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November 07, 2012

After 50 Years, Pioneer's Glass Art Sparkles

by Susan Logue

Pioneering artist Dale Chihuly vividly remembers the first time he blew glass nearly five decades ago. 

“I had never seen glassblowing before, but I remember I had a picture of a glassblower on the wall,” he recalls.  “Once I blew that bubble, that is what I wanted to be, a glassblower.”

But, for the past 35 years, Chihuly has rarely blown glass himself, not since a car accident robbed him of one eye. A team of glass artists at the Chihuly Studio in Seattle, helps him create monumental works and large scale projects.

"Almost anything I think of, I can try,” he says.

With the help of Team Chihuly, he has transformed landscapes, and even cities.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the studio art glass movement, which transformed glass from being merely functional into art.

Chihuly is marking the occasion by bringing his magic to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

One installation in the exhibit is nearly 20 meters long and is composed of 1500 individual pieces. It’s called Laguna Torcello, after an island in the Venetian Lagoon. 

“I’m inspired by anything that has to do with Venice," he says, "which is my favorite place in the world.”

​​​His work has also been influenced by American Indian art and design.

His collection of blankets and woven baskets are displayed along with the glass baskets they inspired.

Chihuly is inspired by nature, which led him to create tall, thin glass reeds.

And by floats used by fishermen in Japan. 

One of his creations features an old, wooden boat overflowing with the colorful orbs.

But above all, the artist says he is inspired by the glass itself. 

“This material is so phenomenal, and with light," he says. "There are very few materials that light goes through.  When it does, it can be pretty amazing.”

And it is, most notably in his “Persian Ceiling,” an installation he has been creating since 1992. Each one is unique. 

The one at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is composed of more than 1000 individual pieces of glass in a variety of colors. Here and there are hidden treasures: a putti, or cherub, a starfish or an octopus.

Chihuly says he sometimes misses blowing glass himself, but adds, “I’d rather be doing it the way I’m doing it, which is, I get to be the director.” 

Now 71, and already an icon, Chihuly is not interested in retiring.  “As long as I’m making good shows and good pieces, I’ll probably do it for a while longer.”