Scuola di Chihuly: Venezia and Seattle

Patterson Sims
1992

Two cities, Seattle, Washington, and Venice, Italy best exemplify the personal and artistic character of Dale Chihuly. They represent the polar opposites of his complex and energetic spirit: love of nature and concentration on basic necessities on the one hand and exoticism and extravagance on the other, an emphasis on normalcy and dedication to work as opposed to escapism and luxe style, and a firm grounding in the present versus an infatuation with past splendors. The pairing of these places in his life suggests the contradictory and unfathomable nature of Chihuly and his art. Chihuly and the numerous artists working with glass who have moved to Seattle in the past twenty years have made the Northwest Coast city, like Venice, a world center for the creation of art made of glass.

Chihuly was born in 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, and spent his youth there. He first lived in nearby Seattle from 1960 to 1965, during and just after his student years at the University of Washington. He returned here to live and work in 1982, and since that time, he has become one of Seattle's most fervent devotees, one of its best publicized characters, and the personification of the benefits of the city's much-touted livability and economic viability. Yet Chihuly admits that Venice is his favorite city on earth, cherishing its food, exotic architecture, and idiosyncratic urbanity. During his third visit to this fabled city, he studied glassblowing at the Venini factory on the neighboring island of Murano, and the city's unabashed love of luxury and the genius of its glass artists continue to draw him to Venice and its lagoon.

His artistic achievements, supported by his incessant technical innovations, have moved art glass from craft to sculpture.

Seven hundred years ago the Venetian glass industry moved from the city to Murano, where the risk of fire could be contained. Murano’s main thoroughfare, with its own piccolo canal, is lined on its wider side with seemingly identical shops selling seemingly identical products of the island’s numerous glass workshops. The resolute commercialism and tourism on this picturesque street fade as one considers the centuries of artistic genius and technical skill that have dominated this small corner of the world. It was here, in 1968, at the Venini Fabrica, that Chihuly first seriously encountered a form of glassblowing that would ultimately redefine his craft and initiated a creative journey that revolutionized the American as well as the international studio-glass movement. His artistic achievements, supported by his incessant technical innovations, have moved art glass from craft to sculpture.

Before his Venini residency, Chihuly’s studies in Madison during 1965 with Harvey Littleton’s pioneer graduate program in glass at the University of Wisconsin provided him with a sense of the history of the medium, his first friends who were artists, and some basic skills in glassmaking, but the elaborations-which for Chihuly are the essentials-remained to be learned. After a successful solo exhibition at the university, he received a special one-year degree and then moved to Providence, Rhode Island, to undertake a second graduate degree at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). At RISD Chihuly grouped the long-necked, biomorphic forms that had already garnered him prizes in Wisconsin state art competitions into installations and was once again lauded for his innovative work. Although RISD was not yet a center for glass art, Chihuly was invited to teach in the sculpture program there upon his graduation. However, he realized that the mastery of glassblowing in Venice was a necessary prelude to a major teaching assignment. Chihuly wrote to all the leading glass factories in Italy. Only Venini responded. He received a Fulbright Fellowship and a grant from the Tiffany Foundation to support his residency at Venini.

Chihuly was both the first American glass artist to study officially at the Venini Fabrica and the first recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship for the study of glass. Thomas Stearns, an American fiber artist, had done some work at Venini as early at 1960 and, following Chihuly, studio-glass artists Richard Marquis, James Carpenter (with Chihuly), and others came to make glass at Venini. They were warmly welcomed in keeping with the factory's emphasis on collaborative work, a practice which has benefited numerous artists and, even more frequently, architects.

