Dale Chihuly: artist, educator, public art advocate

Glass installation by Dale Chihuly, as featured in an extensive exhibition of his work at Kew Gardens, London, in 2005. Photo by Patche99z

Unconventional, bold, surprising, creatively ambitious, collaborative, progressive and a catalyst and ambassador for artistic opportunity and appreciation. These are some of the words and phrases used to describe Dale Chihuly. Like his complex art glass installations that have mesmerized millions around the world, Chihuly is far more than one-dimensional. Some might say he’s the quintessential example of life imitating art.

Dale Patrick Chihuly came from a middle-class background and grew up in Washington state. His father was a butcher and union organizer. His mother was a homemaker and ardent gardener. By the time Chihuly was 17, both his father and his only sibling, a brother, had died, forcing his mother to work outside the home. Between 1959 and 1965, Chihuly was primarily a college student. He also traveled and lived abroad (Italy and the Middle East), studying art in its various forms. Upon returning to the United States and graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in interior design, he joined the Seattle architecture firm John Graham & Co. It was at this time, in the mid-1960s, that he began to explore glassmaking in the basement of his home.

1992 photo portrait of artist Dale Chihuly at Pilchuck Glass School near Stanwood, Washington. Photo by Bryan Ohno, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license

In 1966, he departed Seattle for Madison, Wisconsin, where he completed graduate studies in glassblowing at the University of Wisconsin. It was the first glass program of its kind. Chihuly’s academic accomplishments did not end with earning his masters in sculpture, and in fact, his next educational adventure would inspire his role as an educator; something he continues to do, albeit less formally, today. He embarked on studies at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), where his artistic exploration involved the use of neon and argon, and the continued expansion of his experimentation with blown glass.

Fun Fact: While on a fellowship in 1968, Dale Chihuly worked at the Venini glass factory in Murano, Italy. He was the first American glassblower invited to do so.

His academic career as instructor, adviser and department chair included more than a decade spent at RISD, co-founding the Pilchuck Glass School near Stanwood, Washington; and participating in various artist-in-residency programs.

“I didn’t care if they wanted to be artists, designers or craftsmen. It didn’t make any difference to me, as long as it was the most important thing in their lives.” – Dale Chihuly

Flame of Liberty, Dale Chihuly, 2000, a 20-foot glass sculpture, permanently on display at the National Liberty Museum, Philadelphia. Image courtesy of Trip Advisor.

His life’s work, in part, appears to be a symbiotic pairing of creating art while also empowering and equipping others to create and appreciate various forms of art. For more than a half-century, Chihuly has transformed vision, sentiment and examples of symbolism through the art, be it in glass, or other media. His work has appeared in exhibitions in cities, gardens and museums across the country and around the world. Institutions and agencies, including the National Liberty Museum, Philadelphia, are home to permanent Chihuly installations. For example, the museum houses the 20-foot Flame of Liberty sculpture, which was installed in 2000.

“We are very fortunate to have such an important sculpture at the center of our museum,” said Meegan Coll, Glass Art Director, National Liberty Museum. “Dale Chihuly is a master in his field, not only in technique but also in both scale and interaction with light and space.”

Coll continued, “The Flame of Liberty inspires dialogue and emotional response from our visitors, which is exactly what Dale and the museum’s founder, Irvin Borowsky, hoped for when they planned the installation. We use the Flame to converse with visitors about the fragility of freedom and the role we each play in safeguarding it.”

Deepest Orange Basket set with black lip wraps, blown glass, Dale Chihuly, 8.5 x 20 in., signed, 1994. Sold for $23,000 during The National Liberty Museum’s 14th annual Glass Now Auction, held Sept. 28, 2013. National Liberty Museum and LiveAuctioneers image.

Fun Fact: Chihuly is also a collector, reportedly favoring Native American baskets, trade blankets, bottle openers, old cameras, radios, pocket knives, and accordions. The book Chihuly: An Artist Collects written by Bruce Helander and published in 2017 (Abrams) explores the personal collections of Chihuly and other artists.

“When I start to collect something, I often don’t start with a single object. Sometimes I start with ten or twenty or a hundred. It is like creating my own little museum.” – Dale Chihuly

Art that prompts discussion and action is a common thread in the tapestry of the work of this 76-year-old artist. Throughout much of his career, Chihuly has been a champion of consistent access to art and opportunities to explore means of artistic expression, for all people. It’s evident in such installations as Chihuly Over Venice, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem and other exhibitions worldwide. It’s also part of the mission of the foundation established by Chihuly and his wife, Leslie. The foundation helps to fund and foster art education and appreciation for people from all walks of life, with particular effort taken to ensure youth, the elderly, veterans, and people with varying abilities are presented with these opportunities, according to information from www.chihuly.com.

Massive blue and red Persian blown glass with red lip wrap, Dale Chihuly, Seattle, Washington, 1989, signed and dated, 19 x 33 x 18 in. One of 13 examples of Chihuly’s work included in the Jan. 21, 2018 auction to be conducted by Rago Arts. (est. $4,000-$6,000). Rago Arts and LiveAuctioneers image.

It’s this commitment to art through appreciation, preservation and creation that inspires many, noted Coll, who says the inclusion of drawings by Chihuly and an installation from his Persian Series are also popular draws at the museum. On occasion over the years, the Museum has presented items at auction, including a handful of pieces by Chihuly. This provides the opportunity for another to serve as guardian of Chihuly’s transformative artistry.

Chihuly pushes the limits of artistic expression; his inspiration is boundless,” Coll said. “I think we learn from Chihuly that our potential is greater than we imagine and that everyone can push themselves to achieve more than they expected. Chihuly shows other artists that every element in their work, even the smallest details, adds enormously to the overall result.”

The same can be said for the person who seeks to acquire examples of Chihuly art. While his work can be enormous in scale and imagination, it can also be smaller in scale and still be interpreted as an explosion of color, light and form.

“I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in some way that they’ve never experienced.” – Dale Chihuly

Cobalt chandelier, 2003, hand-blown glass with steel armature, Dale Chihuly, illuminated internally (by a neon-lighted core) as well as externally, 94 x 72 x 72 in. Sold for $130,000 on May 22, 2013. Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers image.

Whether palatial installations or artworks small enough to hold in the palm of a hand, the distinctiveness, vibrancy and limitless creativity of Dale Chihuly’s artistry remains accessible to the people – just as the artist planned them to be.