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Dale Chihuly

Interview: Dale Chihuly
Master Glass Artist

June 28, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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(At the Academy of Achievement's 1996 Summit in Sun Valley, Idaho, Dale Chihuly participated in an informal discussion of the nature of creativity with Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Kary Mullis and the Academy's student delegates. Dale Chihuly's remarks from that discussion are incorporated in the text of this interview.)

You've brought a whole team here to Sun Valley, and a traveling workshop, and you're putting together all these pieces. Can you tell us what they are?

Dale Chihuly: We're working on a project where we're making about 20 Chandeliers, in several countries, and then we're taking the Chandeliers and putting them over the canals of Venice. When the Academy of Achievement heard that I was doing this project, they asked if I wouldn't bring a few of the pieces here and hang them for the final banquet.

What you see here are six Chandeliers, hung in this banquet room, and we brought them over from my studio in Seattle, and each chandelier is made up of several pieces. This one here is over 200 parts, each part is hand-blown, and they're hung on a stainless steel armature. You hang the bottom one first, and then the next one -- you wire them on-- and the next one, and you keep wiring all the way up until you get the desired amount of pieces. They're not set in any particular way, so when you take it apart and you put it up again somewhere else, it's not exactly the same. Each one of these countries we went to, we tried to do parts that were similar, a feeling of that country, and this sort of turquoise one was done in Finland. It was the first time we'd made this shape. We started building this in the factory in Finland and built it up from there. Now, this is not like the original one, 'cause it's got a different armature inside. And this one here is blown into an optical mold, we call it, a ribbed mold, and that's why you see these lines going down the parts. They're made rather quickly, very fluid, sort of organic, and I call them Chandeliers, but I suppose they're more like hanging sculptures. People often ask, "Are they lit from within?" They can be. In this case they're not. They're being hit above by 600-watt spotlights from each side. So it gives it a more lively feeling than if they were being lit from the inside, where you would then get sort of an overall glow. From the outside it's better.

How many people does it take to make one of these pieces? How long does it take?

Dale Chihuly: Oh, I don't usually talk about that too much, 'cause it's so fast!

Nobody works as fast as I do. Let's put it this way, we arrived in Finland to blow Chandeliers with a crew of 30. The day we arrived, on a Wednesday, we hung a chandelier that night, having never been to the village before. Wasn't a very good chandelier! But anyway, we made 2,000 pieces of glass in Finland in seven days. But that was a lot of people working. This is the sixth chandelier in this line here, down here about 200 feet. And this is the Orange Hornet Chandelier. This is made in a kind of a screw mold. So you blow into this mold with this kind of screw, and then you twist it out. And I don't know, it's got this sort of organic feeling like a hornet, or like a grub or something, and it's a transparent, translucent orange that, when the light gets on this thing, it's spectacular. It's the smallest one in the group. There's probably only about 100 parts, and a piece like this might weigh, say, 300 pounds. But they get as big as 3,000 parts, and weigh as much as two tons. So it's all relative to where we're putting them, and what we're making them for, and what we want them to do.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

Can you tell us how this whole project came about?

Dale Chihuly: A couple of years ago, I started thinking about hanging Chandeliers over the canals of Venice. At the same time, almost, I thought I'd like to go to different countries and do this. And at the same time, I also thought it would make an interesting movie. So the idea just sort of went boom, boom, boom. Chandeliers over the canals, several countries, a film showing the whole thing. I thought about the idea, and I just went ahead and did it. That's one thing that you have to be able to do, I think, if you want to really reach high points, is you've got to take the idea and go, knowing, of course, that it can fail. But never thinking... I've never once thought about this thing as failing, even though I'll tell you at the end of the story some of the problems we're having. But we went first to Finland, with 30 people from the Boathouse, my studio, and we worked hand-in-hand with the Finns to make Chandeliers, but then when I got there I started doing some other things as well. Because I'm constantly changing my mind about what I want to do. Then we went to Ireland. Then we went to Mexico. And now we're about to go to Venice to hang these Chandeliers --15 or 20 of them -- over the canals of Venice.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
First of all, the project is very expensive, which I really extended myself to do. And then secondly, making the film isn't so easy either! There are problems there. And thirdly, I did all of this knowing that somehow I was going to be able to hang these Chandeliers in Venice. I went to Venice -- three times now this year -- and the Minister of Culture met with me and said that, yes, we could do this project, gave it his blessing. And I talked to the Minister of Culture this morning, in Venice, and we still don't have permission to hang these Chandeliers. And he's always saying, "Oh well, any day now we'll have the permission from the Department of Public Something-or-other." And then he'll sidetrack me off onto some other subject of where we're going to store the glass, or... In any event, I by all accounts should probably be nervous at this. Because not only are we going, but there's probably 1,000 people going to see this. Which I didn't really want to have happen, it just sort of happened. And even if we get permission, we don't really know how long they're going to let us leave them up. I haven't even got to that yet. So we're going to do whatever it takes to do it.

