Karen Chambers

How does a team of very different artists join forces in settings ranging from a summer camp in Maine to a glass factory in Venice to make works that are universally recognizable as the art of one man? The answer lies in the man—Dale Chihuly.

As director of the team, Chihuly makes the process a symbiotic relationship that draws on each individual's expertise and energy. He assembles the team by pulling in glass artists, often former students, who are available to work at a specific site and time. Each team is headed by an artist with superlative glassblowing skills. Bill Morris, who excels at the gargantuan Macchia forms, is frequently the gaffer, assisted by Rich Royal, who can also head a team. Ben Moore acts as gaffer for the exquisite Sea Forms. Flora Mace and Joey Kirkpatrick take free rein in developing color combinations and smaller forms.

During a glassblowing session, the entire team is in sync, at one with Chihuly's ideas and an integrated part of his creative process. Flora Mace, who began working with Chihuly on the Blanket Cylinders in 1975, explains the process very simply: "When I work for Dale, I almost become him."

While on a Fulbright Fellowship to study glassmaking at the Venini Factory on the island of Murano, Venice (the first American to do so), Chihuly saw the traditional working methods of the Venetians. It was there that he learned how glass could be worked by a team. He had always enlisted friends and students in his projects, but the formal aspects of working glass in a team were unknown to the American studio movement at this time. In Venice, Chihuly saw the stratified production method in which a maestro (gaffer) is assigned helpers and each member of the team is defined by a task - one tends the annealing oven, another prepares the lattacino rods, a third puts in the initial bubble and blows the piece until it is ready to be handed to the gaffer, and the servitore assists the gaffer by gathering the glass. For Chihuly, it seemed natural both for the medium and for his own method to begin to think about working glass in a team.

Making a Macchia

In creating the work, the team follows Chihuly's instructions and he ultimately decides whether the piece is a "keeper." He is like a choreographer who uses his dancers' bodies to make tangible his ideas. Unlike teams in Europe, where production is the goal and each member has an assigned task, Chihuly'' team makes unique pieces and people exchange jobs. In Venice, the maestro is on top of the social ladder; here gaffer Bill Morris is described as "having a great pair of hands," but all members of the team are regarded as equals. While a Chihuly team works together with apparent ease, the dynamic is complex. Chihuly acts much like a film director - creating the concept, initiating the action, and setting the scene - but the process requires something else, a special chemistry in which he works as catalyst to produce the glassworks that are characteristically Chihuly. In this role, he manages a process in constant flux, harnessing the three key elements of fire, gravity, and spontaneity.

Chihuly also provides an ambience conductive to spontaneity. He will often hire a cook to provide for the team. Music helps create atmosphere - beginning perhaps with Vivaldi as the works of the previous day are being discussed and then switching into higher gear when the gaffer demands the Talking Heads. This work environment is crucial to the team's freedom to concentrate during the often intensive eight-hour sessions.

The elements of the team do not really define the dynamic. Chihuly is the catalyst that makes it all work. He brings together the best glass blowers according to their schedules and needs, creates the most congenial ambience, introduces a touch of glamour by moving the sessions from site to site and flying in his team, challenges the group with his ideas, and after an intense session of work, a few distinctively Chihuly pieces emerge.

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

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