Although Chihuly had made brief trips to Venice in the early 1960s, he considers his Fulbright residency in 1968 to be the first meaningful visit. He arrived in September of that year and was quickly ensnared by the spell of Venice, and by December he was ready to start his work at Venini. On his first day there, he met Venini's director, Ludovico de Santillana, who was very comfortable with Americans, and he came to treat Chihuly almost like a son. Because of Chihuly's background in design and architecture, Santillana assigned him to work on an important sculpture competition for the city of Ferrara. This project, combining glass, plastic, and neon, consumed most of Chihuly’s time at the factory, but was never realized. Though he lacked the skills to blow glass with the Muranese team, he watched from the sidelines, absorbing techniques that had long been secret and were essentially unknown in the United States. As Italy's most progressive glassworks, Venini, then as now, coupled high style with elegant function. The factory had revived traditional Venetian decorative techniques, while refining the vessel and other functional and sculptural forms. Behind its austere, closed façade, it produced glass that was contemporary in style yet traditional in spirit, aimed at a clientele of art collectors, rather than tourists.

Chihuly spent nine months in Venice, and it was this experience that gave Chihuly the student the vision of what he might become as Chihuly the master.

Perhaps the most critical lesson Chihuly learned at Venini was the centrality of the team to successful glassblowing. The sheer physical demands of the process require skilled collaborators. Even if at certain of the Murano factories glassblowing became a spectator sport for tourists, this is not the approach taken within the exclusive confines of Venini. Though the general Muranese model might be assumed as the origins of Chihuly’s later road-trip demonstrations and crowd-pleasing glassblowing sessions, they arise more from Chihuly’s instructive instincts and gregarious personality. Murano’s typical alliance of production and sale, the bottom line of Venice’s commingling of trade and culture, is offensive to Chihuly. Venini remained above the theater/marketplace of the rest of much of Murano. Chihuly spent nine months in Venice, and it was this experience that gave Chihuly the student the vision of what he might become as Chihuly the master.

In the summer of 1969 Chihuly returned to the United States and taught classes at the Haystack Mountain School on Deer Isle, Maine. In the fall, he went back to RISD to start a glassmaking department that would leave an imprint not only on the school, but on the entire American glass movement. However, it was another summer school, started in 1971, that played a critical role in Chihuly’s reconnection to the Northwest and the development of glassmaking in the area. With an initial grant of two thousand dollars from the Union of Independent Colleges of Art (UICA) and the support of the Seattle art collectors Anne Gould Hauberg and John Hauberg, the Pilchuck Glass School was established. To an idyllic spot, in the middle of John Hauberg’s experimental tree farm north of Seattle, Chihuly and his RISD colleagues James Carpenter and John Landon brought a small band of UICA students and a few faculty members. Through a blend of idealism, camaraderie, and manic energy and with the Hauberg’s blessings and resources, what was originally nicknamed the Peanut Farm became the Pilchuck Glass School, for the tree farm on which it was sited. (Pilchuck means “red water” in the jargon of the native Chunuck language and refers to iron deposits in the water.) As Pilchuck Glass School's first director, Chihuly, not yet thirty, shaped its philosophy and curriculum. Taking the best from each of his experiences at the University of Wisconsin, RISD, the Venini factory, and Haystack, he made the master-and-team approach the basis of Pilchuck’s teaching.

Chihuly has been actively involved with the school ever since. Pilchuck, now with a momentum of its own, has grown to have a 1992 budget of 1.2 million dollars, a summer program of two hundred fifty students and fifty teaching assistants, thirty faculty members, ten artists-in-residence, and ten gaffers (master glassblowers). A cadre of artists works at its campus throughout the year.

The establishment of the Pilchuck Glass School in 1971 was a natural evolution for Chihuly. Although he continued to teach at RISD until 1982, Pilchuck provided him the opportunity to develop his own ideas about glassmaking and return to his birthplace in the Northwest for professional as well as personal reasons. Having lost his father and only sibling (a brother) when he was in his mid-teens, he regularly returned to the area from RISD to visit his mother in Tacoma. When he eventually settled in Seattle in 1982, he was able to point out that the city was equidistant from Tacoma and Pilchuck.