I was at a party with Hillary Clinton the other night, and she likes my work, and I almost asked Hillary, I was going to say, "Hillary, can you do me a favor and can one of your staff make a call to Venice for me?" But I didn't ask her, because I sort of feel that I want to do this. I don't want to put a lot of pressure on over there from different people and politicians. I want to just sort of go through... my instinct is to go through the normal channel. So here's this big project going on, and people constantly are asking me, "Why are you doing this project?" And I've always wondered. It's funny that they would ask that. Seems perfectly sensible to me to want to hang Chandeliers over the canals of Venice. Even if they haven't been done before, you can tell it's a good idea right away. So I'm wondering why they question... We have a 12-minute video of stage one of Finland, where in that, I got fairly carried away throwing glass into the river -- and doing all these projects, and spheres coming out of the water -- but mostly really involved with throwing glass in the river and then having to go downstream and picking it up. So you show this at a talk, and people -- and it does not explain what's going on -- and then people afterwards, some of them are really confused, like, "What were you doing there?" Like, "Why would you throw glass in the water?" Other people fully understand what's going on. I don't think it has anything to do with whether they're an artist or not, but they can see that this is some creative process that probably hasn't been done before either. And that here's this person, very intrigued with the water and the glass and how they go together.

Where did you get this idea? You worked with glass for many years before making any chandelier-like objects. Can you remember how you got this idea?

Dale Chihuly: Actually, I do know how that happened.

I was in a restaurant in Barcelona, a little kind of Italian restaurant, and it had some Venetian chandeliers in the restaurant. I walked in and I was looking right at a chandelier, sort of at eye level -- normally they're overhead -- but then when you sat down on the table you could look underneath it and have your meal, and it sort of acted as a centerpiece for the table. I'd thought about chandeliers before, but I didn't want to make a light fixture really. It didn't interest me to make something that was going to look like a light fixture or a decoration. And when I saw that chandelier at eye level, which this restaurateur had figured out would be a nice way to decorate his restaurant, I put that away, that this might work. And then later on, I decided to do a chandelier, and I put it not only at eye level, I put it almost floor-to-ceiling. And I made very simple parts. The parts for the Chandeliers -- which sometimes are as many as 3,000 parts -- are just simple blown parts that a beginner could almost make. Then we just wire on some wire on the end, and you hook them onto a steel armature, so you put the first one on and the second. So the whole piece, the Chandeliers, could be made by almost anybody, yet nobody had thought about -- except for this restaurateur -- thought about putting a chandelier at eye level.

Normally when I put them up, I put them up in such a way that they don't really look like chandeliers. They're not lit from inside, they're usually lit from outside. But it was a simple idea that I've been working on now for three or four years. I did one, I really liked it, I started making more. There was a lot of possibilities with the idea once I got started.

A lot of times when an artist starts an idea, very often people don't like it. Nobody really bought one of these for a couple of years, because they liked my earlier work. A lot of times the artists don't like it either. I remember on a couple of occasions starting a new series of work that I really thought was good, and some of my best friends would pull me aside and kind of tell me that they didn't think that was going to make it. But if you believe in the idea, then you go ahead and do it. At a certain point, maybe you might agree with them after three or four months. You've worked on it and you've developed it, and maybe you let it go. Either let it go or you carry on. For myself, it's usually when I exhibit it for the first time; that usually means I believe in the idea.

On the same project, the first country I went to, Finland, I went over there -- 'cause I work in a team of people: glassblowers and sculptors, artists -- so 30 of us went over to Finland to work in this little village, and I went over with the intention of making Chandeliers for this project, to hang over the canals of Venice. I don't know exactly where that idea came from, hanging them over the canals of Venice. But when I went there with the 30 people, we got an equal amount of people from each country to work with us, so we're working hand in hand with, in this case, with people that we didn't speak the same language. But that wasn't such a problem really. But then there was a river -- this actually reminds me of it, right here -- there was kind of a still river near the factory. I went down to hang a chandelier, for example, off of that limb there, to get the reflection in the river. And when I put the chandelier up there --'cause we were in boats, under a bridge. It was under a bridge -- we actually ended up putting them in a lot of places -- I couldn't help but want to throw the chandelier parts in the river. So we just threw all the chandelier parts in the river and then went downstream and had the Finns pick them up in their boats and hung them up in another spot.

