A version of this story appears in Wednesday’s Life section of The Oklahoman.
Dale Chihuly extols the strength in glass, the importance of good ideas in a special lecture at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Most people view glass as fragile, maybe even flimsy and certainly easily broken.
But where others see weakness, Dale Chihuly sees strength and, more importantly, the potential for beauty.
“There’s something about glass that’s very strong,” Chihuly said during a special invitation-only lecture last week at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
As a medium, glass has certainly had a mighty effect on Chihuly’s life — and vice versa.
“Dale Chihuly is credited with revolutionizing the studio glass movement,” and is renowned for his ambitious, architectural installations around the world in historic cities, museums and gardens,” said Elby Beal, chairman of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art’s board of trustees. “His work is included in more than 200 museum collections worldwide. He has been the recipient of many awards, including 11 honorary doctorates and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts.”
With his multimedia lecture, Chihuly, 70, took museum guests on what Beal called a “world tour” of his prolific career, from Venice to Jerusalem to his home state of Washington. The lecture was part of the museum’s ongoing commemoration of its 10th anniversary in its downtown home.
“His special exhibition for our opening 10 years ago … which represented the most comprehensive collection of his work. It was so magnificently received by all who visited the museum that (the late) Carolyn Hill, our beloved executive director, arranged for the purchase of what would become the strongest attraction of our permanent collection,” Beal said.
“It continues its awe-inspiring effect on all who enter the world of Dale Chihuly.”
A Tacoma, Wash., native, Chihuly became interested in glass while studying interior design at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“Along the way, I started doing some weaving and started weaving bits of glass into tapestries. I got a little oven so I could melt the glass and slump it and fuse it and make little sculptures,” Chihuly told the crowd filling the museum’s auditorium. “One night I melted some glass in that oven, that little kiln, and I rolled a pipe in there and gathered up some glass and I blew a bubble. And from that point on, I wanted to be a glass blower. I had never seen glass blowing before.”
He applied for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin; to afford it, he quit his design job and went to Alaska to work as a commercial fisherman. He continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he later established the glass program and taught for more than a decade, as well as at the Venini glass factory in Venice, Italy. In 1971, he co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School in his home state.
“Pilchuck Glass School has about 100 students every session, and there’s five sessions during the summer. And because of the Pilchuck and the interest in glass in Seattle, the Northwest now has more glass artists than anywhere in the world, more glass blowers than there are in Venice,” he said.
For many years, he has likened his role in the creative process to that of an orchestra’s conductor.
“I have 90 people that work for me, and you can do so much more. I mean, there are complications, and you give up a certain amount of control,” said Chihuly, who lost his eye in a 1976 car wreck and dislocated his shoulder in an accident a few years later, making glass blowing physically impractical for the artist.
“But I certainly wouldn’t go back to working alone. I like working with a team.”
Chihuly’s hourlong lecture focused on a series of video clips showcasing some of his landmark international glass projects, including 1995’s “Chihuly Over Venice,” 2000’s “Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem” and 1996’s massive “Icicle Creek Chandelier,” which is still standing at Sleeping Lady Conference Retreat in Leavenworth, Wash.
The audience not only gasped at images of the skyscraping “Crystal Mountain” in Israel and the exotic, prismatic chandeliers hanging in Italy but also at footage of Chihuly casually tossing elegant glass forms into a river.
“Well, I wasn’t so sure if they’d break or not when I started throwing them in the water. But they didn’t break,” said Chihuly, wearing a bright green shirt, black pants and blazer and black shoes speckled with colorful paint. “A lot of those pieces were very thin, but somehow it manages to take the shock.”
Although he has mounted many outdoor exhibits around the world, he said few of his pieces have fallen victim to the elements.
“Normally, they withstand it, but recently they didn’t,” he said wryly. “We’ve never shown a piece in a hailstorm (before), and we had a small amount of damage in Dallas where I have a show that’s up at the arboretum right now. I guess it was a pretty bad hailstorm, and it took a little toll on us.”
Emphasis on “little.” Wendy Rentz, public relations manager of the Dallas Arborteum, watched baseball-size hail rain down June 13, but only six of about 30 pieces in a single Chihuly sculpture, “Persian Pond,” were broken. Within 48 hours, staffers had swapped out the damaged pieces with replacements provided for just such an occasion.
“There’s thousands of pieces of glass here. For only six to have gotten broken … we were very surprised,” Rentz said. “The studio told us this glass is sturdy, it’s durable, and they were right. Dale knows the glass better than anybody. He is the glass master.”
Chihuly’s Dallas exhibit drew more than 100,000 visitors to the arboretum in May, and in Oklahoma City, his work continues to be the centerpiece of the museum of art. Since his wife, Leslie Jackson Chihuly, hails from Oklahoma, the artist has developed a special affection for the Sooner State.
The museum last year cleaned, redesigned and reinstalled its extensive Chihuly glass collection in honor of this year’s anniversary. Since New Year’s Eve, thousands have toured “Illuminations: Rediscovering the Art of Dale Chihuly.”
Visitors might be surprised that the same glass installations look so different in the redesigned exhibit, but Chihuly again takes a certain laidback attitude toward the assembling of his sculptures.
“Once we make it, if we take it down and take it somewhere else, it changes. It never goes together the same way twice,” Chihuly said.
“I remember doing two towers in the White House lobby for the millennium. We were putting one of the towers together when Hillary Clinton came by, and she said, ‘Do you number those pieces?’ And I said, ‘Do I look like the type of guy that would number them?’”
For Chihuly, the biggest concern when it comes to making art from glass isn’t preventing breakage or even placing the individual pieces into the most eye-catching sculptures.
“The hardest part is having a good idea.”
“Illuminations: Rediscovering the Art of Dale Chihuly.”
Where: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.
Information: 236-3100 or www.okcmoa.com.
“Chihuly at the Dallas Arboretum”
When: Through Nov. 5.
Where: Dallas Arboretum, 8525 Garland Road, Dallas.