Chihuly has always been a frequent flyer in both the literal and the figurative sense. Together with teams that centered on a group of artists, including Kate Elliott, Benjamin Moore, Bill Morris, Flora Mace, Joey Kirkpatrick, Rich Royal and, most recently, Martin Blank, Chihuly has shared the excitement of producing an impressive body of work at art schools, universities, and glass factories. Quickly sensing people’s gifts, Chihuly collects new and promising young artists during these visits, but Pilchuck remains the most fertile ground for new talent. Drawn by the esprit de corps, many of Chihuly's best associates move to Seattle or, like many Pilchuck veterans, remain in the area when classes are over. Like others, they settle in Seattle for the opportunities, the natural beauty, and the tolerance of independent thinking.

While the move to Seattle made sense for Chihuly personally, it was a less obvious choice from a professional point of view. The Seattle art scene of the 1970s was modest, at best. With the lively exception of the Seattle World’s Fair in 1962, contemporary art was only infrequently “imported” from outside the area. In 1975, the Seattle Art Museum (with its concentrations in Asian and contemporary Northwest art) established a Department of Modern Art under the leadership of Charles Cowles, who had come from Artforum magazine in New York. The sophistication of his ideas and those of art historian and curator Jan van der Marck at the University of Washington began to open up the local scene. When two years later, Chihuly, James Carpenter, and Italo Scanga were shown together at the museum, it was its first expression of interest in glass and the Pilchuck Glass School. Cowles, and others, swiftly acknowledged that glass was a medium not be confined to the arena of craft, vessel form, or decorative arts; that it could be a medium of sculpture; that art need not be defined and limited by medium.

In fact, Seattle is second only to Venice in its concentration of artists and artisans who work with glass, and many have worked for Chihuly in jobs that range from gaffer to photo-archivist.

Chihuly had made the decision by 1980 to give up full-time teaching and his position as head of the Glass Department at RISD, so the move to Seattle in 1982 was by no means an abrupt transition. Perhaps the ultimate break came when he sold his beloved waterside residence in Providence, which, like his current studio in Seattle, was called “The Boathouse.” By the time of the move, Chihuly’s artistic success was indisputable, and his talent and personality quickly put him at the absolute, if unstated, center of the community of Seattle glass artists. He established his first Seattle studio, the Buffalo Building, in 1986, and in 1987 a hot shop in a nearby space at the south end of Lake Union. Until that time, he used the glassmaking facilities at Pilchuck or his friend Benjamin Moore’s King Street studio. With his purchase and transformation of the Pocock factory building in 1990 at the north end of Lake Union, the second “Boathouse,” Chihuly added the most technically advanced glass studio to Seattle’s more than thirty-five hot shops built since the establishment of Pilchuck. In fact, Seattle is second only to Venice in its concentration of artists and artisans who work with glass, and many have worked for Chihuly in jobs that range from gaffer to photo-archivist. In addition to its growing fame as a glass center, Seattle is known for its support of public art programs, another area of contemporary art making which, like Chihuly’s glass, depends on teamwork. Since he received his first commission in 1979, public art has become an increasingly crucial part of his artistic life.

Chihuly himself has become the area’s best-known artist, both nationally and internationally, since Mark Tobey, with whom he shares the distinction of an exhibition at the Louvre’s Museum of Decorative Arts, the first two U.S. artists so honored. However, he has always acknowledged the importance of teamwork and never fails to give credit to his co-workers. It is also common practice for him to confer with everyone at all times about everything. As one of his friends has pointed out, for Chihuly the best way to get a job done well is to have a few more people around than is absolutely necessary. He credits his leadership skills to his father, who was a labor organizer for the meatcutter’s union. But that is only one of the qualities that make people gravitate to Chihuly. To say that he is affable and generous by nature is an understatement. To a remarkable degree, his Seattle studio has become a primary destination for distinguished visitors and philanthropic groups, and he is likely to ask these visitors or even passersby their opinion of an installation, a detail of The Boathouse, or some other preoccupation of the moment. Like Andy Warhol-whom he acknowledges as something of a role model-Chihuly turns all who cross his path into members of “The Factory.” He runs the studio as a director might oversee a large cast and crew on location shooting an epic film.