Did they float?

Dale Chihuly: Yeah. They floated down river. And then we discovered that almost everything we put in the river would float, even though they had holes. Big pieces. I often work to a very large scale. I wasn't going to work large-scale in Finland, but once we saw these things would float, we started working bigger and bigger. So the project turned into a project about the river and we did a lot of installations around the river that I had never done before, and every day I would start out not knowing what I wanted to do. And here I had 30, plus 30 more -- 60 people working -- with all this great access to this factory, all this molten glass and great glassblowers, and I'm walking around not sure what I want to do. But it worked out, but that's the way I like to work, for me. I like to take it one day at a time, and just do whatever. If I want to change my mind, I'll change it.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

What intrigued you about throwing the glass into the water? What was going through your mind?

Dale Chihuly: We were hanging the chandelier under the bridge in Finland, and so there we are in a boat, hanging the chandelier, and you know if you throw the glass in the water, you know it's going to float, these parts especially, and it's going to go downstream. So I couldn't help but this... you know, put the thing up, and then when we were taking it down, to throw it in the water, to see what it'd look like. And then we started throwing other parts in there, and nothing would sink, and even if it had a big hole in it, it didn't sink. So we started making big parts just to throw in the river. So you'd end up with just a river full of glass, going down with the sun hitting it and the stuff moving down the stream. It was pretty nice.

When did you first know that you wanted to be an artist?

Dale Chihuly: I was a freshman in college and I decorated my mother's basement. I thought I was an interior designer after I did that, even though I don't think anybody told me they liked it. So I decided I'd become an interior designer, and I did.

When you first decided on that career, what was your family's reaction?

Dale Chihuly: Well, it was only my mother, and...

My mother always let me do whatever I wanted. She was totally supportive of anything I wanted to do. In fact it was my mother, although, who encouraged me to go to college. I probably wouldn't have gone to college. She wanted me to go to college, so I did. And when I decided I wanted to be an interior designer, architect, artist, she was always a hundred percent for it. My mother never really pushed me to do things. She didn't push me to be a high achiever. She didn't push me to a profession that she preferred. She let me do exactly what I wanted to do.

What appealed to you about decorating your mom's basement? Did that inspire you?

Dale Chihuly: I don't know.

I wish I could really remember why I decorated the basement. But I started making furniture and picking out colors and getting drapes, all this stuff. It's still that way. It's kind of ugly. I was only 18 then, and it was something I wanted to do, and I really don't know how it came about. It was kind of a strange thing, but it got me going. I transferred schools into interior design, and I was on my way, although I was never a very good student. I could never really apply myself. I wasn't a good student when I was in high school either. So I went to college, and then after a couple of years -- three years -- I saw that I wasn't really doing that well in school. So I dropped out. I went to Europe for a year and traveled around, all around Europe, ended up working on a kibbutz in Israel, and then sort of flipped. When I came back, I was 21 years old, and from that point forward, I was highly motivated. Just flipped.

Did you have a teacher who inspired you in any way?

Dale Chihuly: I don't remember most of my teachers. But I did have a couple that inspired me. Mostly women. One was a home economics teacher that taught weaving. I took this weaving course as a requirement for interior design, and she encouraged us to do something creative as a final project or something, and I put little bits of glass into a tapestry, or into a little weaving. And it turned out okay, and she really thought it was special, and so she encouraged me to continue to weave. Actually, she would even set the loom up for me and stuff, 'cause I never liked doing the labor part of stuff. So I got very interested in this glass and these weavings, and decided I wanted to be able to melt the glass a little bit so it wouldn't be sharp. And then I started weaving little wires, fusing wire between two pieces of glass so I could weave the wire into the weaving. And developed some other techniques so I could put bigger pieces of glass and foam in the loom so that it would work, and I got so interested in this and in the glass that I started being less concerned with the weaving and more concerned with the glass.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

