His work is featured in the permanent collections of over 180 museums worldwide. His fans include Jack Nicholson, Elton John, Bill Gates, and the Clintons. He was named the first National Living Treasure in the United States. But just like his work, he is anything but ordinary. Who is this art world outsider?
The artist is known not only for his glasswork—which displays exuberant colors, exotic shapes, and a dramatic scale—but also for his outlandish lifestyle and appearance. According to William Warmus, author of The Essential Dale Chihuly, “Henry Geldzahler, former curator of contemporary art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, once said that the striking Chihuly ‘looks like a pirate and sometimes acts like a pirate,’ leading the life of a nomad and traveling the world over to orchestrate museum shows, glassblowing sessions, and installations of his work” (10). Chihuly’s trademark look includes:
a burly build
a black eye patch over his left eye following a 1975 car crash in England
custom-made shoes, “ordered to alleviate foot pain and painted to conceal the awkward shape” (Warmus 43).
my favorite artists is Harry Houdini.
Maybe that’s what I’m trying to be—a
magician.” ~Dale Chihuly (Warmus 5)
“One of my favorite artists is Harry Houdini. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to be—a magician.”
Dale Chihuly was born on September 20, 1941, in Tacoma, Washington. A butcher’s son, he was born into a humble, working-class family. His only brother died in a navy training accident in 1957. Months later, his father suffered a fatal heart attack. Chihuly was devastated by the loss, but his mother convinced him to go on to college. While attending the University of Washington, Chihuly completed an assignment to use nonfiber material in a weaving…As Warmus recalls:
This proves to be the occasion of his first serious glass artwork, Glass Weaving, in which glass shards are interlaced with metal wires that he has fused into glass. Smitten with his new art form, Chihuly is awarded the Seattle Weavers Guild Award in 1964 for his innovative use of glass and fiber. (Warmus 17)
The Child and the Adult:
Many of Chihuly’s childhood experiences influenced his art later in life:
Young Dale spends much of his childhood at the beach with his family, and enjoys gathering bits of “sea-polished glass.” Continuing his love of the sea, he later gets a job on a fishing boat in Alaska.
He is a young entrepreneur, selling Christmas wreaths door to door and charging admission to card games he organizes in his basement.
On a 1964 train trip he brings a tube of each Winsor Newton watercolor and, for six days, mixes the colors and paints small swatches in an old stamp album, creating, in his own words, “’only a few thousand colors’” (Warmus 18).
1970 he uses union-organizing skills to complete his first “installation
project”—a 16 x 24 foot, 1,000-pound billboard protesting against
Nixon. Also while in college, he
is made rush chairman of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity.
Chihuly’s Floats (named after the fascinating, blue-green glass floats he encountered in Japanese fishing nets) and Seaforms collections reflect his obsession with the sea.
Warmus recognizes Chihuly’s “innovative marketing techniques,” such as limited-edition series (110).
His obsession with color reappears in his glasswork. While looking at the 300 color rods that make up his glassblowing palette, he decides, “’I’m going to use all 300 colors in as many possible variations as I can’” (Warmus 63).
His leadership skills are seen again later in life, as he directs teams of artists in his major glass installations.
Float (left) and Seaform (right) from www.chihuly .com
Float (left) and Seaform (right) from www.chihuly .com
Part of Howard Gardner’s model of creativity examines the relationship between the creator and others. One can see by his influences that Dale Chihuly’s interactions with friends and other artists affected his creations.
Chihuly’s earliest influence was from his parents, George Chihuly and Viola Magnuson, whose Czech and Scandinavian backgrounds were rich in glassmaking cultures.
Chihuly discovered his interest in art while researching Vincent Van Gogh.
During his time in Seattle, Chihuly found a friend and mentor in Jack Lenor Larsen, the renowned textile designer.
Although the two never met, the monumental glass work of Louis Comfort Tiffany paved the way for Chihuly’s field of work.
Harvey Littleton, another glass artist, founded the studio glass movement, reviving art glass and opening the door for Chihuly to explore and expand the art form.
The large-scale architectural glass work of Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova inspired Chihuly.
The studio glass movement had begun, but “most of the world still thought of glass not as art, but as something functional that one gives a as wedding gift” (Warmus 20). It was mainly the domain of industrial designers. But in the hands of Chihuly, glass became a novel art form which Warmus defines as “a total focus on the pursuit of beauty, to the exclusion of all else—an intensely emotional and aesthetic quest, with no intellectual content or intent to create meaning” (9). Chihuly became a leading master in the field of glasswork.
After mastering the basic skills of the trade, Chihuly was able to develop from a master into a maker. He “approached glass a sculptural material and not merely as an ornamental art form” (Warmus 21). Through his experimenting with the material, he was able to develop new techniques and styles.
