In Chihuly’s Footsteps

By Louise Irvine

One of the main attractions at WMODA is our amazing collection of Dale Chihuly’s glass art so I was delighted to learn more about the artist on a recent visit to his home city of Tacoma, Washington for the 50th annual conference of the Glass Art Society (GAS). I traveled with local glass artist, Chelsea Rousso, and followed the Chihuly Walking Tour through Tacoma which includes public art locations as well as museums, hotels, and pubs.

Dale Chihuly was born in Tacoma, WA in 1941, the second son of Viola, a homemaker, and George Chihuly, a butcher. He grew up in the North End of the city on the scenic shores of the Puget Sound with Mount Rainier in the distance. Tragedy struck the family when Dale was 16 and his brother was killed in a navy flight training accident. His father died of a heart attack less than a year later and his mother had to work. She encouraged Chihuly to go to college, now the University of Puget Sound, and he transferred to the University of Washington where he studied architecture and interior design.

Chihuly and his mother were very close until she died at the age of 98 and she often joined him on his travels around Europe. He cites her talent for flower gardening as an inspiration for his Mille Fiore installations named after the Italian for 1000 flowers. You can see some spectacular displays at the Chihuly Garden and Glasshouse at the Seattle Center which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.

Chihuly graduated in 1965, the same year he discovered glass blowing, and he enrolled to study sculpture under Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin, the first glass program in the US. Chihuly continued his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design RISD and was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship which took him to Venice in 1968. He became the first American glassblower to work in the secretive Murano community.

In Murano, Chihuly learned about the Italian style of team glass blowing which he brought back with him to RISD where he taught for 15 years. He also discovered traditional Italian glass art forms including the Fazzoletto handkerchief vessels which inspired his Macchia and Seaform series and Art Deco designs that evolved into his Venetian and Ikebana series.

However, Chihuly was also strongly influenced by Native American textile designs from the Pacific Northwest for his Baskets and Cylinders series. There is a stunning display of these influential baskets and blankets at the Chihuly Glasshouse. In 1971, Chihuly co-founded the Pilchuck School in rural Washington to inspire creativity, experimentation and build community. The summer camp evolved into a campus which has drawn students and artists from around the world, including leading Italian maestros such as Pino Signoretto and Lino Tagliapietra.

In 1976, Chihuly was involved in a serious car accident while traveling in England which left him blind in his left eye. He began working with assistants to fabricate his work and realize his vision. Many of his gaffers have gone on to become famous glass artists, notably William Morris and Martin Blank. Chihuly’s mission to transform individuals through glass has resulted in community initiatives in his home city including co-founding Hilltop Artists as a creative center for youth at risk.

The Tacoma Museum has followed Chihuly’s career since 1968 when he held his first exhibition there and they have recently reimagined their Chihuly gallery which features many works donated by the artist in honor of his parents and brother. A reception at Tacoma Art Museum launched the 2022 GAS conference and introduced their spectacular Chihuly collection.

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass crosses the freeway entrance to Tacoma and provides an amazing 500 feet long pedestrian walkway between the city’s cultural corridor and the Museum of Glass on the waterfront. GAS delegates crossed the bridge several times a day for demonstrations and lectures and admired Chihuly’s Crystal Towers, Seaform ceiling, and Venetian wall that comprises over 100 forms including Ikebana, Venetians and Putti.  This 24/7 public art exhibit is a highlight of the Chihuly trail around Tacoma.

Another highlight is Union Station, which is now the Federal Court House. Chihuly contributed five spectacular installations when the building was restored in 1994. One of his early chandeliers hangs in the 90 feet high dome and the Monarch window features translucent Persian Spinners which catch the sunlight and create orange butterfly style reflections on the floor, hence the name. While Chihuly and his team were working at Union Station, they patronized the Swiss Restaurant and Pub and gifted eight monumental Venetians for the top of the bar.  Chihuly’s work can also be seen at the Murano hotel where many of the GAS conference delegates stayed.

Check out the Chihuly tour next time you are in the Pacific Northwest or download the Tacoma Museum app to learn more remotely.


The Chihuly Collection at WMODA

Chihuly walking tour