Skip to main content

Dale Chihuly: The Artist's Career

Dale Chihuly: The Artist's Career

2017 | Leslie Jackson Chihuly
Share this:

For more than half a century, Dale Chihuly has devoted his boundless energy and sharp intelligence to the implementation of a singular artistic vision in an ever-expanding array of media. His imagination—and lifelong engagement with color and light—have led him to experiment with materials ranging from textiles to neon, yet he always returns to his signature explorations in glass. His work has evolved from small-scale examinations of the properties of glass in the form of inventive vessels displayed singly and in groups to monumental installations of glass and light that transform their surroundings. Highlighting examples of both intimate and large-scale works, this exhibition lays bare the evolution of his practice over the past fifty years. It also includes a group of early drawings through which Dale worked out his ideas, shapes, and colors.

Visitors have the opportunity to survey his career, learn about his multifaceted artistic approach, and understand his deep relationship with gardens and nature. Returning to NYBG more than a decade after his first exhibition here is a rare privilege, and Dale is thrilled to be able to show his work again in New York, a city that has loomed large for him since his days of teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). He often shares the story of back in 1976 when he drove his Saab down from Providence to deliver a few of his early Cylinders to Henry Geldzahler, the first curator of contemporary art, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early Life and Education

Dale Chihuly was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1941 to George and Viola Chihuly. His father was an organizer for the meat cutters’ union. Dale’s mother was an avid gardener, cook, and homemaker. His father and his only brother died within one year of each other when Dale was only fifteen years old. His close relationship with his mother has had an enduring influence. Dale often describes the opportunity she gave him to decorate the family basement as his first foray into art and design. Due to his mother’s urging, he attended college. His fascination with interiors and architecture led to an undergraduate degree in interior design at the University of Washington in Seattle, where he continued to explore his interest in a wide variety of materials. The skills he gained during that time have stayed with him: Dale’s treatment of space and understanding of how his work will interact with its surroundings, whether a building, a loft, a garden, or a museum, owe much to his early training. In 1961, Dale learned to melt and fuse glass and immediately began to explore unusual applications of the medium, such as incorporating it into weavings (see fig. 1). But it was not until four years later, when he attempted glassblowing for the first time, that he discovered what would be a lifelong passion. Alone in his basement, melting stained glass, he used a metal pipe to blow his first bubble, and he never looked back.

When Dale was a student, nothing resembling a studio glass movement yet existed in the United States. The first glass program for artists was launched at the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1962, and Dale enrolled there in 1966 to study glassblowing. The following year, he began his graduate studies at RISD, embarking on a career-long project of experimenting with glass in new environments and in interaction with diverse media. In 1968, as the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship, he traveled to Italy, where he studied at the Venini family’s glass studio in Venice, on the island of Murano. He was the first American glassblower ever to apprentice with the famed glass masters, who had long guarded their centuries-old secrets. Throughout his career, Dale has employed many of the techniques he learned in Venice, and the team approach to blowing glass that he first observed there has remained vital to his artistic practice ever since.

Chihuly the Teacher, Chihuly the Collaborator

Following his studies in Italy, Dale returned to the United States and, in 1969, founded the glass program at RISD, where he would teach for more than a decade. The Italians’ collaborative approach was never far from his mind: in 1971, Dale held a summer-long glass workshop in Washington State, north of Seattle, grounded in his core beliefs in the value of experimentation and the principle of “artists teaching artists.” This workshop evolved into the Pilchuck Glass School, the most comprehensive center for glassmaking in the world, where hundreds study each year. At Pilchuck some of the most accomplished American and European masters have passed their techniques on to new generations of artists.

During this period, Dale engaged in some of his earliest artistic collaborations. He has always believed that eclectic points of view contribute to a better artistic outcome. At Pilchuck, he created an environmental work, Pilchuck Pond Installation (fig. 3), in which he began considering the possibilities that arise when glass is placed in nature. In the early 1970s, he undertook multiple projects with James Carpenter, one of his students from RISD. The two experimented with materials as varied as ice and neon and worked together on a series of architecturally scaled projects. In 1975, inspired by the designs of Native American trade blankets, Dale began his Navajo Blanket Cylinder series (see fig. 4). Kate Elliott and, later, Flora C. Mace made the drawings that formed the intricate patterns on the surface of the Cylinders (see fig. 5). In the same year, Dale collaborated with painter Seaver Leslie on the Irish Cylinders and Ulysses Cylinders, which also incorporated thread drawings by Mace. Dale’s collaboration with Leslie in upstate New York’s Earl W. Brydges Artpark State Park (see pp. 85–91)—a  landmark intervention in a spectacular landscape—laid the groundwork for the Koda Studies he has reimagined for The New York Botanical Garden.

