Biography: Dale Chihuly
Master Glass Artist
Dale Chihuly Date of birth: September 20, 1941
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Dale Chihuly was born in Tacoma, Washington. His youth was shadowed by two tragic losses. When he was in high school, his brother George was killed in a flight training accident while serving in the U.S. Navy. A year later, his father, a meatpacker and union organizer, died of a heart attack. After the loss of his father and his only sibling, the young Chihuly struggled in school and lacked motivation. His mother Viola encouraged him to go to college, despite his poor grades, and he enrolled at the College of the Puget Sound. In his freshman year he took on the job of redecorating his mother's basement and became excited by the possibility of a career in interior design. He transferred to the University of Washington at Seattle to study interior design, but still lacked the self-discipline to pursue his studies seriously. With his mother's support, he took a year off to travel in Europe and the Middle East, and spent several months working on a kibbutz in Israel. The travel experience gave the young man the perspective he had lacked. Returning to the United States, he threw himself into his studies with renewed dedication.
In a weaving class, he had become intrigued by the possibilities of incorporating bits of glass into tapestry. Encouraged by his weaving instructor, he experimented with melting and shaping glass. He graduated in 1965 with a degree in interior design, and found a job as an interior designer with a large architectural firm in Seattle, but his thoughts continually returned to his interest in glass. Although he had never seen a glassblower at work, he melted a piece of stained glass in his basement kiln, improvised a blowing pipe, and blew his first glass bubble. He was instantly captivated by the process. It was the beginning of a lifelong "fascination with molten glass... and making forms out of human breath."
Determined to learn the age-old art of glassblowing, he applied to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, which had just opened the country's first university-based program in glassblowing. He raised money for graduate school by working for six months as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. At Wisconsin, he studied with Harvey Littleton, a founder of the Studio Glass movement. Littleton's vision of glass art emphasized the role of the solitary artist, working far from the factory setting where commercial glass objects are produced. Chihuly learned much from Littleton, but he was destined to expand the concept of Studio Glass far beyond anything Littleton had imagined. As early as 1967, he was exploring the possibilities of collaboration, and experimenting with neon and other gases in room-size installations, ideas that would recur in his work many years later.
After receiving a master's in sculpture at Wisconsin, Chihuly undertook further graduate studies in the ceramics department at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), completing a second master's degree. Between terms at RISD, he taught at the Haystack Mountain School in Maine. He won a Fulbright scholarship for further study in Europe. During this time, he worked at the venerable Venini glassworks on the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon, one of the historic centers of the art. There, he first observed the method of producing glass objects with teams of skilled blowers. This kind of teamwork would later become an essential part of his own artistic practice. In 1969, Chihuly was hired to start a glass department at RISD. From his secure base in Providence, he was able to pursue the artistic possibilities of glassblowing, far beyond the utilitarian production of vessels and light fixtures. He encouraged his students, many of whom became distinguished glassblowers in their own right, to explore abstract, expressive shapes, outside the vocabulary of traditional glass work.
During his years at RISD, Chihuly maintained his ties to his native Pacific Northwest. In 1971, he founded the Pilchuck Glass School near Stanwood, Washington. At Pilchuck, he gathered artists from other disciplines for collaborative projects that further extended the role of glass in art. At Pilchuck, he moved beyond the production of glass objects for static contemplation and staged events in which the creation of glass objects became a public performance, and created temporary outdoor installations juxtaposing glass works with natural and manmade environments. His first New York exhibition took place the year Pilchuck opened. In the mid-1970s, he began a series of works influenced by Navajo blanket designs. Chihuly fused patterns of colored glass thread into his vessels, an innovation in the history of glass art.
Chihuly suffered a major setback in 1976. While visiting England, he was involved in a serious car accident, a head-on collision that hurled him through the windshield. The shattered glass cut deeply into his face, and cost him the sight in his left eye. After weeks in the hospital, he returned to work, but with his depth perception impaired, he found it difficult to blow glass as he had before. Undeterred, he embarked on a new series, inspired by the Native American basketry of the Pacific Northwest. The enthusiastic reception to the "baskets and cylinders" phase of his work led to major solo exhibitions across the United States, including a 1978 show at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C.