In a collaboration wit Kate Elliott, Chihuly developed a method of glass drawing—pulling glass strips like taffy then laying out the threads over a work. This technique is best illustrated in Chihuly’s Navajo Blanket Cylinders. Chihuly also developed a technique for creating “clouds” between layers of glass of contrasting colors.
Chihuly had an obsession with art of mammoth proportions. He expanded glass sculpture to sizes never before imagined. These large installations took teams of dozens of people to organize and carry out. The best examples of this are from his Chandelier collection, pictured below.
Clearly, Chihuly has a gift for the visual/spatial intelligence, but he rates well all across Gardner’s scale, demonstrating strength in many of his non-dominant intelligences as well.
Intrapersonal Intelligence: Alone one night, working in the Negev Desert in Israel, Chihuly “saw the light.” “He realized the value of having focus in his life” (Warmus 16). From that point, Chihuly began to focus on the future. He set his goals in life, and recognized the methods that would help him to achieve them. He sought out work areas near water, reminding him of his childhood, as a means of self-renewal.
Continuing in his quest for beauty and art, Chihuly became a very intense worker. “’I like to be completely involved in whatever I’m doing,’” he explained in Warmus’ book (31). He learned to drown out any distractions by playing loud music whenever intensely working in the studio. He got into a mindset that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as “flow” in his book of the same title. While in these “optimal experience” modes, Chihuly produces his most creative work.
Interpersonal Intelligence: When injuries from an automobile accident left Chihuly incapable of performing certain tasks required for his art, he did not have to completely give up his work in the field. Having worked with a team for years, he simply had to step back and take on the role of director. Individual work had long been favored in art glass “to prove that the piece was the inspiration and creation of a single person, rather than a factory item” (Form from Fire 9). But Chihuly recognized that he could accomplish much more magnificent, larger-scale projects working with a team. You can see a video of this group effort at http://www.chihuly.com/Video/screening.html.
Chihuly not only wanted to lead—he wanted to teach—which is why in 1971 he opened the Pilchuck Glass School. “Anyone who has seen the obsessive, self-confident, and highly observant Chihuly in his ‘teacher’ or ‘mentor’ mode knows that he is enormously demanding but also hugely supportive,” Wagner noted (30). He then summed up Chihuly’s interpersonal skills:
As an educator, he has gifted the world with the Pilchuck School, an unrivaled training ground for future glass artists. As a humanist, Chihuly has given generously of his time, energies, and money to the Hilltop Program for at-risk teenagers, as well as to Seniors Making Art and other similar programs. As a team leader, Chihuly has brought work to thousands of colleagues and employees throughout the world. As a friend and companion, Chihuly is a true mentor. (Warmus 112)
Naturalist Intelligence: Chihuly displayed a very evident connection with nature from his earliest childhood memories of the sea. As an artist, he found a way to involve his naturalist side in his creating process. He takes his element, creates from it, then replaces it into a natural environment. His pieces have withstood the heat of the deserts, the ice of Antarctica, the wrath of the sea. When they reach the museums, they arrive with a sense of triumph. It is their brazenness and vulgarity that make his art works so American in spirit (Warmus 10).
Logical Intelligence: The art of glassmaking is a very delicate science, involving both mathematical and logical skills. Form from Fire: Educator Resource Pack suggested the following experiment to simulate working with molten glass:
Using the end of a honey dipper, try to get a glob of honey from the honey jar into a bowl. If you hold the dipper at just the right angle and continually twirl it, you can move the honey as a round glob. Tilt the dipper up and down, allowing gravity to change the shape of the glob. The shape will distort and eventually begin to drip. The same is true with glass at the end of a blowpipe. (Form from Fire 8)
Imagine that experiment on the scale that Chihuly works in. It takes several people just to stabilize the molten glass. Chihuly learned to pay particular attention to the temperature of the glass and the angle of the blowpipe, and now has a natural sense of its flow. He also enjoyed experimenting with the effects of gravity, blowing and pouring molten glass from atop a ladder to create temporary art in the performance.
Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence: From his early exhibits, Chihuly has been fond of public speaking. He often traveled to talk about his work. In fact, the car accident that injured his shoulder and left him blind in one eye occurred on a lecture tour of the UK. On top of that, Chihuly has his own publishing company, Portland Press, and published several books on his own. Some of these can be found on his website at http://www.chihuly.com/biblio/writings.html.
Besides the colossal glass works that Chihuly has spread across the planet, how is he contributing to society? Although most known as Dale Chihuly, the artist, it is Dale Chihuly, the character, who has contributed the most to society. He is an unrestrainedly free spirit, seeking out energy, life, and peace of mind through a pursuit of beauty. It just happens that art is his way of sharing these sensations with the world.
Chihuly. 20 Nov. 2001 <www.chihuly.com>.
Form From Fire: Educator Resource Packet. Dayton: Dayton Art Institute, 2001.
Warmus, William. The Essential Dale Chihuly. New York: Wonderland Press, 2000.