Discovering Chihuly

by Alex Citron
Issue No. 399 - September 2006

His glass couldn't be much more different from Cambridge; wild, neon bright, almost insanely complicated at Shelley Cole times. Yet to be a collector and lover of glass and not appreciate the artistry of Dale Chihuly is to close ones eyes to the wondrous possibilities of glass beyond the utilitarian.

In fact, Dale Chihuly's creations are as far from utilitarian as one can get. He doesn't even make vases and perfume bottles, the staples of most glass artists. His trademark "Macchia" are bowls of a sort, but you'd never put your M&M's in one. His glass hangs in the air and floats in pools. It is free, asymmetrical, and - except for its astounding beauty and creativity - entirely useless.

Dale Chihuly Chihuly himself, now 64 and missing one eye, doesn't blow glass anymore. He has become a master architect of forms and colors. He draws seemingly impossible shapes on large sheets of paper, then convinces his artisans that it can be done. The amount of breakage in Chihuly's studio is monumental, but those are not failures; they are the steps he must take in transforming the idea into the solid mass of colored glass. Interestingly, his drawings now command the kind of money one expects to pay for the glass. Chihuly has an unexpected second career as a painter.

Strangely, he has always call his glass "autobiographical." Strange, perhaps, because so much of it is so otherworldly; certainly not remotely human, But when he’s pressed, Chihuly speaks of his mother’s fascination with colors and shapes, and how that became his passion, now so beautifully realized in his glassworks.

Dale Chihuly started blowing glass in 1968, as an apprentice (of course) in Venice. The Murano influence is obvious in his forms and colors. He opened his first art glass studio in the mid-seventies, when the market for art glass was - at least in America - nearly nonexistent. He started with baskets, figuring if people wouldn't buy his glass for its beauty, they might buy it to hold stuff. By the early eighties, his baskets and bowls had become seaforms; more whimsical, more colorful and much less usefull for "stuff."

The seaforms were the beginning of the artist Chihuly is today. They were Chihuly swirls his first bold departure for the tried and true. Conicidentally, they developed at the same time a shoulder injury ended his own glassblowing career. Free from having to bring his glass to life, his imagination took flight and his designs exploded. Surely, his artisans - left to blow what Chihuly imagined, must have been profoundly challenged.

In recent years, Chihuly has gained the most attention for his magnificent chandeliers, which grace a number of concert halls and other public lobbies throughout the world; and for his unique installations like Chihuly in Venice. In that installation, hundreds of huge glass balls were floated in the canals of Venice, creating a colorful juxtaposition of the modern art glass and the classical architecture of Venice.

Chihuly's glass in private collections is limited, in most cases, to the wealthy. His smallest pieces can sell for upwards of $10,000. His chandeliers start at $150,000. His work is, fortunately, available to enjoy in numerous museums and public atria. If you have never experienced Chihuly, you should find the time to visit a glass museum showcasing his work. He has major works on display at the glass museums in Corning, Tacoma and Norfolk, among others. His work is unique and beautiful, and anybody who loves glass simply must see it.

On the Internet:

Webmaster's NOTE: You can see a magnificent example of Chihuly's work at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Nevada. His ceiling in the reception area consists of glass flowers, some as large as 3 feet in diameter. It's an amazing sight. And there's a store selling Chihuly glass in the Conservatory area of the resort.