The pioneering creator Dale Chihuly, who famously decorated the ceiling of Las Vegas’ Bellagio casino with 1,800 square feet of handblown glass floral forms, is a consummate collector.
Chihuly adorned the canals and piazzas in mid-1990s Venice with the dancing rhythms of immense, brilliantly colored chandeliers. The artist’s epic 1999-2000 exhibition in Jerusalem’s fabled Old City enthralled more than one million visitors. He has transformed the footprint of public gardens in the United States and abroad with evanescent glass embellishments. But few know that Chihuly, who revolutionized the art of glass blowing, elevating perceptions of the medium from craft to fine art, obsessively accumulates peculiar objects of improbable breadth and scope—from Pez dispensers to vintage accordions to midcentury refrigerators.
This month, the Smithsonian Channel debuts the new documentary, “Master of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly,” which traces the life of a man relentlessly inspired by intriguing objects and a creator of intriguing objects.
“Dale Chihuly is one of the most important artists of the 21st century who has transformed glass into a multidimensional art form,” says Stephanie Stebich, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM). “At the same time, he collects deeply personal things that are a wellspring of his artistic practice.”
Indeed, Chihuly’s art, collections and life are intimately linked. Born in Tacoma, Washington, Chihuly, 81, was assailed early by tragedy as a teenager when his brother, George, and father died within a year of each other. Photographs showing them playing accordions makes manifest the artist’s fascination with the instrument. The artist has a collection of more than 70; some of those accordions hang from the ceiling of Chihuly Garden and Glass, a Seattle museum dedicated to his work.
“Dale Chihuly is at this point the greatest collector of objects of any artist,” says artist and critic Bruce Helander in the documentary. Chihuly’s passion for collecting even surpasses that of esteemed predecessors Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol—also tremendously prolific artists whose work Chihuly unsurprisingly collects. A theme snaking through the octogenarian’s body of work is his love of water and nature, born of childhood memories walking on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean and growing up with a mother who was an ardent gardener. He fondly recalls his mother, Viola, summoning her sons to see the natural light in her lush garden, and they would play among the azaleas and rhododendrons.
That formative influence initiated his rhythmic Seaforms of the 1980s, which defies the stiffness of most postmodernist glass. Undulating forms of thin-walled glass are accentuated by spiral wraps of color. The intoxicating series was made in tribute to the sea. “Water is really important to me. I love to be on the ocean, I love baths, I love showers, I love swimming, and I think a lot when I’m in the water,” Chihuly has said. The artist is so encouraged by water that he customized a plastic clipboard with a wax pencil to write down ideas when taking showers.
The following decade’s Niijima Floats, named for an island south of Tokyo, were partly stimulated by the Japanese fishing boats Chihuly saw on the shores of Puget Sound as a boy. Possibly the largest glass spheres ever blown by hand, some works in this series measure 40 inches in diameter and weigh up to 80 pounds. Their simplicity of form allowed the artist to create myriad surfaces decked with layers of color. Whether on land or hovering on water, the floats appear to defy gravity.
Some of Chihuly’s personal collections parallel the water theme, among them fishing lures and canoes.
The Formative Years
Chihuly’s early years as an artist took him far and wide. Following a circuitous journey of schooling, teaching, apprenticing and traveling to Italy, Israel, Ireland and beyond, Chihuly eventually meandered back to his native state. After majoring in interior design in the early 1960s at the University of Washington, a foundation for his collecting aesthetic and artistic vision, Chihuly enrolled in the country’s first glass program at the University of Wisconsin, where he also studied sculpture. Incorporating glass into tapestries to create textiles and glass curtains soon gave way to his overriding interest in glassblowing.
His education continued at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he later established that institution’s glassmaking department. A 1968 Fulbright Fellowship facilitated an apprenticeship at Italy’s Venini factory. The first American glassblower to work in the prestigious studio, Chihuly honed his skills and found inspiration for his later Venetians series.