One night I melted some glass, 'cause I had a little kiln in my basement. I melted some glass and put a blowpipe in there -- not a blowpipe, I didn't even know what a blowpipe looked like 'cause I had never seen glassblowing, but just a pipe -- and gathered up some glass, took it out, blew a bubble, which was very lucky. And I thought I'd done this miraculous thing by blowing a bubble, 'cause it is pretty exciting to blow human breath down a blowpipe and then have a bubble occur. It's the only thing you can do it with, is glass. But the odd part of it is, it wouldn't be so odd if you went to glassblowing school and did that, or if you went to a factory and did that. But I did that in my basement without ever having seen it. And at that point I decided I wanted to be a glassblower. So by this time, I'm out of school, working as a designer for an architect, and now I want to become a glassblower, so by chance there was a school where you could study glassblowing, it had just started, University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. So I went to Alaska and became a commercial fisherman for six months and earned the money to go to school. And so here I am, I'm going to graduate school, studying glass in an art program, more or less.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
My background hadn't really taught me much about art. But I started out by being interested in art, not in craft. I was always making environments or sculptures, without really knowing what I was doing, but there were a lot of people around that helped me, so I had the confidence to do it. And I had the glass on my side, because at this point, hardly anybody was working with glass in the United States. So if people saw a sculpture made out of glass -- some weird form in that way -- they were very interested in it, because they'd never seen it before. So I was lucky there. You might say it was timing. People always talk about the right place at the right time, and that was a factor for me.

You say you first became involved with glass in your college weaving class. Was there already something about the properties of glass that you loved? Had it always attracted you?

Dale Chihuly: I guess so.

I always liked stained glass. But I always say, take a little kid down to the beach, you're walking along the beach, you're picking up shells, rocks, beautiful things, and then there's a little bit of stained glass, a little bit of broken bottle -- blue, cobalt blue, green, some colors sitting there. The little kid is going to go for the glass every time, over the shells, over anything. It's the same thing as a diamond down there, almost. I mean, if you look at the fascination we have for gems, that every culture has had. And glass is almost the same thing, I mean, it almost looks... in some cases it looks better. It's just the light going through this colored material. There are very few transparent materials. Plastic is one of the only other ones, and people don't like plastic very much, unfortunately. I like plastic, and I'd like to work with it more, but people really don't like it. There's no history.

So I guess you're saying glass has a universal appeal, even for children.

Dale Chihuly: Marbles are made out of glass usually, and they're inexpensive to make, but I wonder why marbles are made out of glass. You could make them out of a lot of different materials, and they did, I think. But glass is really the thing for marbles, and people love marbles. I loved marbles when I was a kid, too. That was probably another interest in glass.

Walk into any cathedral, walk into one of the great cathedrals of Europe, it's got a stained glass window up there. There isn't anybody going to walk in there that doesn't think about that window, comment about the color. Probably remember the window more than anything in the church. And that's the same idea, light through glass. Doesn't take very much, either. You can see a square inch of red 300 feet away. That's all it would take to see this beautiful color. So I guess it's color and form. If you add glassblowing to it, now you can make things very quickly with almost no materials at all. I mean, no tools. The way I work is very fast, and with a lot of natural elements like centrifugal force and gravity and fire, and you're forming this thing, and it's moving, it's alive. And if you're watching it, you're completely mesmerized as well. Not only the person making it, but the person watching it, they can stand there for hours and watch you. And there's something sort of magical about it: the way it's done, what it looks like when it's finished, the way it goes from liquid to solid. Glass is described scientifically as a super-cooled liquid when it's hard. Even that is sort of screwed up. There's just something totally unique about the material and the way it's worked.

As you grew older and your work with glass started becoming your livelihood, how did your vision grow?

Dale Chihuly: Well first of all, I wanted to be a glassblower, so the easiest way to be a glassblower at that time, in the '60s, would be to be a professor, because then you have access to the glass, the shop, or you might say the laboratory. So I took a job to start a glass department at the Rhode Island School of Design, and for years I would teach, and then blow glass, and I was lucky to be able to sort of build a career while I was a professor. Some people can do that, some people it's too much. So I was able to do that, and although it wasn't until more than ten years after I started that I really sold any glass. And then that was 1976. By 1980, my salary was equal to my teaching salary, so I quit teaching and moved back to Seattle. In the meantime, I had started, with some friends, a school in Seattle. In 1971 we started the Pilchuck Glass School. So Seattle became the center for glass in the country because of this school. We brought people from all over the world. In my own career, I kept forging ahead, trying to work as much as I could, having the energy, the energy is what a lot of it's all about. If you don't have the energy, it's pretty hard. I think artists or creative people probably have more energy than most. So if you have this energy, you sort of want to give it to somebody in some way. So I was able to develop my work and be smart enough to quit teaching when a lot of people in the same circumstances would have tried to do -- continued to do -- both.