Chihuly the Innovator

Dale has always been an innovator, expanding the capacities of materials and inventing new techniques to carry out his artistic vision. Not only has he consistently found new ways of thinking about the creative potential of glass, but he has also transformed how we think about glass in many of its more traditional formats. He created multiple series that challenge conventional understanding of the vessel form, the most common vehicle for glass art. His first such exploration was the Basket series, which he began in 1977 after witnessing the slumping forms of Native American baskets in the vault of the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. This led to other bodies of work in the 1980s in which he experimented with traditional vessel forms. Seaforms (see fig. 6), a series of pastel-colored works inspired by ocean life, derived from Dale’s love of the Pacific Northwest coast. The following year, he began the Macchia series (see fig. 7), for which he developed a technique of sandwiching a layer of pure white glass between layers of color to prevent their bleeding together. To achieve the speckled effect that earned the series its name (macchia means “spot” in Italian), Dale fused colored glass chips, or “jimmies,” to the outer surface. This was his way of incorporating as many colors as possible into a single work—a desire inspired, in part, by childhood memories of his mother’s lush flower garden. Beginning in 1986, Dale’s Persian series further explored the potential of the glass vessel in works that he exhibited en masse, in museum settings, on horizontal or vertical surfaces, and in gardens (see fig. 8). 

Since his days as an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Dale has drawn and painted, a practice that intensified after an injury forced him to stop blowing glass in 1979.  From that point on, drawing became a distinct form of expression and a means of developing the concepts he wished to explore in glass - an avenue for both harnessing and releasing his creative energy. His drawings in charcoal, pencil, pastel, and watercolor also serve as a means of communicating his ideas to assistants in the studio (see fig. 9). Visitors to the NYBG exhibition encounter a suite of his drawings from the 1980s alongside glass works of the same period, offering insight into Dale’s creative process and engagement with a variety of materials. 

Chihuly on an Ever-Greater Scale

In the late 1980s and early 1990s Dale’s interests led him to pursue larger-scale installations, for which he invented glassblowing techniques requiring highly skilled teams of assistants for both fabrication and installation. Site-specific installations at the Seattle Art Museum and in the Rainbow Room at New York’s Rockefeller Center pushed the sculptural potential of glass. Beginning in 1991 Dale’s Niijima Floats were among the largest pieces of hand-blown glass ever made. His practice was further transformed in 1992 when he created his first Chandelier as an experiment for the Seattle Art Museum. Dale’s exploration of the potential of the Chandeliers culminated in his colossal two-year project Chihuly Over Venice (1995–96). This project was my first with Dale. Together, we worked with his extensive team to install his blown-glass creations over the canals and piazzas of Venice (see pp. 63–75). Dale also experimented with the tower form for the first time, which allowed future works to take on even greater scale (see fig. 10). At the time, Chihuly Over Venice was the most ambitious site-specific installation he had ever attempted: it was Dale’s tribute to the world capital of glass, from which he had gained immeasurable knowledge and inspiration. In the intervening decades, he has transformed a variety of indoor and outdoor settings with his Chandeliers. His work in the historic city of Venice also inspired the monumental installation Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem (1999).

Dale’s Garden Cycle, which he began in 2001, has brought his singular vision to the landscapes and conservatories of botanical gardens across the United States. With this series of exhibitions and installations, he has been able to join two of his greatest loves—gardens and glass. Over the past sixteen years, across all seasons, Dale has mounted interventions in gardens of disparate climates, from the leafy Northeast to tropical Florida to the deserts of the Southwest. In 2006, as part of this series, Dale brought his work, including a massive tower of neon and dozens of large-scale works in glass, to NYBG for the first time. As his garden work has evolved, he has continued to push the boundaries between glass and the landscape. In 2012, Dale was able to realize his vision for a long-term indoor-outdoor exhibition - Chihuly Garden and Glass, in Seattle. This project offered Dale the opportunity to work with a team and use his lifetime of experience to design and build interior galleries, exterior garden spaces, and a glasshouse to display a comprehensive body of his work to the public in the center of the urban, cultural core of his hometown.

At seventy-five, Dale Chihuly continues to innovate. Today, he is an enormously accomplished artist who routinely works in paint, glass, plastic, and neon and other materials, which he bends to his own invention. He has received numerous awards, and his art is held in the collections of hundreds of museums worldwide. His goal is always to thrill and excite his audiences with exciting new works and installations. In planning this latest exhibition for The New York Botanical Garden, Dale was inspired by the Garden’s landscape. It is his hope that the results will ignite the imaginations of NYBG visitors, prompting them to view the landscape—and the glass—in a new light.


Stay connected. Join our list