is a neutral presence, quite unlike what I consider natural to glassblowing, but the drawings, which is what they were all about, were usually quite free and spontaneous. The drawings were meticulously prepared by Kate Elliott and Flora Mace, but when I picked them up on the molten cylinder I never really knew what would happen to them. This element of chance intrigued me, and I never knew how they had turned out until I opened the annealing oven the next morning. I think it's that mystery that inspired me to continue the series.

During this time I put together a skillful team of students at Pilchuck, the glassmaking school I had founded in 197I, near Seattle. The makeup of the team would change as students came and went and I became more adept at bringing out the best in them. I would often repay students by helping them with their projects or by giving them a piece, since I couldn't afford to pay them any other way. For the first ten years that I blew glass I never sold any work. It just wasn't a consideration at the time, although there were a few collectors interested in the cylinders. I also collaborated with Seaver Leslie, first in the summer of 1975 at Artpark in Lewiston, New York, where we worked with sheets of stained glass and later on a series of Irish and Ulysses Cylinders. Seaver and I were on a lecture tour in England when we had a serious automobile crash. That put an end to the series. I didn't return to cylinders until 1984.

It took about a year to recuperate from my injuries and then to find a new direction to my work, but in the meantime I put my energy into Pilchuck, teaching, and RISD. Then, in the summer of 1977, I was visiting the Tacoma Historical Society with Italo Scanga, and I remember being struck by a pile of Northwest Coast Indian baskets that were stacked one inside another. They were dented and misshapen, wonderful forms. I don't really know what made me want to reproduce them in glass, but that was my mission for the summer. Maybe it was just an excuse to blow glass again, but by the end of the summer I had made about a hundred, and I showed them at the Seattle Art Museum that fall. My friends didn't really like the new series, but it didn't matter because I loved making them.

The baskets did develop slowly, but when I started grouping them together it led to new forms. At some point I began using ribbed molds, which gave the forms a great deal more strength and movement and made them reminiscent of sea life. The inner structure produced by the ribbed molds allowed us to work with much thinner glass, and we pushed the blowing process as far as we possibly could. I remember someone saying these pieces might float to the ceiling if they became any thinner. My primary concern, however, was with the forms - I felt I could make things with the blowpipe that had never been done before. In order to emphasize this delicate quality, I worked primarily with subtle colors and often only with white. As with the baskets, after a couple of years I felt I had pushed Sea Forms to their limits.

In 1981 I started working on the Macchia. In the beginning they were mostly concerned with color - usually very bright, often strange, mostly opaque color - where the outside of the piece was dramatically contrasted to the inside. Lip wraps complemented the inside color. Most people don't realize it, but blowing a piece that combines a range of colors is extremely difficult, because each color attracts and holds the heat differently. As we slowly began to figure out these technical complexities, the Macchias began to increase in size. It turns out that size is extremely important to the Macchias, and with them I felt for the first time that a piece of glass held its own in a room.

Well, here we are in Tacoma, only blocks from where I was born. I don't know what compelled me to move back after twenty years on the Eastern seaboard - my Mom, Pilchuck, my friends, the sea? Most of my work has been made in the shops of RISD and Pilchuck with the help of students and friends. The experimental and collaborative spirit of both these environments allowed me a great freedom to develop my ideas in glass. However, after fifteen years of teaching at RISD, I have chosen to return to Seattle and concentrate my energies on my work and on Pilchuck, which has become firmly established as an international glass center.

But I've been such a nomad all my life, I don't think I'll ever lose the desire to travel to beautiful places - one more archipelago, another ring of standing stones, another glassblowing session in some exotic spot, or just one more trip to Venice to see the full moon over the Grand Canal.

Published in Chihuly: Color, Glass, and Form, Kodansha International Ltd., 1986.

Also from Chihuly: Color, Glass and Form: Drawing in the Third Dimension, Michael W. Monroe

With the Team, Karen Chambers