Chihuly, Dale (b. 1941), Visual Artist

  • By David F. Martin
  • Posted 5/06/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7754
Dale Chihuly is unquestionably the most famous living visual artist in the Northwest. His influence is international in scope and his reputation extends into several important areas, those of artist, teacher, designer, and co-founder of one of the world’s most eminent glass schools, Pilchuck, located 50 miles north of Seattle in Stanwood (Snohomish County). Chihuly's work, like that other important sculptors such as England’s Henry Moore (1898-1986) and America’s David Smith (1906-1965), is immediately recognizable, even to those not schooled in the fine arts. Despite his legions of imitators, his work retains the signature quality and excitement that has manifested in the numerous series and installations of his illustrious career. For his "indelible contributions to the local community and world at large through his art," the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors named Dale Chihuly First Citizen of 2006.

Early Years

Born in Tacoma, Washington, in 1941, Dale Chihuly is the son of George Chihuly, a butcher and union organizer, and Viola Magnuson Chihuly. Dale was the younger of two children; his older brother, George, was killed in a Navy aviation training accident in 1957. This was followed by the death of his father nine months later.

With support and guidance from his mother, he attended the University of Puget Sound and the University of Washington, where he studied architecture and interior design. He traveled to Europe and the Middle East in 1962 and returned the following year for further studies at the University of Washington.

In 1965, he received a B.A. in Interior Design from the University of Washington and met textile artist and fellow UW graduate Jack Lenor Larsen (b. 1927), who along with Chihuly and Mark Tobey (1890-1976) would eventually become three of the four twentieth-century American artists to have solo exhibitions at the Louvre Museum in Paris, a testament to the exceptional talent originating at the University of Washington and Washington state.

A Tradition of Glass

That same year (1965), Chihuly began his initial rudimentary work in glass blowing. The following year, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Wisconsin, where he studied under the highly influential glass artist Harvey Littleton (b. 1922), founder of the first glass program at an American University. In 1967, after receiving an M.S. in Sculpture from the University of Wisconsin, he attended the Rhode Island School of Design (R.I.S.D.), earning a M.F.A. in Sculpture and was awarded a Tiffany Foundation grant as well as a Fullbright Fellowship that allowed for travel to Europe.

It is ironic that Chihuly should receive a Tiffany Foundation grant, for within the next 30 years, his efforts in glass would revive and popularize the medium much in the same way that Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) and John La Farge (1835-1910) had done in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

While in Italy in 1968, he became the first American glassblower to work in the prestigious Venini studio on the island of Murano. Paolo Venini (Italian 1895-1959) was a major force in glass blowing in the mid-twentieth century. His “Fazzoletto” (handkerchief) vessels are the obvious antecedents of Chihuly’s Seaform and Macchia series. Italian culture has had a profound influence on Chihuly’s work. In the nineteenth century, the school of Italian Impressionists, the Macchiaoli, explored the “spots of color” in their paintings and the glass artists continued the centuries-old methods of working with multi-dimensional and multi-colored pieces of glass within their creations. Italian glass masters such as Italo Scanga (1932-2001) and Lino Tagliapietra (b. 1934) have been major forces within Chihuly’s creative world.

After further travels in Europe, Chihuly returned to the United States and established the Glass Department at his Alma Mater, the R.I.S.D., where he began a 15-year teaching career.

Pilchuck Glass School

In 1971, he, along with some fellow artists and the patrons John and Anne Gould Hauberg, established the Pilchuck Glass School, now the leading institution of its kind, that draws students and important artists-in-residence from around the world.

At Pilchuck and R.I.S.D., he created the initial environmental works, 20,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon as well as Glass Forest I and Glass Forest II  (with artist James Carpenter) that would prefigure later works for which he would gain international fame.

From this point, he began working with ideas expressed through a series of individual elements or in groupings or components.

Native American Influence

In 1975, he created the successful series based on Native American textile designs, which he named Navajo Blanket Cylinders.  These influences would manifest again a few years later in his series of forms based on Northwest Coast Indian baskets, both as singular works or stacked within each other, like their fiber counterparts.

It is interesting to note how Native-American culture has produced a profound effect on the most noted of Washington State’s artists from the photographs of Edward S. Curtis  (1868-1952), through the painter Mark Tobey’s abstractions and Dale Chihuly’s revolutionary thematic adaptations in glass. These design elements would occupy his work over the following 10 years.

Tragedy and Triumph

The year 1976 marked a turning point in his career as he dealt with tragedy and triumph in his personal and professional life. While traveling in England, he was involved in a serious automobile accident that caused numerous injuries including the loss of sight in his left eye. His iconic eye patch would become part of his personal identity and add to his public mystique. He resumed his association with R.I.S.D., now as Chair of the Sculpture Department. Professionally, his spirits were buoyed when the prestigious Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City acquired three of his works from the Navajo Blanket series.

These acquisition’s were spearheaded by the museum’s highly influential curator, Henry Geldzahler (1935-1994) who would become an important friend and supporter, opening doors to the major institutions and to far-sighted collectors. Geldzahler recommended Chihuly for the high-profile installation at the Rainbow Room of New York’s Rockefeller Center, which he completed in 1988.

Over the next few years, Chihuly would begin working with assistants such as Benjamin Moore and particularly William Morris (b. 1957), who would provide their expertise in the physical fabrication of the artist’s designs due to the limitations imposed by his impaired health and eyesight. Now with his career securely on path, he was given a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., in 1978. This would mark the beginning of numerous successful exhibitions in important institutions that won acclaim from both the critics and the public who responded enthusiastically to his luminous creations.

