A Colorful Craft
Glassblower and fine artist Dale Chihuly creates a magical interplay between light and glass.
By Jennifer Pappas
Dale Chihuly maverick as well as a fine artist. But, most recently, he’s been deemed a visionary for his indelible mark left on the art of glassblowing over the course of his 40-plus-year career.
Born in Tacoma, Wash., in 1941, he is often credited with moving blown glass from craft into the domain of high fine art. Furthermore, though he refuses to categorize himself as such, he is a visionary of light, form and color.
Opting to eschew the making of functional objects in favor of art, Chihuly’s main interest lies in creating works that are entirely new. And though he may not be a household name (few contemporary artists are), his work is instantly recognizable. Bright, fluid and complex, anyone who has milled around the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas or spent time in any one of the 200 different museums where his work resides has been privy to the splendor and magic that is Dale Chihuly.
A master at envisioning and then creating multi-part blown compositions, Chihuly’s glass sculptures are a study in artistic spontaneity. Blind in one eye from a car accident that took place 30 years ago, Chihuly works together with a dedicated team of talented artisans to create each blown form. Since the accident left him with no depth perception or peripheral vision, his team is responsible for accurately translating his vast visions into awe-inspiring, three-dimensional forms fit for museums, galleries, hotels and public gardens around the world. These visions almost always start with drawings, instinctively rendered and used as the blueprint for what will later become intricate, environment-based installations.
He approaches each new project in essentially the same way. “I do site visits and get a sense of the space and see how the artwork will interact within the environment,” Chihuly says. “Each project, whether it’s an exhibition or private commission, begins with a vision, which I interpret into drawings and then work with my team to execute … Teamwork in glassblowing is absolutely essential, and if everybody isn’t totally in sync, it begins to fall apart. The teamwork approach is right for me, and I’m so fortunate to have a fantastic team of glassblowers. The life of an artist can be a solitary one, and I like to be around people and to work with them.”
The process is a long one, especially if the finished product is composed of many small parts, or intended for a large outdoor installation. After Chihuly completes a drawing, each piece must be blown individually. When each piece is finished, they are then collected and assembled into one cohesive sculpture. As time lapse videos reveal, assembling a typical Chihuly sculpture after it’s been blown into life relies on impulse just as much as it does synchronicity.
“The essence of my work is in two things: collaboration and spontaneity,” Chihuly says. “I like to work fast and quick, and glassblowing is a spontaneous medium. When the team and I assemble a sculpture, I have provided the vision; it is mocked up in my studio in Ballard (in Seattle), and then de-installed and shipped to the site and installed again. When it is installed on site, it comes back together organically.”
Eponymous Dallas-based gallery owner Talley Dunn knows what this looks like firsthand. Recently, Chihuly’s team overtook her gallery to install his exhibit, “Dale Chihuly: Recent Works and New Forms.”
“It was an incredible experience to see the chandeliers come alive piece by piece in our space as they were installed,” Dunn says. “Each chandelier is composed of loose parts that are assembled on site by artists from the Chihuly studio … I find them to be simply spectacular.” The chandeliers are one of Chihuly’s most impressive forms to date and are incredibly elaborate pieces—as sophisticated as they are whimsical.
Chihuly’s entire oeuvre can be viewed as an evolution in forms. When he was first starting out in the 1970s, Chihuly focused on two different series of work: cylinders and baskets. A decade later it was Venetians, Persians and the ethereal sea forms. Niijima floats and the opulent chandeliers dominated the ’90s, while the 2000s were spent creating a spindly, Medusa-like form known as “fiori”—the Italian word for flower. Decade after decade, one form is inexorably linked to the next. Chihuly has gone on record in the past, stating that many of his forms have come about by happy accident, from attempting to modify an already existing form and suddenly stumbling across something new. The sea forms, for example, were a direct result of attempting to make his baskets thinner by stuffing them into a ribbed, optical mold. The ridged result looked markedly like a seashell. Thus, the sea forms were born, and with them, a natural evolution of forms.
