I’ve encountered the work of Dale Chihuly’s glass sculptures at random times, even unsuspectingly. My first time was when seeing the comedian, Chelsea Handler, in Salt Lake City at the architecturally severe Abravanel Hall. It is a rather unwelcoming building from the outside, brown and gray tones, sharp edges, concrete. Upon entering, the layers begin to soften but the effect is held back by an imposing red glass sculpture jutting from the center of the main entrance. Sinuous arms of glass spidering up like tentacles or flames and curving around seemingly at random, climbing and reaching higher and higher. The sculpture to me views as harsh and tenuous but not something without beauty in its creation.
To understand the nature of the 30-foot high sculpture, titled The Olympic Tower, it helps to know the words of the artist himself. Chihuly, born in 1941 in Tacoma, Washington, describes his form of art, glassblowing, as "a very spontaneous, fast medium, and you have to respond very quickly." With this in mind you begin to imagine the speed at which the tendrils rose as he created The Olympic Tower. Unlike a marble sculpture, that is often physically taxing, slow, methodical, and intentional with each chisel and hammer contact, glass blown art has some erratic fire to it. Especially where Chihuly’s work is concerned.
What changes this picture is learning that Chihuly himself hasn’t blown glass since 1979, after a body surfing accident injured his shoulder. The empire that has surged since the accident is all directed, much like a conductor controlling the orchestra around them. Chihuly hires other artisans and dictates his visions, his creations, through them. This is not an entirely unusual thing to learn, as artists having been using others to create masterworks for centuries, but still always feels like a letdown to me. It means you have to admire a team, and not an individual, sometimes causing adoration to be faceless in feeling. Perhaps it irks me simply because teamwork is prized in corporate settings, not artistic ones, where the individual, the name, reigns supreme.
Chihuly can lay claim to great success and prestige in his career and is considered the most successful Northwest artist in history – as Seattle’s The Strangernoted in a 2006 feature, saying:
[T]he Queen of England owns his glass. So do Bill Clinton, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Bill Gates, and 225 museums in 40 states and 22 foreign countries. Galleries in 22 states and 6 foreign countries sell his work, and prices for his pieces at Foster/White Gallery in Pioneer Square run up to $100,000. His publishing company pumps out coffee-table books, postcards, prints, and a limited-edition glass series. This year he has nine solo exhibitions booked and three group shows. A personal filmmaker records his every presentable move for heavy rotation on PBS. He has been a hit since 1976, when contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler first acquired three Chihuly glass baskets for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Chihuly is a brand at this point, invigorating a style and a classic medium of art as his own master-work, whether forged from his own hands or not.
Every time I try to recall Dale Chihuly I am convinced his name is really David Cthulhu, but, alas, Google reminds me it is not. Perhaps because of his eye-patch (blind in his left eye from a car accident) and eclectic Willy Wonka like hair, I keep trying to other him further. I have seen his work elsewhere in the world; a piece is on view at the Portland Art Museum, titled Papé l'arbre, and is a more muted and smaller version of The Olympic Tower. Still with an intense fire-red color yet with flowering curves instead of spindles.
It was after starting work on this post that I learned the ceiling in The Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas was also a Chihuly. The monumental glass ceiling inside creates a feeling of upside-down multi-colored lily pads and flowers on water – a sense intensified when enjoying the bar in The Bellagio, like I was. I went there a few months after my 21st birthday – I was not staying in the hotel, too pricey for me – but through a series of Vegas-inspired steps and losing my friends somewhere along the night, I found myself passing Bellagio's grand fountain out front and then entering the clamor of the the casino and bar. Not far from Chihuly’s kaleidoscopic ceiling, I received, with a delicious hotel-themed champagne cocktail, my first real kiss.
I honestly don’t know if I was more attracted to how put-together he seemed or the charming conversation we had had before he unexpectedly kissed me. Yet the night had conspired to find me the fragile moment that I needed. Out from under the Chihuly. and then back at home to Idaho again, I started finding the conviction to come out to more of my friends and family.
I keep finding Dale Chihuly’s work in unsuspecting ways, and his art has played backdrop to some truly wonderful memories. I like to think of Mr. Vegas as just one rung in a very long ladder of finding the confidence in myself to pursue dating and romance. With a mix of bubbles and glass art, I had found a spark of possibility in myself.
Martha Stewart has a video interview with her own interpretation and sharing of Chihuly’s work here.