When I quit teaching, I had a lot more time, of course.

So I collaborated with a lot of people, with people that were better than me. I collaborated with students. I just wanted to make things. At that time, we didn't care what it was for or who it was for. So I learned a lot from a lot of different people, and I learned to work with a team, and glassblowing is done best as a team. So I got good at directing and working with a team, and that enabled me to do more things. If you needed a bigger project, bigger team. And when I had the money, I would get a facility and hire the people. When I didn't have the money, I'd beg them to help me! Whatever it took to do the work. So slowly, I got, I guess it was about five years after I quit teaching that I could afford to get my own space. I could afford to make a down payment on a $250,000 building, and then a year or two later rent a building and build a $50,000 glass shop or something. And so then I had my own studio and my own shop. And then five years later, I could buy a bigger building and build a bigger shop and have a bigger team. And so now, I have, I don't know, I probably have the biggest studio of just about anybody, in glass or anything else, for that matter. I have a big team of people.

There's a lot of responsibility, and it's a lot of work to have to deal with all those people in terms of day-to-day operation, but on the other hand, it allows me to do... I can do just about anything I want with glass, because I've got the facilities and the team. And what a lot of people don't realize is that the creative process can also be teamwork. They think of creativity, especially of artists, as working alone. And that's only one way. As usual, there are many ways to do things. But yeah, we think of creativity, I don't know why we think of creativity as something you do alone. Obviously if you're going to make a film, you're going to work with a lot of creative people working together. And the same with making art, or making paintings. If you go back to the Renaissance -- Rubens or all those big studios -- ateliers where people worked together. I often find that because I work with a team so much, and try to help get the team working the way I want it, I'm constantly up against people that can't work in a team, that are in the team! They can't delegate the person underneath them to do one part of the operation. And you have to do that, you have to know, you have to have confidence in the people that you're working with that they can do it. Artists want to control things a lot of times.

For somebody who doesn't know, why does it require a team to do the sorts of projects that you do?

Dale Chihuly: It's hard to explain why glassblowing requires a team. You can do it by yourself. But a team of four or five people is much, much better. It's not true with most crafts, but glass is one of those crafts that really works best with a team of people. And also -- besides the glassblowing, which is only one part of what I do -- because what I do is I make glass, and I take the parts, and I make something else with it. I might take a room like this, and put a ceiling in here where it had a thousand parts in the ceiling that you'd look up to. So if you do these time-consuming installations like that, and you want to do an exhibition, say in a museum, and you're going to do ten installations, how do you put all that stuff up in a short period of time to have an exhibition? You do it with a team, a team of people that are skilled, that know what they're doing, that are used to handling the materials, and so you can move around quickly. We could fly to Paris and do an installation. We can go do something at the Academy Awards. We can do a lot of things. And then what happens is that the more you do, the more you realize what you can do, and the more you can do. It would be like the theater, or better yet, the opera. Very few people realize that behind the scenes of the opera, it's this tremendous amount of people and energy in order to make that show go on. It'd be an impossible thing without a team. So the making of art, making of lots of things, are team efforts, but it's just that in the creative world, we don't think of it as much.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

Do you remember the first time you sold a work of art?

Dale Chihuly: I'm sure I don't remember my first sale of artwork, but I remember the first sales kind of experience, which I didn't like. And it had a big effect on me, in that I was on my way to Europe, to study glassblowing, and I wanted to make some money, so I went to one of those craft fairs and set up a glassblowing furnace. I was going to blow glass and sell the glass. And I did that. I would have failed completely had a friend of mine not come by the second day, 'cause I was blowing glass all day long, and nobody was buying anything because they were watching me blow glass. Then this friend of mine came by and said, "Let me run this operation for you. You're gonna blow glass on the hour for 15 minutes, and then for 45 minutes we're gonna sell it." So the second day, we made a couple thousand dollars, which really helped my trip to Europe. But I really disliked the whole -- I never did that again. And all the more reason -- at that point I was just a student -- and all the more reason why I wanted to be a professor so I didn't have to sell. And there weren't a lot of selling experiences between then and about six years later, eight years later, when I had my sort of first one-man show in a gallery. At that time, it was 1976, I arbitrarily put a price on the pieces of about 1,000 dollars each, which was higher, I think, than any other craft person in any field was charging. And I wasn't really that well known. But I knew I didn't want to be making these things in production, and I knew that the only way -- if I could sell them -- that I would have to get a fair price for them. Fortunately, some of them sold, and that was the beginning of my commercial career.

