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Spotlight on “Dale Chihuly”

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Dale Chihuly American, b. 1941

Dale Chihuly was born on 20 September 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, the son of a butcher and a housewife with a keen interest in gardening. In earliest childhood, he was already fascinated by the qualities of glass, collecting pieces he found on the beaches of Puget Sound. During his initial degree course, studying interior design and architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle in the early 1960s, he learned to melt and fuse glass. His first award, while still an undergraduate, was earned from the Seattle Weavers’ Guild in 1964 for innovative use of glass and fibre.

After working as a designer at John Graham Architects in Seattle in 1965 and a period fishing commercially in Alaska, Chihuly won a scholarship enabling him to enrol for a Master of Science in sculpture at the University of Wisconsin at Madison (1966–1967). There he took part in America’s first hot-glass programme, run by Harvey K. Littleton, founder of the studio glass movement. His training continued with a Master of Fine Arts in ceramics at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence, where he embarked on installations of blown glass. Forming organic shapes as much by gravity as by tooling, he filled them with gas that vividly illuminated constructions the size of a room.

In 1968, Chihuly used a Fulbright Fellowship to visit Europe and became the first American glassblower to work at the Venini factory in Venice, on the island of Murano where glassmaking has thrived since the tenth century. The Italian practice of teamwork contrasted with Littleton’s more individualised approach and was to become a significant method of working for Chihuly and his team. Returning to the United States, he set up a glass programme at RISD and taught there for the next 11 years, additionally co-founding Pilchuck Glass School, an international centre in Washington State.

Despite two serious accidents in the 1970s that left him without sight in his left eye and with a damaged shoulder, Chihuly has pursued a long and successful creative career, conceiving and supervising the realisation of fantastic works of art in glass, recording ephemeral works on camera and DVD, publishing over 20 books and forever extending the range of glass art in the open air. His sources of inspiration are diverse, including Native American art and Japanese flower arranging, the sea and Italian glassware of the interwar years. Among the series he has developed are ‘Navajo Blanket Cylinders’ and ‘Baskets’ in the 1970s; ‘Seaforms’, ‘Macchia’ (Italian for ‘spotted’), ‘Persians’ and ‘Venetians’ in the 1980s; ‘Chandeliers’ and ‘Towers’ in the 1990s; and, since the year 2000, ‘Fiori’ (‘flowers’) and ‘Silvered’.

Chihuly originates his concepts as drawings or paintings, working at floor level to create fluid designs that are a festival of motion and colour. While his earlier works were more muted, ‘Macchia’ consciously used all the 300 hues at his disposal. Many subsequent installations are intensely colourful, either exploring one vibrant shade, like Scorpion Tails and Bamboo (Phoenix, Arizona, 2008–2009), or as a kaleidoscopic display, as in the 17 metre long Mille Fiori (de Young Museum, San Francisco, 2008). He has constantly experimented with line, fusing glass threads into blanket cylinders, ribbing the surfaces of seaforms, highlighting the edges of the ‘Macchia’ series with lip wraps and basing the entire forms of chandeliers and towers on a vast nest of intertwining, elongated tubes of blown glass.

Chihuly’s largest projects are linked with architecture and landscape. Indoors he may create a tower to fill a stairwell or fashion a ceiling of multicoloured glass pieces – most famously, the 2,000 flowers of Fiori di Como in Las Vegas. Outside, he has hung chandeliers fabricated in four different countries – Mexico, the United States, Ireland and Finland – over the canals of Venice as a gesture of gratitude for what he learned in the city (1995–1996). His Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000 project placed white and deep blue glass towers amidst ancient ruins in the courtyard of the Tower of David Museum, while his ‘Garden’ cycle began in the glasshouses and grounds of Chicago’s Garfield Park Conservatory (2001) and has included, among many locations, Kew Gardens in London (2005), the New York Botanical Garden (2006) and the Frederik Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park in Grand Rapids, Michigan (2010). With organic forms that sometimes blend in with their surroundings and sometimes startle, he invents gardens of delight where sunlight plays on delicately translucent surfaces and nature and art interact subtly.

I’m an artist, a designer, a craftsman, interior designer, half-architect. There’s no one name that fits me very well.

The recipient of many awards, Chihuly holds eleven honorary doctorates and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. His works are held in the permanent collections of over 225 museums worldwide, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Among his private collectors are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sir Elton John.

Since 1967 Chihuly has exhibited internationally, from Brazil to New Zealand and from Iceland to Japan. During the past decade, 97 exhibitions in seven countries presented his artworks for the enjoyment of more than 10 million people. Venues in 2011–2012 included Tacoma Art Museum, Washington; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts; Fort Collins Museum of Art, Colorado; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; Sandra Ainsley Gallery, Toronto, Canada; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia; and his inaugural exhibition at Halcyon Gallery, London, which attracted over 70,000 visitors. In the build-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, a monumental new piece commissioned by the gallery, Torchlight Chandelier, was installed on Park Lane.

An exhibition and art garden devoted entirely to Chihuly’s work, constructed at the Seattle Center in Washington State, was opened in May 2012 to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair. It is conceived on a grand scale, with monumental outdoor installations of his signature Chandeliers, Towers and Reeds, a sizable exhibition hall and a glasshouse of some 400 square metres displaying an immense suspended sculpture of around 2,000 elements in shades of oxblood red, orange, amber and citron yellow.

Chihuly’s second exhibition at Halcyon Gallery, Dale Chihuly: Beyond the Object opened in London in February 2014. Focused on the relationship between art works and the space that surrounds them, which the artist believes is profoundly important, the show featured theatrical set-pieces that responded with animation to the architecture of the gallery. To coincide with the display, Harrods in London unveiled Amber and Gold Chandelier, the only work ever to have been commissioned by the world famous department store.

In April 2014 Chihuly unveiled The Sun, a 5.5 metre sculpture placed in Berkeley Square, London in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Westminster, Sarah Richardson, which remained in situ until January 2015. This was followed by Dale Chihuly: Lumìere, the first ever exhibition of Chihuly’s Acrylic Light Drawings, which opened at Halcyon Gallery in December 2014. During the same month, Chihuly at Fairchild: A Garden of Glass, the artist’s most comprehensive and ambitious garden exhibition to date, opened at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, an 83 acre tropical oasis in Miami, Florida.

‘Dale Chihuly is not just a major player in the art world; he’s one of those rare people who have actually changed the game’, writes Ben Bamsey in Artworks magazine. ‘While glass has been around for 5,000 years and artists have been blowing it for 2,000, Chihuly came along and changed the shape and scale of the medium, also the way in which it is crafted and presented. Chihuly and his team have invented more techniques than can be stuffed into a da Vinci sketchbook. His revolutionary approach to glass blowing elevated the industry from craft to fine art.’