Diving into Chihuly"s glass In an image on Dale Chihuly"s Web site, the man himself sits perched in a dinghy, one arm reaching up towards a mass of suspended green bulbs that hang from some unseen branch. But this is all a trick. Chihuly is not reaching towards a leaf; instead, he is gesturing towards bubbles of translucent glass. Thus begins the journey into Chihuly"s world, a place of unearthly and unexpected delights that are inspired by the dance of land, water and sky as conceived by one of today"s most fertile imaginations.
Work by Dale Chihuly is on display at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art through May 11.
On Feb. 15, the artist will open a three-handled exhibition at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art. Fire Work: The Art of Dale Chihuly, Indiana Collects the West: Chihuly and Wrapped in Tradition: The Chihuly Collection of American Indian Trade Blankets will present the spectrum of Chihuly ideas and inspirations, from the subtle to the magnificent. Indiana residents who have spent time in Columbus perhaps first heard of Chihuly upon visiting the Columbus Area Visitors Center where one of his serpentine "chandeliers" of glass hangs. One of only four American artists to hold a solo exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, Chihuly has created exhibitions and installations of glass across the globe, many times in the spirit of such environmental artists as Christos. Likened to water, Chihuly"s glass is both fluid and electric, transmitting and trans-mutating light through myriad colors in dazzling variations. Last fall I happened upon one of his more recent installations, his first major glasshouse exhibition, Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass, installed in the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. Here, glass and greenery intermingled in a strange embrace: indoor ponds were afloat with undulating disks of glass; a towering "tree" emerged from the ground as if Medusa"s hair turned to glass instead of stone; opaque, colorful pods were nestled amongst lush bushes of infinite variety. What makes Chihuly"s work so amazing is its versatility. Any of the glass pieces in this sprawling expanse of greenery would easily stand alone as works of art, and yet, set amongst flora, they take on a living presence. Chihuly, it could be interpreted, reveres instead of trumps natural beauty by standing his art alongside it; his glass is not an intrusion or a disrespectful mimicking. What is the fascination with Chihuly"s glass, beyond its sheer beauty? "It makes you feel good," Jennifer Complo McNutt, curator of contemporary art at the Eiteljorg, states simply. "You don"t have to feel like you understand art to appreciate it. The medium is very familiar to us; all of us handle glass every single day." While Chihuly"s glass is utterly purposeless in the functional sense, it has done much to bridge the gap between the decorative and fine arts. This isn"t to say Chihuly"s work is not complex. One could interpret his "Peacock Blue Tower" as a dark goddess, beautiful whole but deadly if broken open. She emerges like the psyche from a pool that should be deep, but seems too small to birth such a grand femme fatale. One has to ask, is Chihuly"s own shadow filled with broken glass, his brilliant expressions the opposite of what lies inside? There is a haunting fragility underneath Chihuly"s beautiful forms. Intact, they are pure; but once shattered, they are dangerous. Chihuly"s glass is both feminine and masculine: While one form curves enticingly, like the mouth of a shell, another stands vertical and potent. In Chihuly"s world, they can exist harmoniously: A womblike form can taper, or sometimes meander, into a sharp point. Chihuly, though, isn"t easily summed up: His career is long and colorful and has offered its share of personal challenges, from the early death of his brother followed closely by the death of his father to the loss of vision in one eye as the result of a nearly fatal car accident. But Chihuly"s glass expressions are the antithesis of pain and angst. Instead, they burst forth with the wonder of an unbounded imagination, the kind most of us would not be able to give full expression or be able to maintain. Chihuly, though, continues to challenge himself and his medium to its fullest, from cascades of glass that hang impossibly from on high to delicate tendrils in subtle designs laid upon conical forms. The Indianapolis exhibits will offer just a taste of Chihuly"s more grandiose schemes, and for those who have chanced upon the larger exhibits, the Eiteljorg shows will likely serve as a reminder of the artist"s accessible brilliance and universal appeal. A native of the Seattle area, Chihuly, while he has come and gone over the years, now makes his home and studio there. Born in 1941 in Tacoma, Wash., Chihuly attended the first