When we think glass, we tend to see in our minds eye objects of fragility that are precious, protected most often behind glassed enclosures. In art, in every aspect of the field, the journey of innovation has been to question boundaries. In the same way that Peter Voulkos took the ceramic vessel and turned it into sculpture, Dale Chihuly, a Seattle-based glass artist, has taken the glass vessel form and transformed it into sculpture in his own unique way. This was the movement that my ceramics professor from Berea College, Walter Hyleck, described as the “peaceful revolution” whereby artisans who made objects of use were turning their utilitarian objects on their heads by removing utility from the equation and thus turning them into art.
Chihuly has certainly exploded what we thought we knew about glass by tackling scale as well as norms of vessel making and turning them on their heads. Chihuly has helped to bring the American Studio Glass Movement into the collective awareness of the world and has thus raised all boats in this regard.
Born in 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, Dale Chihuly was introduced to glass while studying interior design at the University of Washington. After graduating in 1965, Chihuly enrolled in the first glass program in the country, at the University of Wisconsin. He continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where he later established the glass program and taught for more than a decade.
In 1968, after receiving a Fulbright Fellowship, he went to work at the Venini glass factory in Venice. There he observed the team approach to blowing glass, which is critical to the way he works today. In 1971, Chihuly cofounded Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State. With this international glass center, Chihuly has led the avant-garde in the development of glass as a fine art.
His work is included in more than 200 hundred museum collections worldwide. He has been the recipient of many awards, including eleven honorary doctorates and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.
Chihuly achieves what he does by teams of some of the most gifted glassblowers alive today. His method is often collaborative as he seeks to enliven his own ideas with the process that takes place so spontaneously in the hot glass studio. After losing the vision in one eye in the 70’s, Chihuly was left with no other option but to use his team of glass artists to push his ideas beyond even what he alone was doing and into the stratosphere of the art world. Many up and coming glass artists feel as though Chihuly is somehow unoriginal by having others making his work, but make no mistake; Chihuly’s work is unlike any other. Just as his work is informed by the styles and techniques developed before him, Dale does something entirely his own in pushing the limits of glass. So as a glass artist, we may feel a touch jealous over his fame sometimes, but the truth is, those artists who have worked with him have benefited from the exposure to the connections made while working with Chihuly. Billy Morris, a glass sculptor who is recently retired, worked for Dale for ten years without pay just to get the exposure and experience necessary to launch his own career. While Morris worked on some of the most signature pieces Chuhuly is known for, Morris’s work is entirely unique to him and shows few, if any, nods to his mentor.
I saw Chihuly’s work for the first time while studying at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale for my M.F.A. in Sculpture. I was just as involved in the Glass program there as well and jumped at the chance to go with the glass club Southern Glassworks to see an installation at the Laumier Museum of Art in St. Louis. I have seen a few other exhibits of his work since then, and the mixture of scale, color and technique all have an arresting effect. Perhaps in never having seen just so much glass in one tightly packed space, the senses don’t know what to do with it all. I find my eyes seem to love the feast of color and light as I see what new things Chihuly is up to. When I heard that Chihuly’s work would be at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond from October until February, I decided it was time to pay him a visit once more. With camera in hand, I took some images of the show and I am including them here to help you get an idea as to what to expect. There is a link at the bottom of the post for how to find the VMFA.