As the maestro of The Boathouse, Chihuly presides over the creation of his art with a gesture here and a few words there. Using drawings as a guide or with just brief conversations and suggestions, his team produces work in fabulous abundance. The series known as Venetians are among his most recent works, but despite their appellation, they could never have been made in any shop in Venice. Inspired by a group of rare Venetian art deco vases Chihuly first saw in 1987 at a palazzo in Venice and described as “very odd, with garish colors,” these extraordinary and flamboyant vessels are his crowning achievement. Their technical wizardry requires the specialized facilities of The Boathouse and teams of up to eighteen.

To watch Chihuly and his teams at work is to behold the technical and artistic redefinition of a medium. New methods and possibilities are explored in every session. The no-nonsense crew favors results over grace, excepting the occasional spasm of dance by a surprisingly lithe Chihuly. To the driving beat of rock and roll, working from Chihuly’s drawings, the crew takes Chihuly’s two dimensions into three. As neutral and professional as if they were assembling a Maserati, Chihuly’s crews create the most excessive, most deluxe, most unabashedly decorative and formally challenging works of his career. Looking as if a vase had an affair with a chandelier, Chihuly’s Venetians would appear to have much more to do with Venetian tourist glass than with the elegant products of the Venini Fabrica. Yet Venini’s leaf-shaped plates, handkerchief vessels, and a handful of more ornate vases of the 1920s are the vague precedents for the Venetians. From the first Cylinder to the recent Floats, his glass confounds the distinctions between vessel and sculpture.

For the Venetians Chihuly has used great glass masters from renowned factories to assist him, regularly inviting from Venice his friend Lino Tagliapietra and, sometimes for a memorable week or two, the Venetian master of solid glass, Pino Signorreto, masters who bring with them all the secrets of Murano to the process. The Venetians are far from staid, symmetrical productions, and Chihuly pushes the Italians to the extremes of their talent, to larger scale, to more exaggerated stylizations. The Putti, created with Signorreto, combine mocking self-portraiture with impish kitsch. The precision and delicacy of Tagliapietra’s own work is not to be found in the overstated, exquisite vulgarities he makes for Chihuly. There is not much talk during the process: Tagliapietra is learning English, and Chihuly communicates with an Esperanto of gestures and single syllables, along with a constant stream of drawings.

The Ventians followed the Seaform, Macchia, and Persian series-works strikingly prescient of the biomorphic, abstract painting and sculpture of such artists as Terry Winters and John Newman-and are themselves to some degree rococo summations of the U.S. pattern and decoration style of the late1970s and 1980s. They remain, above all, redolent of Venetian art, particularly in the fat little angels that alight upon flowers, hover over the lip wraps of vessels, or bury themselves in fleshy, vibrantly colored ornament. Marrying the opulence of Venice to American vitality and ingenuity, the Venetians are fin-de-siècle outpourings and gold-flecked antidotes to a world immersed in poverty, defeated by decay, and convinced of the end of the grand luxe of the 1980s.

The Boathouse is the most perfect of “Muranese factories” - studio, residence, and storehouse rolled into one, while at the same time being the closest that one can come in Seattle to a Grand Canal palazzo. Chihuly has recreated in Seattle his favorite Venetian experience of watching the boats glide by, and his birch bark canoe (the Yankee gondola) is ready at all times to be slipped off the dockside edge of The Boathouse into the Lake Union ship canal.

Chihuly’s expanding importance as an artist lies in large part in his consistent ability to pursue stylistic shifts and to push variations and embellishments of prior achievements to unexpected and ever bolder ends. His newest series of Floats trades the rococo excesses of the Venetians and the Putti series for the purity of large blown-glass spheres that look like beach balls for the impressionists. His recent multi-part public installations are the secular descendants of the vast mural cycles in Venetian palazzos and churches. Awash with light, they suggest not their spiritual and intellectual heights but the formalist verve and flourish of the extravaganzas of the Tiepolo family, Tintoretto, and other Venetian masters. As with the best Venini glass, Chihuly’s work renders meaningless the distinctions between utilitarian product and art, art and craft, beauty and function. For twenty years, Chihuly has been the maestro, presiding over a school inspired by Venice and situated in Seattle. The scuola di Chihuly - like its leader - is a mobile nexus of creative exuberance.