After years of struggling, Chihuly had finally gained a following among critics, dealers and collectors, but in 1979 he suffered a second career-altering accident. He dislocated his shoulder while bodysurfing and could no longer hold the glassblowing pipe he had worked so long to master. Employing a team of skilled blowers to blow individual glass pieces, he was now free to focus on designing and supervising the construction of more complex creations. The drawings he used to convey his ideas to his associates became an important part of his practice and are prized as works of art in their own right. His fame soon spread beyond the United States, with major exhibitions in Brazil and Israel. By 1980, his earnings from the sale of his work surpassed his teaching salary and he resigned from RISD, to devote his full attention to his art.
Chihuly began work on a series of ribbed, shell-like objects he called Seaforms. The individual glass components were larger than anything he had created before, and where his earlier work had been nearly monochromatic, he now unleashed a flood of color. The size and brilliant color of his glass forms continued with a series he called Macchia, brilliantly colored bell-like shapes, suggestive of flowers. In 1983, Chihuly returned to Seattle, where he has made his home ever since.
Having extended the boundaries of glassmaking in so many new directions, Chihuly turned to the past, drawing inspiration from historic glass work from different cultures. By the end of the decade, he was at work on a series he called Persians, inspired by Middle Eastern glass of the 13th century. These grew from dramatic groupings with nested objects of contrasting sizes into room-filling installations, covering floors, walls and ceilings. He collaborated with contemporary Italian glassmakers in a series he called Venetians, reflecting the influence of the Art Deco movement of the 1920s and '30s. Many of these works were defined by long, slender stems. These twisting, curling forms recur in later works such as the Chandeliers, Towers and Boats. In 1986, international recognition of his work was confirmed by a major solo exhibition -- "Dale Chihuly, objets de verre" -- at the Louvre's Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. In the early '90s, Chihuly produced the Niijima Floats, large gloves of intricately colored glass, like giant Christmas tree ornaments, which he sometimes exhibited floating in pools of water.
Chihuly's interest in architecture, environment and performance led to some of the most celebrated works of his career. In 1995, he began a project of unprecedented scope. With a traveling crew of 30 glassblowers, sculptors and assistants, he traveled to Finland, Ireland, Mexico and finally Italy, creating assemblages of giant chandeliers. In 1996, he hung them over the canals of Venice, where the changing light, bouncing from the water to the glass and back again, created a transcendent spectacle. This event was recorded in high-definition video for the documentary film Chihuly Over Venice, one of the first HDTV programs broadcast in the United States. His interview with the Academy of Achievement was recorded while he was in the middle of preparations for this project, shortly after his visit to Finland.
At the turn of the 21st century, Chihuly completed other spectacular public works: "In the Light of Jerusalem" at Israel's Tower of David in 2000, and the "Garden of Glass" at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory in 2001. He has created subsequent Gardens of Glass at the botanical gardens of Pittsburgh and New York City, as well as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. Closer to home, he created the installation "Mille fiori" (Thousand flowers) at the Tacoma Museum of Art.
Even as his large projects grew larger, Chihuly continued to create works in smaller sizes, from hanging chandeliers to table top sculptures. In addition to selling his work through conventional galleries and dealers, he operates two retail establishments in partnership with Mirage Resorts, one in Las Vegas and one in Macau, China. In 2004, the Seattle Times reported that his earnings from sales of his work were approximately $29 million.
In 2006, Chihuly brought together many of his past glassblowing collaborators for a series of sessions at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, an event recorded in the documentary film, Chihuly in the Hotshop. The 2011 show, "Chihuly Through the Looking Glass," at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, featured his monumental "Lime Green Icicle Tower," a 42-foot sculpture, made of 2,342 individual pieces of glass. Towering over the museum's courtyard, the sculpture proved so popular with the public that when the show closed, the museum took up a collection and was able to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from the general public to purchase the piece. Closer to home, the Space Needle Corporation is building a new exhibition hall, dedicated to his work, in Seattle Center Park. Dale Chihuly and his wife Leslie make their home in Seattle, where they are highly visible members of the city's philanthropic community. They have one son.
The history of glass sculpture is unimaginable without the work of Dale Chihuly. When he began his career, Studio Glass was a little known movement within the academic art world. When he first exhibited his work, some critics questioned whether his work was fine art at all, relegating it to the less prestigious domain of handicraft. Today, no one can deny the international impact of his work, and his stature as the world's most influential artist in glass.
(See a video montage of the work of Dale Chihuly.)
This page last revised on Dec 06, 2013 13:41 EDT