Was there ever a point in your career where you were afraid that it wasn't working, or you'd made the wrong choice, or that it wasn't going to happen?

Dale Chihuly: I've been lucky to have very few doubts. There were many times in my career when I could've pulled back. I always put all of my resources into my career, and I was never afraid of going into debt for that. I somehow felt that I could always get out of debt. I used to borrow a lot of money -- I mean a lot of money for me at the time -- from the bank to do something about my work, but I always paid it back, so the bank would always loan me more money. When I could afford to quit teaching, I did immediately. Not that I didn't like to teach, but I taught long enough, and then I could concentrate more on my work. When I could buy a bigger building, a bigger studio, I would do that. Always, of course, I never... the bank always owned everything. Still does. So I was never afraid, very few doubts about... That's not meaning to say that I don't think about the fact that things could go wrong financially, but if they do, they do. But I don't dwell on that.

Was there a time where you had to overcome some criticism?

Dale Chihuly: I think all artists have to overcome criticism. There are a few great artists that very few people would want to take on, but most artists that are successful, somebody's there waiting to give you a hard time. I tend not to read a lot of the reviews.

There's a magazine in Seattle -- speaking of criticism -- there's a magazine in Seattle that tends to be critical of my work. Even if I've had a big show there, they might cover it, but there'll always be an angle to the article that's personal. 'Cause sometimes they can't attack the work directly, but they'll attack it from some other angle. It's been going on for years. I'm always tempted to take the guy that owns it out to lunch. I know the guy, socially, a little bit, but I've never talked to him about it. But I just sort of let it go and I tend not to read it, but I hear about it, if they'll do something that... And I felt that I was glad to hear the other day I got a voice mail. I didn't see it, but I got a voice mail from somebody that the magazine has a Reader's Choice -- they do it every year -- about the best person in the arts, the best restaurant. So I was picked in their magazine as the most popular person in the arts in Seattle. And they had to publish that, with a photograph, because it was Reader's Choice or something! I love that.

Like one time, Roberta Smith was a famous critic in New York, and I was lucky to have a show up in New York at the same time as Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney. She wrote a full page in the Sunday paper, and the headline was "It May Be Good, But Is It Art?" Which was an article about the three of us, sort of basically saying that Hockney, Mapplethorpe and myself weren't really artists. We were good at what we did, but it wasn't art. Actually, I felt flattered to be in the company. I was the odd person out, I just happened to get in there. So you put up with it. Artists can put up with the criticism. It's much better to have a bad review than no review, I think! I don't think it really affects you that much. I don't even know why, as a society, we allow critics to influence us the way we do. I mean, if the L.A. Times had a film critic say to you, "This is a bad film," you probably wouldn't necessarily take that to heart. If you were interested, you'd go see it, you might like it, right? With film, we can do that. People can sort of make their own choices about film. But in theater, if they get a bad review in The New York Times, they can shut down the show. By one critic. And I don't like that! Artists usually don't like critics.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

Many artists don't achieve recognition in their lifetimes, even if we come to value their work later.

Dale Chihuly: It's very discouraging when you're making art and nobody wants to see it. I can't imagine how somebody can work their whole lifetime making art like Van Gogh did -- it was a short life -- but I can't imagine working to the intensity and the creativity at the level that he worked and not have anybody accept it, except his brother maybe. I just thought of something interesting about art. People can like it, and then there's critics. They might not like it, and it can go back and forth. Like a film, say, that a film could come out and the critics panned it, yet people go see it, and then 30 years later, it can be a classic. It's a strange process, about who is accepted.

Do you think you faced any special challenges in working with glass?

