Dale Chihuly's glass artistry shatters the mold

The glass sculptures of American designer Dale Chihuly evokes a "wow" factor.

The Chihuly Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot pedestrian walkway with two 35-foot crystal towers and two installations of his glass works worth $15 million, is currently under construction in his native Tacoma, Wash. The concrete bridge leads to the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, also under construction.

Chihuly delights in blowing imaginations as well as glass. Currently, his art is represented in more than 190 museums around the world, including the Victoria & Albert in London, which recently hosted a Chihuly retrospective. Hanging in the foyer of the sedate British museum is a 27-foot chandelier, an imaginative Chihuly design admired by Queen Elizabeth II at the opening.

Chihuly looks like an artist. Standing in the doorway of the Boathouse, his waterfront home in Seattle and the site of one of his three workshops, he leaves no doubt that a visitor has found the right address.

He is wearing chartreuse pants, a burnt-orange shirt, and paint-spattered "Picasso" shoes.

It seems that when he's not overseeing the making of an exotic glass sculpture, he's busy painting.

"I get up at 4 a.m. and start to work," he says. "My canvas covers a section of a deck, which overlooks the water. My shoes seem to soak up every spill and splash. I paint with a squirt gun, a mop, anything but a brush. Consequently, my shoes become more colorful every day."

Painting is Chihuly's way to relax after a day designing with glass. The black patch over one eye (because of a workshop accident) hasn't slowed his inspiration or imagination.

Take his swimming pool, for instance. It's indoors ("remember, this is Seattle," he explains), and the bottom has glass-blown sea shapes, all securely covered by a smooth see-through layer. The same idea is repeated in the guest bath.

We settle in his Indian room, so-called because it houses his collection of Native American blankets, baskets, and bowls. On adjoining walls there are interpretations of the Indian themes in his glass sculptures.

"I was never a good student," he concedes. "If it hadn't been for my mother, I'd probably been a bum. At 94, she is still inspiring me, still lives in Tacoma, [Wash.], in the house where I grew up."

His father, a union organizer, died when Chihuly was entering high school. The same year, his older brother was killed in a Navy training accident at Pensacola, (Fla.).

"Every evening after dinner, my mom and I would walk up the hill behind our house and watch the sun dip into the Sound. She was the one who kept pushing and asking, 'Will you please go to college?' I enrolled at the University of Puget Sound" in Tacoma.

When Chihuly remodeled his mom's basement into a studio, she thought he might have talent as an interior designer, so he transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle. It was there that he became fascinated by glass-blowing. But after a couple of years, he quit and "bummed around Europe."

"With no money, I wound up at a kibbutz in Israel with a group of kids - the oldest person was 30," he recalls. "There we were, on border patrol in the Negev Desert. I lunched with a machine gun in my lap and lived in a tin hut."

He became aware of the beauty of the desert, of sunsets, of shades and shadows.

"It turned out to be a life-changing experience," he says.

Chihuly returned to the United States infused with the desire to work with glass - and to complete his education. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1965 and enrolled in Harvey Littleton's seminal glass program at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In 1968, he was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to work at the Venini glass factory in Venice, Italy.

"It was [t]here I learned about 'team approach,' " he says. "I used it years later, in '95, when I mounted a group of avant-garde sculptures over the canals and piazze of Venice, as part of that city's first glass biennial. We collaborated with factories in Finland, Ireland, and Mexico."

Chihuly studied, taught, and started a glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence. In 1971, he co-founded Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Wash.

In 1999, he went back to Israel as a world-class artist.

"At the Citadel, the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem, we did a mammoth exhibition. One was a crystal mountain, 44-feet high, weighing 100,000 pounds with 75,000 pounds of steel for the shape and 25,000 pounds of crystals and poly-vitro. It was the largest sculpture I've made yet."

More than a million visitors were "wowed" by his dazzling displays in the tower's gardens, hills, and on the walls. Smaller glass designs were inside the museum.

"I was overwhelmed by the reaction. After three months, I decided to go back to Jerusalem for a special project. I had 64 tons of ice brought from Alaska. Each block weighed 5,000 pounds; it was so pure you could read a newspaper through it," he says.

"We built an ice wall outside of the Citadel. As it melted, it was to symbolize, hopefully, the melting of differences. It lasted three days, and the kids loved it."

Chihuly's 3-year-old son, Jackson, is well traveled; he has made 140 flights.

"When we are apart," Chihuly admits, "I keep the fax busy. I want him to understand what life is like for other kids not as fortunate as he. I take a word like 'generosity' and explain what that means and how he can use it."

Chihuly grew misty as he recounted being with Jackson when someone offered him candy.

The tot asked for two pieces, and immediately turned to the nearest person and asked, "Would you like one?"

In his hometown of Tacoma, Chihuly is building a 500-foot-long pedestrian bridge that begins at the old Union Station (now a federal building) along the Thea Foss Waterway and goes over the freeway to the top of the Museum of Glass, the first museum dedicated to contemporary studio-glass art. It is slated to open July 3, 2002. City fathers claim their city is now the glass-blowing capital of the world, surpassing Italy.

Watching the sunset from his deck, Chihuly says, almost to himself, "Glass inspires me. As I work, it becomes magical. [It is] the only material you can blow human breath down. Sun and light come through it. Glass can't be carbon-dated, so you can't tell how old it is, how hard it is - there are so many mysterious things about it. It has its own category. It's not a solid, and it's not a liquid. They don't even know quite what it is, except it's the cheapest material in the world."

In the hands of Dale Chihuly, it's also one of the most beautiful and exciting.

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