Dale Chihuly

The Indian Influences Upon My Work

My first serious use of glass consisted of my weaving small pieces of glass into tapestries. This was during my junior and senior years at the University of Washington (1963–65). After studying weaving and textiles, I wound up falling in love with both Navajo blankets and Pendleton trade blankets. As a student, I couldn’t afford the Navajo blankets, but I began to collect Pendletons. This was the beginning of my involvement with Native American design. I probably got as much pleasure from my Pendleton collection as I would have from Navajo blankets.

A turning point came in 1974. That year, I built a glass shop for the Institute of American Indian Art in Santa Fe, visited the first major exhibition of Navajo blankets (at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston), and, along with Jamie Carpenter and Italo Scanga, developed a drawing pickup technique that led to the creation of my Navajo Blanket Cylinders (in late 1974). We created drawings inspired by Indian blanket designs, using glass threads that we then picked up onto the surface of the hot cylinders.

The pickup technique lent itself very nicely to making geometric patterns, as many simple techniques do. Traditional Navajo weavers, for example, used very basic weaving techniques to produce their geometric designs. Pendleton blankets, on the other hand, were made on far more sophisticated looms. These looms could, and occasionally did, produce very complex and organic designs. The complex designs were rarely used, however, because the Pendletons were supposed to imitate or suggest the traditional Navajo blankets. Thus, most Pendletons were simple, geometric, and very beautiful. Pendleton did take more liberty with color, given the vast availability of colored yarns. These yarns were generally not available to the Indians, who would have surely used the bright colors had they had access to them. The unusual colors were one of the major attractions for the Indians—they often preferred wearing the Pendletons to their own handwoven blankets.

I blew the Navajo Blanket Cylinders for two years, and then started making the Baskets. The Baskets were influenced by Northwest Coast Indian baskets that I had seen at the Washington State Historical Museum during the summer of 1977. I exhibited the new series for the first time that same year at the Seattle Art Museum—I placed one hundred Baskets of all sizes and shapes on a twenty-four-foot-long, diamond-plated steel table. As usual, the Baskets were not well accepted by the critics or collectors in the beginning—it took a year or two before collectors started to buy them. Both the drawing pickup technique that had led to the Navajo Blanket Cylinders and a new way of blowing very thin and misshapen basket forms derived from Indian sources. These became two of the most influential series that I created.

The Baskets went on to inform many of the series that followed. The Seaforms, Macchia, and Soft Cylinders all came directly from the style of blowing that I had developed for the Baskets. This blowing technique was the result of my trying to make the forms appear as natural as possible, using as few tools as I could. I wanted to concentrate on using the fire from the furnace as well as centrifugal force and gravity. This meant letting glass find its own form, so that the pieces could appear very fragile and natural. In exploring ways to make the pieces thinner and stronger, I tried blowing them into ribbed molds that could give them additional strength, like corrugated cardboard. That is how I developed the Seaforms. The ribbing and the way it influences the form make the pieces seem shell-like.

Much of the surface threading on the Baskets and Seaforms came directly from what I had learned from making the Navajo Blanket Cylinders. In the beginning, the Navajo Blanket Cylinder drawings were usually made from thin glass threads that were cut up and put together by Kate Elliott, who had been with us in 1974 when we developed the drawing pickup technique. Kate then learned how to bend the threads with a small torch to make curves, and the blanket designs became more complicated. I became very interested in barbed wire, because it had been invented around the same time as the most beautiful Navajo blankets were being woven. I liked using the image of barbed wire within the Navajo Blanket Cylinders. Kate was actually able to bend glass threads to make glass barbed wire by knotting it in the same way in which real barbed wire was constructed.

In the summer of 1975, I built a glass shop for a new summer art school in Utah called Snowbird. Flora Mace, a recent graduate student in glass from the University of Illinois, enrolled in my program. She was extraordinarily talented with a torch and took the drawing pickup technique to new heights. I could give Flora a photo of a blanket and she could interpret it and make a stunning glass blanket, sometimes spending several hours on the construction. These blowing sessions were some of the most exciting and challenging of my career. The Navajo Blanket Cylinders were the largest and most complicated pieces I had ever blown, and Flora’s drawings were superb in every way.

My painter friend Seaver Leslie came out to Snowbird that summer and helped me blow. He learned the potential of the pickup technique to make drawings, and later that year we produced forty-four Irish and Ulysses Cylinders. Seaver made graphite drawings illustrating Joyce’s novel, and Flora copied them in glass. I blew the cylinders, as did several Rhode Island School of Design students who completed the team. Because of the car accident Seaver and I had in England a few months later, the Irish Cylinders were not shown. Ultimately, the entire series of forty-four was purchased by George Stroemple. They were later exhibited at the Portland Art Museum and are illustrated in the catalogue Chihuly: The George Stroemple Collection.

Because of the accident, I didn’t blow glass for six months. When I started again in late 1976, I began where I had left off with cylinders. But the Cylinder series had more or less come to an end. Then (and now), I usually stop a series when I feel I have explored it fully. It wasn’t until the summer of 1977, when I happened upon the Northwest Coast Indian baskets, that I began a new body of work, the Baskets.

In the beginning, the Baskets had very little surface decoration, because my main concern was form. Eventually, I started making shard drawings with Flora Mace. The shard drawings were an extension of the earlier technique. Flora made shards by blowing bubbles of intense color, then breaking and cuffing the shards into geometric or semi-geometric shapes. Using her torch, she drew molten threads directly onto the shards. It’s a wonderful technique, but it requires very careful preparation in order to pick up each shard without breaking it. Looking back, I think it is possible to say that in both series, the Navajo Blanket Cylinders and the Baskets, the pieces were wearing their drawings just as the Indians were wearing their blankets.

Published in Chihuly's Pendletons, Portland Press, 2000

Also from Chihuly's Pendletons: Colorful Exchange: American Indian Trade Blankets, Charles J. Lohrmann Collecting Trade Blankets, Dale Chihuly