In 1986, following his triumphant exhibition “Objets de Verre” at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, Palace du Louvre, he received two Honorary Doctorate degrees from both R.I.S.D. and the University of Puget Sound in his hometown of Tacoma. He would later receive additional academic recognition including the major honor of Alumnus Summa Laude Dignatus from the Alumni Association of the University of Washington in 1993, its highest award.

Seaforms and Spots

To understand Chihuly’s work, it is helpful to examine the series as they progressed. Some of the most noteworthy  would include the Seaforms, which he began in 1980. These works use his earlier basket series as a starting point and evolve into some of the most extraordinarily delicate forms ever created in the medium. The organically inspired shapes are drawn from the ocean’s plant and sea life and they utilize scalloped edges, and ribbed and undulating curves suggesting slow, underwater movement. Their colors range from the misty opalescence found in coastal atmospheres to the vivid and vibrant primary colors that occur in the inhabitants of many of the region’s tide pools and shores.

In a variation on these forms, he created the Macchia series, derived from the Italian word for spots. These works generally have a vibrant interior of solid color while the exterior is allowed free rein in the use of a dazzling array of dappled hues allowing for a translucent, yet painterly effect. These works are generally his most recognizable forms, those for which he would become best known.

The Persian series followed and they are sometimes characterized by a larger scale, using forms that rely on floral shapes (some recalling Tiffany) and are usually grouped in settings that are almost incongruous to their environment.

International Influences

After his 1987 marriage to Sylvia Peto (they divorced in 1991),  his honeymoon in Venice brought exposure to the whimsical Venetian glass creations made between the two World Wars. With assistance from his friend Lino Tagliapietra, he embarked on his Venetian series, fabricating objects inspired by Art Deco designs. These simple forms gradually gave way to objects and vessels adorned with an excessive embellishment that are almost manic in movement, form, and color. These display very little, if any restraint and are among the most challenging objects of his oeuvre.

The Ikebana series followed with the emphasis drawn from Japan’s traditional art of floral arrangement. These are a somewhat subdued variation on the Venetian series.

In stark contrast, he began the Floats series in 1991 after visiting Niijima, Japan, and seeing the vibrant floats of their fishing nets and vessels. For these, he pushes the scale of the pieces, making them into imposing, yet sedate spherical globes that stand individually or in massed groups. They have a mysterious quality that perhaps is elevated by their larger size, sometimes reaching four or more feet in diameter, an uncommon relationship to human scale.

During the time of the Float creations, he began working on his next series of externally lighted Chandeliers. Unlike their traditional utilitarian counterparts, no matter how decorative, Chihuly’s chandelier sculptures rely on a grouping of glass components massed together into a tornado-like frenzy of shapes, colors, and converging forms. They diametrically oppose tradition by sometimes standing freeform from a floor or by floating in a commanding natural or man-made space upheld by a supporting armature.

When the new Seattle Art Museum opened in 1992, the exhibition Dale Chihuly: Installations 1964-1992 drew enormous crowds before traveling to other cities, where it was equally successful.

A World-Class Artist

With his reputation now well established, Chihuly planned a major international installation that would be known as Chihuly Over Venice. This project brought together numerous assistants to produce component pieces in several major international glassblowing centers including Murano in Italy; Waterford in Ireland; Monterrey in Mexico; Nuutajarvi in Finland, and of course, Seattle. Nearly 12,000 pieces of glass were shipped to Venice to be assembled into 14 Chandeliers placed in various locations.

This was followed by major projects including his 1999  millennium celebration, Chihuly In The Light Of Jerusalem 2000. This massive undertaking produced 17 installations in the ancient city, followed by the creation of a 60-foot wall of ice made of 24 giant blocks imported from Alaska. These installations were viewed by more than one million people.

The year 2001 brought Chihuly at the Victoria & Albert, a major overview of his work at the venerable British museum and in 2005-2006 he provided another installation in London, Gardens of Glass: Chihuly At Kew. This installation placed throughout the more than 300 acres of Kew Gardens, lasted for more than seven months and was another crowning achievement for the artist.

Chihuly’s work is represented in most of the world’s major art collections and institutions and he is the subject of numerous exhibitions, books, and filmed documentaries. In fact, the PBS film, Chihuly Over Venice, which followed the construction of his famous installation, was the first program ever fed by PBS for national broadcast in high-definition television.

A Most Public Figure

He has remained faithful to the Northwest through his support of numerous charities, art museums, and public television.

Never shying away from the media or publicity, Chihuly has been frank about his personal life as well. His relationship with Leslie Jackson has apparently proven to be an important area of stability and support in his life. Their union has produced a son, Jackson Viola Chihuly.

His public battle with depression and bi-polar disorder has been a brave acknowledgment that will certainly assist and inspire others dealing with the same conditions.

In any example of people who define the American Dream, they surely would have to include the life of Dale Chihuly. This unique and successful man defied the stereotype of the starving artist and has opened the door for others to follow.

His hometown of Tacoma, Washington, has been the recipient of much of his generosity. His name and his art have brought both pride and renown to the struggling city. His Bridge of Glass, a 500-foot pedestrian walkway spanning the state’s freeway entrance to Tacoma, presents a permanent installation of his work that welcomes locals and visitors alike.


Sources: Donald B. Kuspit, Chihuly, Second edition, Revised (Seattle: Portland Press, 1999); Tina Oldknow, Pilchuck: A Glass School (Seattle: Pilchuck Glass School, distributed by University of Washington Press, 1996).

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