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Dale Chihuly: reflections in glass.

Looking Carefully

Glass, created from sand, soda and lime fused by heat, was made as early as 2500 B.C. in Mesopotamia. It also existed in a natural state as the volcanic substance obidian. The earliest hollow glass vessels, such as cups, bowls and bottles, appeared in Mesopotamia and Egypt in the late sixteenth and fifteenth centuries B.C. These were made by winding hot glass around a core of clay and dung. The glass was reheated, smoothed and decorated with threads of colored glass. Later the core was removed. This process was called core-forming. In the ninth century B.C. in Egypt and Mesopotamia, hot glass was cast in molds and called cast glass.

Glassblowing was discovered around 50 B.C. in the Roman Empire along the Syrian-Palestinian coast. This new method revolutionized the craft of glassmaking. Blowing air through a tube connected to a ball of glass created a glass bubble that could be formed into many shapes and sizes. Sometimes the glass bubbles were expanded into a mold that added form and decoration.

During the Middle Ages, a time of famine, plague and Viking invasions, glassmaking techniques were preserved in the monasteries. In the twelfth century, the building of cathedrals stimulated production of stained glass windows. Venice, a major trading center, was the first important glass center in Southern Europe.

Traditionally, glassmaking was considered a craft for the creation of functional objects. At the end of the 1960s glass began to be accepted as an art medium with the development of the studio-glass movement and exhibition of glass as sculpture in museums. Studio glass was defined in the early 1960s as glass objects created by individual artists outside the industrial setting. In 1962, Harvey Littleton developed a small furnace allowing artists to create hot glass or blown glass in the studio. The definition of studio glass evolved to include glass objects created by teams of artists in the studio or even in the factory. Dale Chihuly is one of the most creative and experimental artists and educators working in this medium today. From the beginning, he collaborated with other artists, challenging the tradition of Italian glassblowing which fostered secrecy. After he lost an eye in a car accident in 1976, he worked exclusively with a team. He believes the team concept to be one of his most important contributions to glassmaking.

Chihuly's Violet Persian Set with Yellow Lip Wraps is a dramatic sculpture with multipe parts and vibrand colors. Persian connotes the ancient land of luxurious treasure and culture, a crossroads of the East and West. It also suggests the precarious political situation in Iran today. Chihuly's sculpture looks like two large purple shells surrounding a bowl and smaller forms. It reminds the viewer not only of sea forms, but of flowers. Chihuly, grew up on the Pacific West Coast and worked as a fisherman to put himself through graduate school. He was exposed to sea forms all his life. He also loves flowers and was influenced by his mother's colorful garden. The patterns and slumped shapes of some of the forms suggest Indian baskets. Chihuly saw stacks of sagging Indian baskets in a natural history museum in Washington. The radiating striations imbedded in the glass suggest sunsets Chihuly saw over the Pacific.

All the forms in Violet Persian Set with Yellow Lip Wraps are united by purple and the yellow rim on each piece, which becomes an undulating line. This line repeats the patterns of the translucent yellow striations within the purple glass. The imbedded patterns appear mysterious in their ambiguity between color and light. They offer a key to whole -- many and one at the same time. The grouping of forms suggests a team of individuals with one or two dominant voices, or perhaps a family of individuals. Within the framework of undulating form and color, the individual parts make distinct statements. The forms suggest duality, change and the precariousness of life. Chihuly lost his father and brother when he was in high school. In 1976, he lost an eye in a car accident. He was well aware of the life's uncertainties.

Violet Persian Set with Yellow Lip Wraps recalls a world of sensuous excitement. The artist's marriage to playwright Sylvia Peto the year after he started the Persian series, may have influenced his work. The open forms, sometimes spilling out smaller containers, are unmistakably female. The warm colors and undulating shapes and patterns contribute to this idea. This sculpture celebrates life.


Chihuly studied glassblowing with Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the first hot-glass program in any university in the country. Littleton provided the technical knowledge and the creative support helpful for launching Chihuly in this new medium. Littleton, whose father had invented Pyrex cookware for the Corning Glass Company, had a very different approach from Chihuly. Although he was always fascinated by glass, he studied physics before turning to ceramics and industrial design and eventually glass. He focused on the solid, enduring qualities of glass, and was especially interested in the technical side of production. Littleton developed the small furnace, enabling hot glass to be produced in a studio. His Mobile Arc (Rocker) is a representative work. This glass sculpture in two sections looks like an arc with a piece cut off the end. It also can be exhibited so that it rocks on the curve or the arc. Looking through the truncated end of the sculpture, the viewer sees colored glass like stripes floating in a clear layer of glass. Orange striations appear as fine threads of glass. The impression of the pice is of solidity and strenth. If exhibited in a rocking position, it alludes to the ups and downs of life, rather than the precariousness suggested by Chihuly's work. These contrasting forms reflect different attitudes toward life -- Littleton's relatively stable interpretation, as opposed to Chihuly's unpreditable view. The message is in the glass.

