Dale Chihuly has been deemed a visionary for his indelible mark left on the art of glass-blowing over the course of his 40-plus-year career. Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, he is often credited with moving blown glass from craft into the domain of high fine art. Though he refuses to categorize himself as such, he is a visionary of light, form and color. His Seattle based studio known as the “hot shop,” is where you can view demonstrations of his visions being created.
Chihuly’s signature styles consist of baskets, orbs, sea forms, chandeliers and pointy icicle towers that range in size and color. You can view them in the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas or any one of the two hundred museums where his work resides. In 1976, while visiting in England, Chihuly was driving to visit a friend of his when he was struck by another car and went through the windshield. The glass from the windshield blinded him in his left eye and now, subsequently wears an eye patch covering that eye.
He has lost his depth perception and has no peripheral vision on his left side. Looking at the world through one eye automatically “flattens the scene,” said Margaret S. Livingstone, an expert on vision and the brain at Harvard Medical School. So how does a 3D glass-blowing sculpture artist continue to create such magnificent works? Instead of holding him back the accident changed the way Chihuly executed his art and shared it with others. After the accident, Chihuly no longer felt safe manipulating molten glass, so a gaffer (as glass-blowers are called), took over the hands-on work and Chihuly expanded his team into something of an army. “I’ve often wondered what the lack of depth perception, what it does for me, because it’s truly difficult to know where things are in space without two eyes. But somehow I think it’s probably made me see things differently, and probably made my work different than somebody else’s.” (Chihuly) Chihuly’s team consists of about 90 people.
Chihuly choreographs all of them, from glass-blowers, facilitators, shippers, packers, architects and engineers. All of his pieces start with his vision. His team is then responsible for accurately translating his vast vision into awe-inspiring, three-dimensional forms fit for museums, galleries, hotels and public gardens all around the world. He approaches each new project essentially the same way. “I do site visits and get a sense of the space and see how the art work will interact with the environment.” (Chihuly) “Each project whether it’s an exhibition or private commission begins with a vision, which I interpret into drawings and then work with my team to execute.” (Chihuly) The process is long, especially if the finished product is composed of many small parts, or intended for a large outdoor installation.
After Chihuly completes a drawing, each piece must be blown individually. This is when Chihuly often compares himself to a conductor or film director. “That’s what a coach does; he gets a group of people moving in the same direction with a common goal, but the vision is his.” (Chihuly) “I like working with a team because one, you can do so much more in the way of being influenced. The more creative they are, the more creative I am.” (Chihuly) “I like to work fast and quick; glass-blowing is a spontaneous medium.” (Chihuly) Through drawings and paintings, Chihuly continues to help his team see what he sees. He responds to what he sees and feels to develop forms and make variations on these forms. He is often heard directing his team, “make it bigger, make it taller, make it fatter.” (Chihuly) His sources of inspiration are hard for him to define, “I have never been good at explaining where my inspiration comes from. It comes from everywhere, from everything, from all things at all times.”
(Chihuly) When each piece is finished, they are then collected and assembled into one cohesive sculpture. His close knit team is crucial to his success and Chihuly acknowledges that. “I work with different people in different ways, and at the end of the day, I feel extremely lucky that I have an immense team.” (Chihuly) Nine years ago, the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, began its collaboration with Perkins School for the Blind, establishing a program where teenagers from the school visit the museum for “Feeling the Form” tours about every three weeks. Dale Chihuly volunteers his time and pieces for multiple demonstrations here as well as other select locations. Chihuly who himself is visually handicap describes his “Through the Looking Glass” blown glass sculpture and explains through his interpretation, how he and his massive team create each piece. Chihuly hands students pieces of the blown-glass sculptures, chandeliers, baskets and sea form objects, so they can understand the shape and feel their form.
Wildly vibrant color is Chihuly’s signature, but when he hands one student a piece he described it as cobalt blue glass, she reminded him, “I don’t know what color is.” He found another way to describe the deep hue. Another student with low vision was fascinated by a literal boatload of brightly colored glass. “I love the boat with all the colors in one place, mixed together, so you almost can’t tell the shapes apart,” he said. “Touching the sculptures gave me an image in my mind of what it looks like,” one student explained. “It lets me paint a picture in my brain.”
Chihuly goes on to describe the ridges some of the students feel on the glass pieces, “This one has been blown into an optical mold, so the optical mold makes ridges on the glass, it kind of makes the edge going around, undulating like scallops.” (Chihuly) There is a whole visual world that our students are not connected to, at least not in exactly the same way as people with sight,” says Perkins Secondary School art teacher Bruce Blakeslee. “Our fingers can show us details our eyes miss, and ‘Feeling the Form’ gives our students stories, content, and context that even sighted visitors might not get.” (Blakeslee) Students were eager to explore the Chihuly glass artworks through touch and explanation.
“Art is like a room with many different doors. Our students may not enter it through the same door as others do, but we’re all in the same room.” (Blakeslee) In conclusion, not only is Dale Chihuly a master at the art of blown-glass sculpture, but he has become a master at conveying his vision to his team and continues to produce beautiful and colorful forms of art. Through the loss of sight in his left eye, Chihuly has gained a new perspective on form and color. He enriches the lives of visually disabled individuals through his own unique perspective.