The Man who made glassblowing a fine art: Washington's Dale Chihuly and the Glass Movement

Karen S. Chambers
The World & I
November 1987

It is just after daybreak at the Pilchuck Glass School fifty miles north of Seattle. In the middle of a tree farm, the school overlooks the Skagit Valley and Puget Sound, a magnificent setting. The hot shop—glassblowing studio—is a pad of concrete under a pitched roof of rough hewn shingles: Several furnaces are cranked up to 2,200°F.

Open to the air and stepped down from the surrounding walkway, the hot shop is like an amphitheater—an apt setting for the performance that is about to begin. The players, a handsome cast of athletic young artists, are assembling. The director is Dale Chihuly, a 45-year-old cherubic pirate with his corkscrew curls and black eye patch. The script calls for the cast to make what Chihuly calls "soft cylinders"—blown-glass vessels that are inflated, misshapen cylinders with elaborate drawings composed of bits of glass, Navajo blanket-inspired motifs gone mad with the heat. The audience of glass students, artists, and collectors are about to witness one of America's best-known glass artists at work.

Dale Chihuly
and the Glass Movement

Top of His Craft

Chihuly, by all the measures of success in the art world, is at the top. His work is in nearly a hundred museum collections in the United States and abroad, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to the National Museum of Modern Art in Kyoto, Japan. He is represented by one of the leading galleries in Manhattan's Soho—Charles Cowles. In December he showed his work at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs at the Palais du Louvre in Paris, only the fourth American to be honored with a one-man exhibition there. He is the subject of a recent lavishly illustrated monograph, Chihuly: Color, Glass and Form. And his works fetch up to $25,000.

How does a boy from Tacoma, Washington, the son of a butcher and union organizer, become a charismatic leader of a movement that has made the art world newly aware of glass? This success story began when Chihuly was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle, pursuing a degree in interior design. He first used glass in 1962 in a "Design and Materials" class taught by Steve Fuller, where he fused stained glass. Then in 1964, in a required weaving course taught by Doris Brockway, Chihuly was given the assignment to use a material foreign to fiber in a weaving. Chihuly again chose glass, bits of stained glass incorporated into an open hemp weaving, a piece that still hangs in his mother's house.

After graduating in 1965, Chihuly continued experimenting with glass. Because he was intrigued by pictures of glassblowing he had seen, one night in his basement studio he melted some colored glass in a rudimentary ceramics kiln and with a bit of pipe, blew a bubble—miraculously it worked. He was fascinated by this unique process: No other material can be blown to create forms. While many are captivated by the romance of the process, Chihuly is "fascinated by the end product." This fascination has formed the basis of his work for the past twenty years.

After his basement experiment, he determined to attend the University of Wisconsin where Harvey Littleton, considered the father of the American studio-glass movement, was teaching. After a year in Wisconsin, Chihuly took an M.S. degree and accepted an offer to go to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) to study and teach glassblowing, beginning an association that continues to the present: Chihuly is now artist-in-resident. After two years at RISD and having received his M.F.A. degree, Chihuly was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study on the island of Murano near Venice, known for its glasswork—the first American glassblower to do so. Artists and designers from other mediums had preceded him, but Venice has always jealously guarded her secrets from other glassworkers. Chihuly broke that barrier, allowing other glass artists to work on Murano, learning how Venetian glass, among the most prized in the world, is made.

Besides a deep appreciation of Venetian glass with its almost impossible thinness and "finesse," as Chihuly describes it, he gained understanding about the teamwork approach to glassblowing. Liberating glass from he factory situation had been one of Littleton's goals. Before 1962, when Littleton, together with Dominick Labino, created the technology for small glass workshops, anyone wishing to work creatively with glass had to become a designer for others to execute. Littleton made it possible for the artist to work directly with glass in the studio. Chihuly has provided another model for the American movement—teamwork, the traditional way of working with glass with each member assigned a specific task in preparing a piece to be finished by the master or gaffer. Chihuly's own sensibility found this method congenial. "I like the idea of working with a team. There is a challenge in assembling the right team with the right skills in the proper environment with he proper facilities—all of these things have to be just right to create what I'm after."

Dale Chihuly
and the Glass Movement

Indirect Control

In his own early work, Chihuly headed the team, using students to assist him. A dislocated shoulder from a surfing accident in 1979 forced him to relinquish this position. At the time he was working on the Pilchuck Basket series with Bill Morris assisting. Although Chihuly was physically unable to perform the strenuous task of heading up the team, he wanted to continue working and he knew that Morris was capable of "taking over the stick" (blowpipe). That experience taught him that when he was not directly working in a piece he actually had more control over it. "When I was gaffer, I had much less control than I do now. If I'm doing the gaffing, I can't watch the essential steps that precede it... Sometimes I compare it to filmmaking. The director of a film oversees a crew of people, some providing technical and some providing creative input, but all focused on the director's concept." By using a team of highly trained artists, Chihuly has been able to use skills far beyond his own manual ability and to create a body of work that would have been impossible working alone in the studio.

