Chihuly: Glass Artist

American Artisans, People
on January 10, 2012
Terry Rishel, courtesy of Chihuly Inc. Chihuly’s The Sun, displayed at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

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.”

Earning money for graduate school by working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska, he studied glassmaking at the University of Wisconsin and the Rhode Island School of Design before traveling to Italy on a Fulbright scholarship. He was the first American to work in the Venini glass factory in Venice, where he observed a collaborative approach to blowing glass—in which a master artist choreographs a team of assistants to create an intricate design, much like a maestro conducts an orchestra or a director oversees the cast and crew of a movie or play.

From the beginning, Chihuly liked the team approach to glassmaking and embraced the practice completely after losing sight in his left eye in a 1976 car accident in England and three years later dislocating his right shoulder in a body-surfing accident—injuries that made it physically difficult for him to sculpt glass himself.

Once back in America, he established a glass studies program at the Rhode Island School of Design and cofounded the Pilchuck Glass School near Stanwood, Wash. In 1983, he settled in the Pacific Northwest and eventually established Chihuly Inc. in Seattle, where today he employs 102 artists and staff members.

His glass sculptures have grown increasingly grand through the years, adorning the lobby of the Bellagio resort in Las Vegas, the 2002 Olympics site in Salt Lake City, the canals in Venice, Italy, and botanical gardens from New York to London. More than a million people flocked to see his sculptures in Jerusalem during a yearlong exhibit that ended in 2000.

“Chihuly changed the face of glass,” says Bruce Guenther, chief curator at the Portland (Ore.) Art Museum. “He started out in a field that had been dominated by craft and manufacturing in America, and Dale transformed the field through his vision, his energy and the opportunities that were presented to him.

“Glass became art, sculpture and dreams in his hands.”

Playing with fire
The charismatic artist and his team create Chihuly’s glassworks in a studio along Seattle’s waterfront housed in a former racing shell factory that he dubbed the Boathouse.

Inside the “hot shop” before a row of furnaces, Smith wears sunglasses and works as the gaffer, or head glassblower, using heat and motion to stretch glass into various forms. For the icicle shape, he gyrates the superheated glass bubble attached to his pipe until it sags and droops—a signature technique of his boss.

“Glass has a mind of its own, and the way I work is using fire and centrifugal force and gravity,” Chihuly explains.

His work has become a source of pride in his native Tacoma, thanks in part to the artist and many public displays of his sculptures in the city’s cultural district. The most famous is the Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot-long pedestrian walkway that was built in 2002 and draws tourists such as Debbie Saunders, 51, of Seattle, who gazes at a wall of avant-garde vases on the bridge.

“[Chihuly] captures nature, but part of it looks like Where the Wild Things Are,” Saunders says about the lively shapes that remind her of the popular children’s book.

She laughs as she expresses a wish of many Chihuly fans: “A few pieces I’d love to have in my house!”