Dale Chihuly The Beauty of Glass
Glass is an unusual artistic medium. It is one of the most fragile materials to work with, but also one of the most flexible and versatile substances there is. Sculpting in glass requires not only the kind of vision that the marble sculptor needs to see the statue in the rock, but also the command of balance and gravity of the potter, the quickness and precision of the metal sculptor, and the painter’s eye for color. It is a multifaceted process requiring years of training and unique creative talents.
Few meet these requirements and can cultivate the various skills indispensable for this art form, and few, if any, have attained such mastery over all the intricacies of the craft as Dale Chihuly. Chihuly’s sculptures are explosions of shape and color, of such size and complexity that they seem to defy the limitations of the medium itself. Across Asia, Europe, and America, Chihuly has left dazzling creations which have not only achieved a new apogee in glassblowing and sculpting, but have inspired artists of all sorts even beyond his own medium.
Dale Chihuly | Early Life
Dale Chihuly was born in Tacoma, Washington on September 20, 1941 to a butcher, George Chihuly and his wife. Chihuly’s early life was marked by tragedy—his older brother dying during a training exercise as a naval pilot in 1957, followed by his father, from a heart attack in 1958. In an attempt to return a measure of direction to his life, Chihuly’s mother encouraged him to enroll at the College of Puget Sound after graduating from high school the following year.
Chihuly’s first introduction to the world of art came while at Puget Sound, and this nascent interest drove him to transfer to the University of Washington one year later. There, he studied interior design and tempered his skills by remodeling his childhood home. UW was also where Chihuly began working with glass.
Though now firmly on the artist’s path, Chihuly was dissatisfied with his education at UW and chose to drop out after two years to go live in Florence. Florence had been at the heart of fine art since its emergence as a commercial power during the Renaissance, and there seemed no better place for a young artist to become immersed in the creative world, free from the politics and regimentation of academics.
When he arrived, however, his lack of Italian fluency and the difficulty of breaking into the local art scene only provided for further disillusionment. He soon travelled to the Middle East and to Israel, where he met architect Robert Landsman. Landsman rekindled Chihuly’s waning faith in art and eventually inspired him to return to the United States and continue his studies at UW.
While completing his interior design degree, Chihuly revisited the medium of glass and created a series of textile works which incorporated broken shards of the material. At around the same time as he received his B.A., he also learned rudimentary glass blowing techniques while experimenting in his basement.
Dale Chihuly | Career
Though these first forays into glasswork occurred against the backdrop of an education in interior design, glass soon became Chihuly’s primary medium.
After receiving a full scholarship to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Chihuly enrolled in the first glassblowing program in the U.S., headed by Harvey Littleton. After quickly receiving an M.S. in sculpture, he immediately enrolled in the Rhode Island School of Design, where he began producing works using glass, neon, and other halide gasses.
From there, at the invitation of Ludovico de Santillana, Chihuly returned to Italy to work at the Venini glassworks on the island of Murano. Venice, and specifically Murano, had been an epicenter of glassmaking for over seven hundred years. Here, Chihuly perfected his glassworking skills and returned to RISD to pass on his knowledge as a professor over the next decade.
Though cofounding his own glass school north of Seattle in 1971, Chihuly continued a close relationship with RISD. During this time, he created many of his first pieces and sets including his Navajo Blanket Cylinder series, his Northwest Coast Basket series, and his 20,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon, Glass Forest #1 and #2.
In 1976, however, disaster struck, when Chihuly suffered an accident which deprived him of the use of his left eye. Then, in 1979, a body surfing accident damaged his left shoulder, making it impossible for him to continue blowing glass. By this time, however, his artistic cadre had grown, and his creative drive could not be suppressed. With the help of friends, colleagues, and hired glassworking professionals, he continued his career, acting as a sort of director and designer for all his subsequent projects.
From this point on, Chihuly’s ambition and vision only continued to grow. Beginning in the mid-1990s, his sculptures took on a more fantastical and abstract nature while also becoming much larger than most of his earlier pieces. Today, his sculptures adorn museums, gardens, and public spaces across the globe from his home in Seattle to Washington D.C., Italy, the U.K, Finland, Japan, and elsewhere.
Dale Chihuly | The Sculptures
Chihuly’s sculptures are difficult to describe because most of them resemble nothing on Earth. Chihuly’s early work was usually focused on creative reimaginings of extant objects from his life and experience. He composed several series dedicated to the indigenous art of the Pacific Northwest and the desert Southwest, putting his own twist on historical forms and designs in sets like the aforementioned Navajo Blanket Cylinder series and Northwest Coast Basket series.
Though foreshadowed by his 20,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon, Chihuly’s large-scale work began to take off in the 1990s with his Chandelier series. These enormous conglomerations of illuminated golden orbs and boules were followed in 2003 by his Mille Fiori at the Tacoma Art Museum—a garden of dozens of unique rainbow forms vaguely reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s Study of Plants. Spines and horns interlace with spheres and tangled masses resembling tentacles or hair, all in vibrant purples, brilliant oranges, and vivid greens.
His work during the rest of the 2000s carried a theme of integration with the natural world. At gardens and conservatories in Chicago, Columbus, Atlanta, New York, and London, Chihuly designed multi-piece sculptures which both blended with and enhanced the resident flora. Scalloped leaves, onion-shaped floats, frilled towers, and banded columns communed with the carefully sculpted gardens, resonating with their Haeckel-esque geometry while simultaneously creating a sort of bold and surreal juxtaposition of high art on nature.
Today, Chihuly continues to push the boundaries of the medium, producing interior and exterior sculptures of exquisite abstraction and gravity-defying delicacy. Many glassblowers have been driven to pursue the craft by Chihuly’s work, but it has also inspired artists from other disciplines. Painters and sculptors in other media have taken queues from his designs, fording new territories in their own circles. Photographers, especially, have been taken by his work, exploring the physical landscapes of his pieces to produce striking works of abstraction and capitalizing on his uncanny sense of color. Though Chihuly has already taken glasswork to new heights and places, his future efforts will doubtless continue to stretch the imagination and question the limits of this liquid form.
Chihuly Garden and Glass Seattle, Washington
Chihuly Garden and Glass is an exhibit in the Seattle Center directly next to the Space Needle, showcasing the studio glass of Dale Chihuly. It opened in May 2012 at the former site of the defunct Fun Forest amusement park.
The project features three primary components: the Garden, the Glasshouse, and the Interior Exhibits, with significant secondary spaces including a 90-seat café with additional outdoor dining, a 50-seat multi-use theater and lecture space, retail and lobby spaces, and extensive public site enhancements beyond the Garden. The 100-foot-long installation inside of the Glasshouse is one of Chihuly's largest suspended sculptures. Designed with the help of architect Owen Richards, the facility was awarded LEED silver certification from the USGBC.
I personally find glass to be a beautiful medium and love Dave Chihuly's work. I also feel that glass sculpture pairs well with fine art photography in your home or office. Mixing different mediums of art can create the feeling of a gallery and blend together to form cohesive beauty throughout your space.