In 1971, he founded the Pilchuck Glass School, the most comprehensive educational center in the world for glass education, located 50 miles north of Seattle. A collaboration between Chihuly and Italian maestro glassblower Lino Tagliapietra beginning in the late 1980s resulted in color-saturated, highly ornamented vessels derived from Chihuly’s drawings. By then, Chihuly had assumed the role of designer and conductor, orchestrating his team of glassblowers after a devastating car accident that left him blind in one eye and unable to perform the dangerous and exacting work himself.
The documentary explores Chihuly’s innate charisma and generosity as a teacher. As a founding father of the glass movement, Chihuly has revitalized the field not only through his own creative ambitions but also because hundreds of artists have galvanized around him.
“We would not have an American Studio Glass movement without Dale Chihuly,” says Nora Atkinson, the curator-in-charge for SAAM’s Renwick Gallery, the nation’s foremost museum dedicated to craft. The gallery opened in 1972 and hosted a Chihuly solo exhibition in 1978, an early career milestone. One of Renwick’s most beloved works is Chihuly’s dramatic seafoam chandelier in the museum’s Octagon Room.
Three factors encourage Chihuly’s team approach to making glass: physical limitations, because he only has sight in one eye and sustained permanent damage to his shoulder in a 1979 bodysurfing accident; his innate disposition for mentoring; and the complexity of making large-scale work composed of multiple parts. “His factory and hot shop necessitate multiple people to make his sizable works, and he has always nurtured artists to explore the depth of the medium,” says Atkinson.
Notable among those artists are women who were historically excluded from working with glass. Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace were welcomed early at Pilchuck as students and teachers. Both artists reaped the benefits of Chihuly’s open-mindedness and have since achieved their own renown. As collaborators, they have several works in the Renwick Gallery’s permanent collection.
Arguably, Chihuly’s most ambitious project was the 1995-1996 Chihuly Over Venice, when the artist and his team of glassblowers decorated the canals of Venice with massive organically shaped chandeliers composed of thousands of cones, curls and spheres. Glassblowing sessions were held at hot shops in Finland, Ireland, Mexico, Italy and the United States, culminating in 1996 with the glistening objects mounted in the city of water and light. Chihuly had come full circle from his days as an apprentice in Italy with a spectacle of extraordinary proportions.
Chihuly’s creativity expanded with site-specific installations in gardens and botanical settings. Set amid plants, flowers and abundant landscapes, the language of these seductive sculptures complements their natural surroundings in magical forms and patterns. Reciprocally, the greenery complements his creations.
Alongside every new innovation with glass, Chihuly collected. And collected some more.
Many of those acquisitions––including vintage shaving brushes, Lucite purses and ice tongs––are on display at The Boathouse, the location of Chihuly’s private Seattle studio since 1990, where only limited viewing is available through scheduled events. The documentary provides a glimpse of some collections, staggering the viewer with its plenty as the filmmaker’s lens roams through The Boathouse.
A vast collection of Native American baskets and vividly hued trade blankets, seen during the film’s tour, provided a vital source for his Baskets and Cylinder series, both initiated in the mid-1970s and spanning his career. An early cylinder held at SAAM shows the complex interweaving of sinuous colored-glass threads through the alluring vessel, thereby blurring the boundaries between glass, painting and sculpture.
Other items from Chihuly’s collections, a good number assembled before the advent of eBay and the ease of the internet, are accessible to the general public. To the delight of visitors, Chihuly Garden and Glass displays quirky objects under glass on tables in its popular café, among them lead toy soldiers and ceramic dogs.
A risk-taker, innovator and entrepreneur who thinks big in all aspects of his life and work, Chihuly has collected people, too. Because of its singular influence, the Pacific Northwest is an international beacon for the glass arts.
Chihuly’s ability to harness exuberance and delight in his art has exponentially increased the visibility of glass. “My work gives people a lot of joy, and that makes me feel like I’m a really lucky guy,” Chihuly has said.
For more than half a century, his environments, public installations and museum exhibitions have dazzled millions across the world. The unrivaled glassmaker has forever shattered all expectations of his medium.
“Master of Glass: The Art of Dale Chihuly” premieres Sunday, December 11 at 9 pm ET on the Smithsonian Channel.