When walking into London's Victoria and Albert Museum in 2001, it was a pleasant surprise to find that the museum was hosting a Dale Chihuly exhibit. Having been fascinated by a documentary on Chihuly and his work on PBS, this was incredibly fortuitous. The documentary had shown the artist and his team preparing large installations to be exhibited over the canals in Venice years earlier. I had wanted to see his work in person - and here it was. The show in London was spectacular. I was not disappointed. Chihuly creates pieces of art with glass - large pieces of art. One might tend to think of art done in glass as tiny, timid, artifacts. His pieces are not tiny or timid. They are bold, beautiful, whimsical, fluid, translucent, forms of glass. Dale Chihuly has been credited with taking working in glass from being considered "craft" to being truly "art". Some mention his name as the worthy successor to the other great artist in glass - Tiffany. Although their works are very different, they both created their works with teams of assistants and they both greatly increased the popularity of art with glass. Tiffany's art went out of style after WWII. Chihuly's innovative new style created a revival and is still alive and well. Dale Patrick Chihuly was born to working class parents in Tacoma Washington. His father was a butcher and a union organizer. At the age of sixteen, he suffered a double tragedy when his 21 year old brother, an aviation cadet was killed - followed several months later by the death of his father by a fatal heart attack. From that time forward, his mother Viola, a homemaker, became even more important to him and was the guiding force in his life. At the age of nineteen Dale discovered an interest in art while steeped in research for a term paper on Vincent van Gogh. He decided to attend the University of Washington in Seattle and study interior design and architecture. As happens with many young students - partying took precedence over schoolwork. After two years he quit school and went to Europe to immerse himself in art. Revitalized after a year of "experiencing" art - he returned to the University. In 1965 he received his B.A. in interior designed from the University of Washington. Experimenting in his basement studio, he tried to blow glass for the first time. He immediately knew that was what he wanted to do.
"That little basement only had a sixfoot
ceiling, and one night I melted
stained glass between four bricks in a little
ceramic kiln. I put a pipe in there and
rolled it up and took it out and blew a
bubble. And I had never seen glassblowing
done. As soon as I blew that bubble, I
wanted to become a glassblower."
Dale Chihuly, 1996
Obsessed with wanting to blow glass, he found that the
only place that was teaching "glass art" was the University
of Wisconsin - Madison. It was the first glass- teaching program
in the United States and was taught by Harvey
Littleton - the son of one of the inventors of Pyrex glass.
Littleton's goal was to move glass- work out of the factories
and into the artist's studios - studio glass. Chihuly received
his M.S. in sculpture from Wisconsin.
Glassblowing has been around a long time. It was invented in the time of the Roman Empire, and the steps and tools have remained essentially the same since then. Unlike any other form of art, glassblowing requires teamwork because of the extreme heat needed to melt the glass. The furnace contains molten glass at approximately 2150 degrees Fahrenheit. One person (the gaffer or maestro) is in charge of the piece being created. The gaffer shapes the piece while the assistants help cool it off where needed and protect the gaffer's arm from hot glass. It requires constant movement and timing. It is not unusual for the glass to break.
By 1975 Chihuly was creating his Cylinders. He had produced a series entitled Navajo Blanket Cylinders, and then evolved into his Irish and Ulysses series. Inspired by James Joyce's masterpiece Ulysses, the cylinders depicted scenes from the book. Excited about his new group of pieces, he was traveling around the U.K. lecturing, when he and his friend had a horrible car wreck. Chihuly was thrown through the windshield and spent weeks in the hospital. His injuries required 256 stitches on his face and he lost the sight of his left eye. His right foot and ankle were permanently disabled. His black eye patch became his trademark, but his loss of depth perception made teamwork even more important for his work. To compound the issue - in 1979 while bodysurfing in Southern California, Dale dislocated his shoulder. This, along with his loss of sight, convinced him to hand over the role of gaffer. He began making drawings to guide his team to the results he wanted. His teams varied in number from two to a dozen or more people - depending on the size and difficulty of the piece they were creating. His workers refer to him as the "wind in their sails."
Chihuly's works have achieved such popularity that they have been shown in major shows and museums throughout the world. His pieces are collected by Presidents, as well as Hollywood stars. We can see them displayed at the Aquarium in Monterrey near the exotic Jelly Fish display. His exotic Seaform Series are the perfect fit alongside the fluid - dancing Jellies.
Four years after first seeing Chihuly's exhibit, I was back in London. While taking a boat ride, out to Kew Gardens, there was Chihuly's work again. This time they were interspersed among the gardens and resplendent in a boat -floating on the pond. Again, they were glorious. Luckily, he and his team are proficient so his art is displayed in many venues from Vegas to St. Louis. If you'd like more information about Dale Chihuly or his exhibits, check out his website: chihuly.com