Chihuly's development has been a history of collaboration and teamwork. While teaching at RISD he met James Carpenter, a student at the school. For several years they worked together on a series of large-scale glass pieces. In the early 1970s, like artists in other mediums, Chihuly and Carpenter were interested in creating environments, for Chihuly a continuation of his interest in interior design and architecture. Together they created works such as 20,000 Pounds of Ice—huge blocks of ice with neon tubing frozen inside.

In 1975, Chihuly began an exploration of a form naturally derived on a blowpipe. He did a series called the Navajo Blanket Cylinders—solid little cylinders of opaque peach blown glass with drawings made of glass on one side of the surface. With his student Kate Elliott, Carpenter, and artist, mentor, and friend Italo Scanga, they devised a technique whereby little bits of glass—threads and later shards—were laid on a steel table; Chihuly subsequently picked them up on a hot bubble of glass during the blowing process.

This technique marked a departure for Chihuly, who had been interested in larger-scale works that demanded participation and defied marketing. The Navajo Blanket Cylinders were small, about ten inches high, but they commanded the viewer's attention as Chihuly arranged them in rows, the very nature of the design demanding a head-on confrontation. In a sense, they continued his interest in structuring the viewer's space and his perception of it. Chihuly also made the bold move of pricing the cylinders at $1,000 a piece—unheard of for a contemporary glass object in the mid-1970s. Henry Geldzahler, then curator of twentieth-century art at the Metropolitan, saw them and bought three for the collection.

An auto accident that cost Chihuly the sight of one eye brought this series to an abrupt close in 1976. After a period of recuperation, Chihuly embarked on another series, one that seemed to be the aesthetic opposite of the cylinders. Given an Indian name, the Pilchuck Baskets, these forms recalled baskets Chihuly had seen in the storerooms of the Washington State Historical Society in Tacoma. He wanted to recreate in glass the feeling of these old baskets, sagging under their own weight. The colors were subdued earth tones similar to the basket models. He often placed the forms inside each other, as he had seen the originals in storage. In these pieces Chihuly asked the viewer to consider the relationship of one part to another and to the surrounding area, just as he and Carpenter had done in their larger-scale works.

Evolving Forms

By the early 1980s these shapes had evolved into aquatic forms and the colors had become opalescent pale hues, pinks and whites, also recalling the sea: The Pilchuck Baskets had become the Sea Forms. In many ways these forms represent a continuation of the formal development of the baskets and a further refinement of Venetian glass: blown glass formed so thin that it seemed of gossamer, almost too ethereal to exist in the real world. In fact, Chihuly admits that these pieces had gotten as thin as they could physically. "I couldn't get anybody to blow glass any thinner because if we made it any thinner, it would sort of float away."

In 1981, as he had done with the Navajo Blanket Cylinders, Chihuly did an about-face and started the Macchia series. These pieces were primarily concerned with color, using forms similar to the Sea Forms. He changed his palette from rococo tints to garish hues. His team questioned this switch in direction, calling the works the "uglies," as his mother had. In a telephone conversation, Scanga came up with the Italian word for spotted or speckled—macchia. The Macchia are again triumphs of the glassblower's skill in terms of size. They may be the largest works ever blown and then finished on a punty. They combine colors in ways never seen in any other art form; glass retains a purity of color that cannot be replicated in paint. Like the earlier series, Chihuly also combines these pieces in groupings or sets, creating small riots of color.

Chihuly is a man who never likes to close doors. So in his aesthetic development, he has never completely stopped a series. The Sea Forms and the Macchia were always made simultaneously; he returned to the cylinder form in 1978 and in 1984. He tried it again in the fall of 1986, but this time the shape changed: It has softened, becoming more responsive to the heat of the furnace and gravity, more compatible with the process of glassblowing. The drawings have also become much more elaborate and complicated, much more expressionistic.

Concurrently Chihuly has been experimenting with miniature amphoras or vases, some with a Persian cast, or bizarre sea creatures or perhaps totally unique forms that could only have been made on the blowpipe. Unlike the mammoth Macchia, these tine pieces can be gathered up by the handful, another one of Chihuly's a hundred-eighty-degree shifts.

Despite the recognition that Chihuly has garnered and his preeminent position in the studio-glass movement, when asked how he would like his epitaph to read, he said, "I don't think about how I'll be remembered; I think about what I want to do next."

Karen S. Chambers, a freelance writer and curator living in Seattle, is former editor of New Work magazine published by the New York Experimental Glass Workshop and executive editor of Craft International published by the World Craft Council.

©1987 The World & I