Glassblowing is an arcane art.
The glassblower pits his eye and hand against the power of the molten glass, the transparent lava. One wrong twist of the wrist, one misjudged distance and the glassblower may be engulfed in a hot crystal fire. He works always at arm's length, wielding a long pipe in a sort of mad ballet. Again and again, he must face the heat of the glory hole, the 2000-degree furnace. Yet out of this marvelous bubbles, frozen in glass, rise in rainbow glimmerings.
Three years ago, Dale Chihuly stood at the top of his art. He was in his early 30s, the acknowledged master of the curious craft which he had helped revive. One dark night, he was riding with a friend on a winding English road. The car crashed. He woke up in a hospital, blinded in one eye, one foot severely injured. The doctor told him it took 250 stitches to reconstruct his face. She said he was the worst automobile accident victim to survive in her memory. He was lucky - the doctor on duty was an ophthalmological surgeon.
"I don't think I was really seriously depressed. I was determined not to let it slow me down," Chihuly says. "But it was six months or a year before I could really work again."
He tells the story as he checks over the glass "baskets and cylinders" that make up a major one-man show of his work at the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery through next June, curated and installed by Michael Monroe.
You don't realize how much you depend on two eyes working together. It's your depth perception that throws you. I couldn't pour water into a cup. Heck, I couldn't even walk properly. At first it was very disturbing. I had to train the brain-to-foot link all over again. Of course I couldn't play tennis or anything like that. On the other hand, I could manage darts and pool without any trouble. I can read all right, but I get tired easily. I went back to driving right away, but driving still gives me trouble.
"I started back in the glass studio slowly. Swinging that low pipe, 3 or 4 feet out from me. I couldn't see how far away impediments were to keep from banging the pipe on them. I still have to have somebody else thread the pipe into the glass for me.
"I was lucky because before the accident I'd always worked with a team of five students and helpers. So I was used to working with other people. For several years I collaborated with Jamie Carpenter and three or four others. In glass, there are lots of things you can't do by yourself anyway. It makes life richer to work with someone. It is the nature of the artist to be self-centered, so it helps to be taken out of yourself. I could make enough by selling my pieces - I get $1,000 for some of them - to quit teaching. But I think if you make too much you lose. Some extra income is great, but if you have to produce to live, then you make things because people want to buy them, not because you think they're right. I think it's very good to be both an artist and an educator."
After the accident, in 1975, Chihuly for the first time began to sell his small objects. Now he sells 20 or 30 a year of the 200 he makes. He has also some large architectural commissions, including a window wall for the new U.S. Customs Building at the Peace Arch in Blaine, Wash. Unlike most stained-glass artists, he makes his own glass sections. His work is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Corning glass museum as well as several other collections.
During the school year, Chihuly heads the glass department of the Rhode Island School of Design. During the summer (since 1971) students follow him to the west, to Pilchuck School, an international center for glass art, founded by Chihuly on 40 acres of a 4,000-acre tree farm. The site is about 50 miles north of Seattle, Wash. Students live in wooden "tents" which use tree stumps as center poles.
Chihuly often takes off from Rhode Island to teach in other places, such as the Institute of American Indian Art at Santa Fe. From the Indian blankets and pottery, I learned an imagery I used on a series of cylinders. Drawing on glass is a new technique, but people seemed to like it. The cylinders were decorated just on one side. They seemed to me almost two-dimensional, like paintings. I used the cylinder shape because it is a neutral form."
A good many of the cyliners are in the show, some tall, some squat, some dark, Some strong colors with wisps of design. The cylinders are just that - cylindrical shapes with bottoms in them. You could, perhaps, stick flowers or branches in them, but most people put them on a shelf where the light can shine through them. All they are designed to hold is your attention.
The cylinders ran their course, and in 1977 Chihuly was in the Tacoma Historical Society one day when he saw some old Indian baskets that seemed to be collapsing under the weight of their straw. He then began his series of what he calls baskets, though they look much more like soap bubbles whose orbit has begun to decay. They have strange indentations and curves which catch the light and send it off in strange directions.
They are not, strictly speaking, to be used except to delight the eye. Some don't even have flat bottoms; some you have to watch to keep them from rolling. The baskets are all of glass so thin you think any moment a high-pitched laugh will shatter them. Chihuly says they are strong, and he handles them so casually that the bystander tends to gasp. The colors are limpid, like the color of clouds. The designs are speckles and lines. Many of the baskets are in the Renwick exhibit, often displayed against the cylinders.
Chihuly is large and sturdy-looking, a man someone is sure to describe as "bear-like." Sometimes he wears a black patch over his bad eye. He thinks it improves his looks and it does improve his sight a bit, since there's a bit of distracting ghostly vision left in the edge of the eye. His hair is thick, curly and rather wild, his beard and mustache lush as becomes a man of the north woods.
He was born in Tacoma, Wash., and grew up there. He made model airplanes. He took woodworking in school and remodeled his mother's basement. Once he made Christmas wreaths for holiday money. And he worked for six months as a commercial fisherman in Alaska. His family was not artists - his father was a union organizer, his mother "a top-notch gardener." He took a bachelor degree in interior design from the University of Washington. Why? "Well, I'd enjoyed working on my family's house."
During these college years, he was interested in weaving, and worked out an original way to use glass fibers in wall hangings. "I found I had to fire my own glass so I could imbed wire into the glass to make it possible to weave it. The more I worked, the more the pieces became more glass than fiber.
In 1966, he worked as a designer with an architect, and then went to the University of Wisconsin to study glass blowing "because I'd learned you had to blow glass to control the forms." After earning his Master of Science degree at Wisconsin, studying with Harvey Littleton, a father of the studio art glass movement, he went on to the Rhode Island School of Design for a master's in art. He has taught there ever since, with time out for a Fulbright Fellowship to Murano, Italy, and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Louis F. Tiffany Foundation.
In 1962 there were no schools of glassblowing in the United States. It was fast becoming a lost art. Today there are 100 schools where glassblowing is taught. Some 5,000 people practice glassblowing with another 100,000 working in stained glass (including hobbyists), Chihuly says. In America, they work as artists and craftsmen, designing and doing the work themselves, as opposed to the traditional European separation of functions.
"We got the jump on Europe," Chihuly says. This winter he will go to Austria, the home of some of the most beautiful glass, and like carrying coals to Newcastle, he will work with the famous glass company of Lobmeyr in designing new shapes. He has also designed vases and other pieces for Corning in the United States and Benini in Italy. His students work with Steuben, Lenox china and others, taking art studio tastes into mass production.
All of the 44 pieces in the Renwick show were made this year. So today, three years after his accident, he can feel pretty good about the way his life is going. Sometimes creativity is like glass - it looks fragile but it's very strong.