Chihuly’s forms are also largely influenced by the world around him. Water, sea creatures, plant life, abstract flower forms and geometric shapes are all areas that Chihuly has drawn from for ideas and inspiration. The interplay of light and glass is another element he relies on to give his work power. “Glass transmits light in a special way and it’s magical,” Chihuly says. “I work with four materials of any scale—glass, plastic, water and ice. But it is really light that makes those materials come alive.”
Together with a brilliant color palette and a penchant for juxtaposing the man-made with the natural, these organic forms have become Chihuly trademarks—recognizable in botanical gardens, museums, city squares, hotels and cascading across ceilings all over the world.
The St. Regis Monarch Beach
Dale Chihuly has even left his mark on Southern California. Prior to The St. Regis Monarch Beach opening in 2001, both the owner of the hotel and the design team sought something that would make a bold yet beautiful statement. Despite arguments for an Italian sculpture that would fit the Tuscan style of the hotel, Chihuly was selected for the radiance and color of his glass sculptures—characteristics many thought would complement the lavish sophistication of the new location.
Gundula Reile, chef concierge and resident art expert at the hotel, says, “Dale Chihuly has created a very different way to work with glass; he has stepped away from typical glass blowing and successfully experimented with different forms. I admire the powerful color choices, yet very fragile forms, in all of his work. It ties very much into our philosophy: We are a modern, innovative hotel company. California and the West Coast are known for their creativity and stepping away from the traditional … For me, Dale Chihuly definitely sets a point of being different, successful … making a statement and yet creating something very elegant. That is why his work fits perfectly into the lobby of The St. Regis Monarch Beach.”
Three of the four pieces selected—all Persians—were personally chosen for the ocean-side locale by the hotel’s original owner and the art consultant at Chihuly Studio in Ballard, Wash. The fourth piece, “Mardi Gras Persian Set,” was commissioned to complete the quartet. The Persians, which Chihuly started working on in 1986, were created out of the search for new forms and are very similar in shape to the sea forms.
Located in the four niches of the lobby rotunda, the St. Regis Persians are akin to celebrities welcoming guests into their elegant abode. Each sculpture rests on a pedestal behind white felt rope bastioned by spiral topiaries. They resemble clamshells or amoebas in shape, each one opening up to reveal odd-shaped treasures nestled within. Each color is striking, each form luminous and diaphanous—miniature deep-sea trumpets and galactic orbs suspended in time. The sculptures’ vivid striations and liquid-like vacuoles, bursting with color and light, ignite the imagination.
Master of Glass
Over the course of his career, Chihuly has masted the art of stimulating the senses and conjuring up the magical with each and every piece of art. Specifically, his outdoor, site-specific installations (such as “Chihuly Over Venice” or “Chihuly: the Nature of Glass”) delight thousands of people on a daily basis. By all measures, Chihuly is extraordinary.
“Dale Chihuly is a visionary in every sense of the word,” Dunn says. “With the artist’s 10-year teaching career at Rhode Island School of Design in the 1970s and his co-founding of the Pilchuck Glass School, he has created numerous opportunities for glass artists and sculptors around the world to expand their knowledge and practice of glass blowing. Chihuly is an artist who has continued to challenge himself by creating more and more complex projects.”
Dunn continues, speculating on her long relationship with the artist. “Dale Chihuly is one of the most influential artists of our time,” she adds. “I had the pleasure of working with him nearly 20 years ago when he had an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art, and I have watched audiences from around the world respond to his magnificent installations. I am drawn to many different aspects of his work, from his vision as an artist to the exquisite aspect of individual forms. He has an extraordinary ability to bring talented people together on all levels and build an audience with no boundaries.”
Dunn’s words are a testimony to Chihuly’s long and illustrious career, one that continues to evolve and bloom at his buzzing studio in Washington. When asked what continues to inspire him after so many decades of blowing glass, his answer is immediate and simple.
“Doing something new inspires me,” Chihuly says. “Making something that has never been made before, something no one has ever seen, something with power.”