Dale Chihuly: One of the problems in working with glass is that, because glass is so beautiful, and almost no matter what color it is, it's gorgeous, so no matter what you make, people are interested in it. So, in a funny way, you can get away with a lot, because just put the glass out there and people are going to be attracted to it. And the fact that it's so beautiful doesn't work for everything you're trying, for a certain type of thing -- statement you want to make, or concept you have -- glass might not work. Unless you're interested in beauty. Fortunately, that interests me a lot, the idea of making things that make people feel good and give a lot of joy to a lot of people. We talked earlier about the idea of working and not ever having anyone see or appreciate what you're making. And artists have worked, sometimes, their whole life that way, in total seclusion. I can't imagine that would be very fun. But for me, not long after I was able to make things that people were interested in seeing -- I was lucky it happened to me soon -- but the more I was able to make that interested people, the more I wanted to interest people. I was really, maybe to a fault, interested in being able to do exhibitions that would have a wide appeal. I like it when a lot of people enjoy what I'm doing. On the other hand, I am capable of making things that people don't like! But I like it better when they do like it. Or I like it better that -- eventually, what I'm making -- that they will like, and under some context it works. What I'm doing here, at the Academy, we're hanging six Chandeliers for the banquet, and these Chandeliers, which I started making four years ago, initially were not very appreciated, for whatever reason. In that case I didn't pay much attention to that, and within a couple of years, people started getting interested. And now, when they see them, they like them more. Part of that is just the familiarity of seeing something. You can't always expect people to like it the first time.

What kinds of setbacks did you have on your career path, and how did you overcome them?

Dale Chihuly: I suppose the most obvious setback that I had, I mean, I lost my brother and my father when I was in high school. And that certainly had a profound effect on me. And then I got in a wreck -- lost the sight of my eye -- in 1976, which made it hard for me to blow glass. It was a near-fatal accident, and six months in recuperation. I suppose that could have been a big setback, but it wasn't. I mean, it didn't get me down that much. I felt fortunate to have survived it. I suppose I could have taken a different perspective on the whole thing. I could have gotten depressed over it, but I didn't. I think sometimes those things make you look at things in a different way. Setbacks. Most setbacks in my own life have been self-inflicted. Depression, or whatever. Something to get you down and out. Usually that comes about for who knows what reason. But in terms of my career, I've been very lucky. I've had a lot of help, a lot of support from other people, and a lot of opportunities. That doesn't mean I didn't make a lot of those opportunities, but I think some of it must be some good luck.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

Did you ever have any doubts about your work or your ability?

Dale Chihuly: Yeah, you do. You have doubts. But you don't want those doubts when you're making the work. If you have doubts about work while you're making it, it's hard to make it. So you have to have some kind of vision about what you're trying to do, and then while you're doing that, you have to be very confident, or else it's not going to do well, probably. So when I'm in the middle of doing something, I'm usually feeling pretty good about it. But sometimes I'll go in there and work, and just nothing can go right. If I'm starting something new, it can go on for months. Generally, once you know what you think you want to do, you shouldn't have doubts about it. Maybe somebody can work that way. Art's made in a lot of different ways.

Have you ever worried that you would fail?

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly: I have certainly worried that I could fail on things. But it's not been a very big part of my career. Certainly there are times when you just don't feel good about it. It's probably because you don't feel good about yourself. Who knows? There are times when it doesn't feel right, and you're concerned. I'm much more concerned about failing in my personal life than I am in my career.

Do you think there's less creativity in the art world today than in other periods?

Dale Chihuly: I don't think you can find a period when there wasn't creativity in art. I'm sure this is a very creative time, but it's a strange time, what people want to do and what they consider creative. A lot of the art that's made obviously is not very pretty. It can be more political. It can be performance art. We still make great films, great theater, great dance, great architecture. It would be sort of unlikely that we weren't making great art.

A lot of art that's exhibited today is so difficult, it appears so devoid of content, or so obscure, that it's almost impossible for most viewers to draw anything from it.

Dale Chihuly: There are some very strange things you can find in exhibitions. But that's the way art is. There's always been a lot of strange art. It doesn't look strange sometimes to us now as we look back at it, but it did at the time. Van Gogh is a good example.

The ability to forge ahead when your work goes unrecognized, is that essential to creativity?

Dale Chihuly: The reality of it is, it takes an unbelievable amount of belief in yourself to do something over and over for ten or 20 years without anybody thinking that it's any good. I mean, people did it, but I couldn't. I'm sure I couldn't. I can tell you from experience, and having taught a lot of really great students -- I taught for about 12 years at the oldest and largest art school, Rhode Island School of Design -- and the students, after five years or so, if they didn't make some progress, if somebody wasn't interested, they usually went on and did something else. Maybe related, they used that information, but they didn't stay on in their studio. I know there are exceptions, and maybe it's the time also. Maybe in another century, when people weren't as interested in art, with different types of patronage that could work.