Key Concepts

* Glass objects can be art as well as craft.

* Forms convey meaning and often reflect experience in an artist's life.

* Technological changes influenced the forms produced in glass.

* A team can produce a work of art.


Born in Tacoma, Washington in 1941, Chihuly spent his boyhood at the Pacific seashore with his family where he became sensitive to the ecology of the area and admired the sunsets of the Tacoma Bay area. In 1960, he studied interior design and architecture at the University of Washington but left school in 1961 to sail for Europe and the Middle East. He returned to the University of Washington in 1962 where he studied weaving and displayed a tapestry made of glass squares. In 1965 he received a B.F.A. from the University of Washington.

Working for designer John Graham at an architectural firm in Seattle, Chihuly continued to experiment in glass. In 1966, he studied glassblowing with Harvey Littleton at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and received an M.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin, Madison in 1967, the same year of his first solo exhibition.

Nineteen sixty-eight was an important year for Dale Chihuly. Not only did he receive an M.F.A. from the Rhode Island School of Design, but he was awarded a Tiffany Grant and a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Italy, making him the first American glassblower to study at Vernini glass factory in Murano, Italy. Chihuly came back to the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969, where he headed the glass department for the next eleven years.

Chihuly played a prominent role in groundbreaking exhibitions in the history of glassmaking as an art. His work was included in Objects USA, an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, symbolizing the changed status of glass from craft to sculpture in 1969; American Glass Now in 1972 at the Toledo Museum of Art, famous for its glass collection, and the site of an initial conference directed by Harvey Littleton in 1962 which launched the studio glass movement, and New Glass in 1979, an international glass exhibition at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York, symbolizing the acceptance of glass as a contemporary at material.

In 1971 Chihuly co-founded the renowned Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, near Seattle, with art patrons John Haubert and Ann Gould Haubert. In 1976, he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue his work in glass. Since then, he has continued to produce innovative work which has been exhibited the world over.

Chihuly currently resides in the Seattle area with his wife, playwright Sylvia Peto, whom he married in 1987.

Suggested Activities

Obviously, glassblowing and forming experiences are unlikely to be part of typical elementary and secondary art classrooms. While not directly connected to the craft of working in molten glass, there are some related experiences that are worthy of curricular consideration.

* Bring several glass objects to class. This may include vases, bottles and unusual examples of drinking glasses. Discuss their functions, describe and analyze their forms, note if glass is transparent, opaque, etched, colored. Elicit responses as to the art/craft aspect of the object.

* Organize the objects discussed above into a still life, emphasizing relationships between the various forms. Watercolors, pastels or crayons could be used to paint or draw the composition.

Model abstract forms in clay. This could be a single form, or a clustering of related forms by individual students or by small groups of students. Discuss the glass-like quality of ceramic glazes and select and apply glazes that will enhance the clay forms.

* For an interesting variation of the above, refer to the article, Crystal Fantasy Sculptures, in the November, 1991 issue of School Arts.

* Small pieces of window glass or colored glass may be given new form through the slumping process if a kiln is available. Prepare a simple mold from firebrick or formed bisque ware. Place the glass over the mold and heat it in the kiln until the glass slumps into the molded form. Anneal the glass by slowing the cooling process. Try to maintain a temperature between 900[degrees] and 1,000[degrees]. Fire for approximately one hour.


Art in Glass: A Guide to the Glass Collection. Toledo, OH: The Toledo Museum of Art, 1969.

Bourdon, David. "Chihuly: Climbing the Wall." Art in America. 78.6 (1990): 164-166, 203.

Frantz, Suzanne K. The 1960s: Studio Glassblowing as a Technique for Artists. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1987.

Hayes, Jeffrey R. Contemporary Studio Glass from the Collection of Janet and Marvin Fishman. Milwaukee, WI: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 1990.

Hunter-Stiebel, Penelope. "Contemporary Art Glass: An Old Medium Gets a New Look." Art News. 80.6 (1981): 130-133.

Kampfer, Fritz and Klaus G. Beyer. Glass: A World History. Trans. and revised Dr. Edmund Launert. Greenwich, NY: New York Graphic Society, 1966.

Spillman, Jane Shadel and Susanne K. Frantz. Masterpieces of American Glass. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Zerwick, Chloe. A Short History of Glass. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the Corning Museum of Glass, 1990.
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Author:Basquin, Kit
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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