university glass program at the University of Washington. He continued his education and helped establish the glass department at the Rhode Island School of Design, and later co-founded the Pilchuk Glass School in Seattle. While Chihuly has certainly mastered the art of marketing, he has also given back: He has worked with at-risk youth in Tacoma, Wash., and in the "70s he built a glass shop for the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. Chihuly himself has the bursting and yet contained appearance of his glass vessels. His halo of light-colored hair, tightly curled, pokes wildly from atop his head and yet its coils seem to spring back into place. His black eye patch lends the appearance of a pirate, but a jolly one: This man is unlikely to make you walk the plank. But he is fascinated with waterways and boats - his glass pieces are often suspended in water or piles of them burst forth like super-sized candies from the mouth of a boat. Chihuly is known in much smaller circles for his collection of museum-quality Indian trade blankets. The artist was inspired early on by the designs of original Navajo blankets and the blankets inspired by them and mass-produced by American companies for barter with tribal peoples. Therein lies the most pertinent connection with the Eiteljorg, which showcases Western art and Native American art and artifacts. Selections of Chihuly"s glassworks from his early Navajo Blanket Cylinders series will be displayed alongside 80 blankets from his personal collection, culled from his collection of 700 different designs. The Eiteljorg will also display items from the museum"s collection that reflect or contain some of the original design motifs. Chihuly"s connection with these designs began in the early 1960s in a weaving class. He was challenged by an instructor to weave on a loom with a non-fiber material and chose glass. Ray Gonyea (Onondaga), curator of Native American art and culture at the Eiteljorg, describes the process Chihuly and his team use to create the effect of these patterns: "They lay these rods of colored glass on glass that is already formed, and it"s melted [together]." Indian trade blankets were often colorful in a manner that was untraditional to Native Americans, and yet there was an appeal all the same. Indians traded for the blankets for many reasons, Gonyea says. The blankets were inspired by Native American designs and thus held special meaning for the various tribes. "In one blanket you may see four or five designs from four or five different tribes that are incorporated into the blanket. Before pan-Indianism, they [Native Americans] used what they made Ö to convey messages as to who they were and what these things were used for. You can"t look at a work of contemporary beadwork today and tell which tribe it came from; it"s all blended together." Chihuly has been inspired by other traditions as well: from his "Persians" (inspired by Near East and Venetian glass) to his "Ikebana" - similar to his "Venetians" but with extended stems - (inspired by Japan and works he completed there). These series are joined by many others, some inspired by natural forms such as his "Seaforms." Chihuly is prolific. His work is included in more than 200 museum collections around the world, not to mention numerous private and corporate collections. It is unlikely anyone could accomplish this amount of work alone. Early on Chihuly was inspired while in Venice, Italy, on a Fulbright Scholarship to adopt the European teamwork approach. He continues to employ glass blowers who work with him to manifest his designs that he now composes first on paper. An injury to his shoulder means he relies on these apprentices. Chihuly"s Fire Work portion of the Eiteljorg trio of exhibits will showcase his Persians, pieces characterized by a single piece of glass that curves upward to hold small funnel, flat or cylindrical pieces of glass - or some combination of these. Finally, Indiana Collects the West will include Chihuly works from private collections in Indiana held by Marilyn and Gene Glick of Indianapolis, Andy and Jane Paine of Indianapolis and Jim and Mary Henderson and Cummings Engine Inc. in Columbus. Part of an ongoing series, Indiana Collects features collections of Eiteljorg patrons whose art and objects reflect the museum"s mission. "When you"re seeing Chihuly pieces, you"re seeing Chihuly," sums up Jennifer Complo McNutt. "He"s exuberant, the work is exuberant. It"s kind of a whole persona, which is why we"re dong a three-part exhibition." The three exhibitions Wrapped in Tradition: The Chihuly Collection of American Indian Trade Blankets, Fire Work: The Art of Dale Chihuly and Indiana Collects the West: Chihuly are on view Feb. 15 through May 11, 2003, at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, 500 W. Washington St. Call 636-9378 or visit www.eiteljorg.org for more information.