Dale Chihuly shapes a modern art movement
Daryl Smith, 39, blows and twirls a glob of glowing glass at the end of a long stainless steel pipe, rolling the molten mass on a table to fashion an orange-red icicle shape at the Seattle studio of American glass master Dale Chihuly.
Using an array of torches, files, crimps, tweezers and shears, Smith curls, imprints and cuts the fiery shape—moving it in and out of a 2,150-degree furnace to keep the material pliable—before a fellow craftsman places the glass in a cooling oven.
The finished object is one of 1,800 pieces being used to create a massive sculpture for Chihuly’s most ambitious project to date—the 1½-acre Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit opening later this year in Seattle. The venture’s hallmark glass house will feature a massive installation 100 feet long and 25 feet high.
“People are going to see it and go, ‘Whoa!’” says Chihuly, 70.
One of America’s most prominent and prolific living artists, Chihuly is credited with elevating the craft of glassmaking to a fine art. His inventive sculptures—abstract baskets, colorful sea forms, lavish towers and effusive chandeliers—appear in the permanent collections of more than 200 museums worldwide and countless private collections.
Chihuly himself is a striking figure, with a barrel chest, a patch covering his blind left eye and a crown of curly hair. He offers a simple explanation for his success in recasting glass as a popular artistic movement.
“I think people like to look at something they’ve never seen before,” he says. “And that’s what I try to do.”
Shaping a vision
One of two sons born to a butcher and a homemaker in nearby Tacoma, Wash., the unconventional artist remembers a traditional and happy childhood.
While attending high school in the 1950s, however, Chihuly saw his world change abruptly when his older brother was killed in a Navy flight training crash and his father died from a heart attack the next year. To pay the bills, he worked at a meatpacking plant, and his mother took a job at a bar.
Chihuly studied interior design and architecture at the University of Washington—his ambitions stirred by a fiber weaving class and his work remodeling a room in his family’s home in the style of celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, one of his creative idols.
In 1965, he graduated from college and experienced an epiphany that changed his artistic direction. Exploring how to incorporate glass into a weaving, Chihuly melted glass in a kiln in his Seattle basement and used a pipe to blow a glass bubble.
“It’s usually very difficult to get a bubble. So I think I was very lucky,” he says. “And from that point on, I wanted to be a glassblower.”
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