Dale Chihuly's "Glass House" shines in Seattle

Tue May 22, 2012 9:08am EDT

1 of 5. The Seattle Sun by artist Dale Chihuly is on display at the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibit in Seattle, Washington, May 16, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Sorbo

(Reuters) - Pioneering glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose work has been shown in over 200 museums worldwide, will be honored in his home city Seattle when "Chihuly Garden and Glass" opens on Monday, offering the most comprehensive collection of his work ever.

Spanning one and a half acres in the shadow of the Space Needle, the show includes an exhibition hall, a garden and a "Glass House" structure by Chihuly, inspired by his two favorite buildings, Paris' Sainte-Chapelle and London's Crystal Palace.

"It's really the most important project I've ever done," Chihuly told Reuters about the exhibition he designed.

Inside "Glass House," visitors encounter a suspended sculpture 100-feet long, hovering overhead like an alien serpent. Composed of 1340 individual plates of red, orange, amber and yellow, it is one of Chihuly's largest installations.

"You look through it and you see the Space Needle behind it," he smiled. "Sunset, sunrise - and it's all in yellow, oranges and red."

In the garden just outside "Glass House" stands "Seattle Sun," a yellow and orange orb of countless curls and baubles spanning 16 ft. in diameter.

An exhibition hall houses eight galleries outlining the various phases of Chihuly's career, including his landmark work, "Glass Forest," as well as a "Sealife" room that gives the artist pause to remember how it was created in his mind.

"One piece I like a lot is the boat piece," said Chihuly about a rowboat in the room that is filled with ornaments of various shapes and colors. The idea for the piece came to him on a trip to Finland when he stood on a bridge and dropped glass baubles into a river to see if they would break.

"There were some teenagers there with their rowboats and I asked them if they'd go down river and pick ‘em up," he recalled. "When they came back with their boats full of glass, that's when the idea came to me about exhibiting a boat full of glass. In fact, of the two boats in the exhibition, one of them is from Finland."

Also in the hall is a gallery dedicated to chandeliers including sculptures derived from his landmark 1996 installation, "Chihuly Over Venice," composed of 14 pieces suspended in piazzas and intersections throughout the city.

The exhibition's executive director, Michelle, Bufano sand "Chihuly over Venice" marks a turning point for Chihuly's work when he turned more toward more architecture, more engineering and "finding ways to make his vision come true."

LEADING TEAMS, THINKING BIG

Venice is where Chihuly began his career, studying there on a Fulbright Scholarship in 1968. Within the ancient Italian city's glass-blowing industry, he learned the Venetian tradition of teamwork, In the U.S., glass blowers more often worked alone.

Leading a team enabled Chihuly to think big, expanding the medium in both definition and scale. And when injured in the middle of his career, it gave him tools he needed to continue realizing his vision and creating masterful work even if he wasn't blowing the glass himself.

"He was able to bring so many artists together to stir the medium and to push it," said Bufano. "He pioneered all of that, and you get a sense of that in the exhibition."

Co-founder of the Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State, Chihuly spearheaded the development of glass as a fine art. He has been honored with two fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and 10 honorary doctorates.

In 1976, the artist was thrown through a car's windshield in an auto accident, costing him the use of his left eye.

"I recuperated after a couple of months," he recalled. "I went ahead and started blowing glass again but it never felt very good, no peripheral vision and no depth perception."

Then, a shoulder injury three years later left him unable to hold a glass pipe.

"Then I really couldn't blow glass," he said. "The young glass blower that was working with me at the time, I said, ‘Boy, you're going to have to take over here for awhile.' And he did and I never went back to it after that."

Since that time, Chihuly relies primarily on drawings to show his team what to do. At age 70, he still keeps a busy schedule preparing a show for the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in October and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2013.

But for now, he is looking forward to the opening of "Chihuly Garden and Glass."

"It makes me very proud to make my own retrospective," he beamed. "Showing work inside and outside, work in a glass house - it's really a perfect combination of different parts of my career."

(Reporting By Jordan Riefe; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)