We've talked about training and preparation, but do you think it's also possible for an artist to create meaningful work from pure inspiration before they've spent years learning their craft?

Dale Chihuly: It's harder in art to be thought of as successful when you're young. It's a very rare instance when a young artist succeeds. Working with glass and its qualities makes it more attractive to kids, for example. But it's very unusual to see an important show by an artist under 30.

Where do you get your inspiration? Can you create every day, or do you need to wait for inspiration?

It's important to find ways to help it happen. If you're an artist, you need to work, you need to draw. If you're a writer, you need to write. If you don't allow it to come in, it's less likely to happen. But it can happen in any way. Somebody could write a poem, I suppose, in five minutes, and somebody else might take a year, but that doesn't make one better than the other. It does tend to help to have had a few years' experience, to be creative. Although you can see it, creativity, in young students and young people. Some are more creative than others, but it helps to have understood the craft usually. Like cooking dinner, you know, you might have a shot at if you're 15 years old, but somebody who's 25 years old is gonna better know how to do it. You have to know the materials, and you have to have worked with the materials.

How do you judge creativity? Is it how people respond to it?

Dale Chihuly: Let's say that you wanted to judge who was the most creative chef in Sun Valley. There'd be a difference of opinion, but if a newspaper ran a survey, one chef might be the best chef in town, even though not everybody would agree with that. A book could be very popular, but not necessarily the most creative book. It's not easy to put your finger on. Almost everybody agrees that Picasso was very creative.

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

Do you ever get tired of doing what you do?

Dale Chihuly: I do it for exactly as long as I want to. And then I either stop making work or I think of something else. Hopefully I've already thought of something else when I get to the point. Let's say you're a potter, and there's ten potters in Sun Valley and they're all really good craftsmen, but that does not make them really in any way creative. Craftsmen in general enjoy making the same thing over and over, which is almost contrary to being creative. I can't imagine that a creative person would really like making the same thing day in and day out. But then you get the creative potter too.

You work in a team. Do you think human interaction and feedback are essential for creation?

Dale Chihuly: I read an article this morning -- I think it was in Time -- on Winslow Homer, and it sounded as if he was real crotchety. He left New York, lived in a little place in Maine, I think, by himself. This is the painter Winslow Homer, who some people consider the greatest American artist of the 19th century. There's a big retrospective of his that's about to open at the Met. But here was a strange guy, a great artist that worked -- for whatever reason -- by himself, in isolation. So it takes all kinds.

Do you think similar values or processes are involved in creativity in all fields? Apart from the arts, that is.

Dale Chihuly: We could think of areas that are really creative. We could try to see how many we could come up with, but in many areas, the creativity is not as evident. We all know that people want to have art around them, so we put a value on that, and it has to be creative, by definition almost. In other areas you don't see it as much. In science, you don't think about it in the same way, but it's a similar type of activity. What about something like what Gates and Allen did with Microsoft? I don't know about computers, but I know they invented this software for computers which obviously grew this phenomenal company. I don't know if that was really creative or if somebody else would have thought of it the next week. That's more like business, but how creative was that?

Dale Chihuly Interview Photo
Dale Chihuly Interview Photo

What about the future for you? What's the next intriguing project for you?

Dale Chihuly: I never know. I'm lucky, because now that I'm successful, a lot of things come to me, and I can sort of pick and choose what I want. Some of them can stimulate me and make me think of an idea or a project. But I don't know, it's going to be hard for me. I could have a major letdown after this project, because it's such a huge project for me. It even enters my mind that this is the last thing I want to do. I was asking somebody the other day, "Do artists ever retire?" And everybody would always say, "No, artists never retire. They work 'til they're gone," but I don't believe that. I'll bet you if they didn't, they probably should have, some of them.

One last question. What does the American Dream mean to you?

Dale Chihuly: I've never thought about what the American Dream was, but I guess I would say that it's being able to pursue whatever you want to do. For me it's being able to do what you want to do and survive. For somebody else I suppose it could mean having an income, but who would want to have an income from something you didn't want to do? I guess you might if you were in a place where you couldn't have that, but the American Dream to me is pursuing whatever you want to do and finding a way to be successful at doing it.

Thank you so much for sharing your work with us today.

This page last revised on Dec 06, 2013 13:38 EST