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Wrapped in Tradition: The Chihuly Collection of Native American Trade Blankets

March 9, 2008 - May 18, 2008


Dale Chihuly was inspired early in his career by the color and design of 19th century, Native American trade-blankets as the basis for his "Navajo Blanket Cylinders." Exhibited together, Chihuly's 15 exquisite hand-blown glass vessels and 80 historic Navajo blankets are a tribute to the artistic accomplishments of earlier Native American artists and an artist who has changed glass from a craft medium to a world-class fine art. This exhibition is organized by the Dale Chihuly Studio in cooperation with the Oregon Historical Society. (right: Dale Chihuly, Navajo Blanket Cylinder, hand-blown glass vessel)



Dale Chihuly is most frequently lauded for revolutionizing the Studio Glass movement by expanding its original premise of the solitary artist working in a studio environment to encompass the notion of collaborative teams and a division of labor within the creative process. However, Chihuly's contribution extends well beyond the boundaries both of this movement and even the field of glass: his achievements have influenced contemporary art in general. Chihuly's practice of using teams has led to the development of complex, multipart sculptures of dramatic beauty that place him in the leadership role of moving blown glass out of the confines of the small, precious object and into the realm of large-scale contemporary sculpture. In fact, Chihuly deserves credit for establishing the blown glass form as an accepted vehicle for installation and environmental art beginning in the late twentieth century and continuing today.

A prodigiously prolific artist whose work balances content with an investigation of the material's properties of translucency and transparency, Chihuly began working with glass at a time when reverence for the medium and for technique was paramount. A student of interior design and architecture in the early 1960s, by 1965 he had become captivated by the process of glassblowing. He enrolled in the University of Wisconsin's hot glass program, the first of its kind in the United States, established by Studio Glass movement founder Harvey K. Littleton. After receiving a degree in sculpture, Chihuly was admitted to the ceramics program at the Rhode Island School of Design, only to establish its renowned glass program, turning out a generation of recognized artists.

Influenced by an environment that fostered the blurring of boundaries separating all the arts, as early as 1967 Chihuly was using neon, argon, and blown glass forms to create room-sized installations of organic, freestanding, plantlike imagery. He brought this interdisciplinary approach to the arts to the legendary Pilchuck School in Stanwood, Washington, which he co founded in 1971 and served as its first artistic director until 1989. Under Chihuly's guidance, Pilchuck has become a gathering place for international artists with diverse backgrounds. Over the years his studios, which include an old racing shell factory in Seattle called The Boathouse and now buildings in the Ballard section of the city and Tacoma, have become a mecca for artists, collectors, and museum professionals involved in all media.

Stylistically over the past forty years, Chihuly's sculptures in glass have explored color, line, and assemblage. Although his work ranges from the single vessel to indoor/outdoor site-specific installations, he is best known for his multipart blown compositions. These works fall into the categories of mini-environments designed for the tabletop as well as large, often serialized forms that are innovatively displayed in groupings on a wide variety of surfaces ranging from pedestals to bodies of natural water. Masses of these blown forms also have been affixed to specially engineered structures that dominate large exterior or interior spaces.

Over the years Chihuly and his teams have created a wide vocabulary of blown forms, revisiting and refining earlier shapes while at the same time creating exciting new elements, such as his Fiori, all of which demonstrate mastery and understanding of glassblowing techniques. Earlier forms, such as the Baskets, Seaforms, Ikebana, Venetians, and Chandeliers, from the late 1970s through the 1990s have been augmented since the early to mid-1990s with new blown elements. Chihuly and his teams primarily developed these while working in glass factories in France, Finland, Ireland, and Mexico. The resulting Reeds, Saguaros, Herons, Belugas, Seal Pups, and other forms are now juxtaposed with the earlier series, including Macchia, Niijima Floats, and Persians in lively new contexts.

Since the early 1980s, all of Chihuly's work has been marked by intense, vibrant color and by subtle linear decoration. At first he achieved patterns by fusing into the surface of his vessels "drawings" composed of prearranged glass threads; he then had his forms blown in optic molds, which created ribbed motifs. He also explored in the Macchia series bold, colorful lip wraps that contrasted sharply with the brilliant colors of his vessels. Finally, beginning with the Venetians of the early 1990s, elongated, linear blown forms, a product of the glassblowing process, have become part of his vocabulary, resulting in highly baroque, writhing elements. In recent years Chihuly has experimented with Polyvitro to create new interpretations of some of his glass forms.

Chihuly's work is strongly autobiographical. His fascination with abstracted flower forms, for him, reminiscent of his mother's garden in Tacoma, has been discussed in depth in the literature. Likewise, series such as his Seaforms, Niijima Floats, the Chandeliers, and more recently, the Boats allude to his childhood in Tacoma, Washington, marked by his love of the sea and his recognition of its importance to the economy of the Pacific Northwest. Even in the few instances in which the artist has chosen to respond to earlier historical decorative arts forms, the imagery has personal significance. The Basket series, for instance, developed out of the woven Northwest Coast Indian baskets that Chihuly saw in 1977 with his late friend the sculptor Italo Scanga and sculptor James Carpenter at the Tacoma Historical Society.

Over the years the artist has created a number of memorable installation exhibitions, including Chihuly Over Venice (1995-96), Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000 at the Tower of David Museum of the History of Jerusalem (2000), Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory (2001-2), the Chihuly Bridge of Glass in Tacoma (2002), and Mille Fiori at the Tacoma Art Museum (2003). These installations confirm the artist's sensitivity to architectural context and his interest in the interplay of natural light on the glass that exploits its translucency and transparency. Recent situations have heightened this effect, since the sites that he has selected within existing buildings have been dominated by large walls of glass.

While elements of the earlier installations allude to natural phenomena such as icicles and vegetation, gardens provide the dominant theme in Chihuly's most recent ones. Sites that include Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory (2001), the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio (2003), the Atlanta Botancial Gardens (2004), the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew(2005), Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, Coral Gables, Florida (2006), the Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis (2006), and now, the New York Botanical Garden (2006) enable the artist to juxtapose monumental, organically shaped sculptural forms with beautiful landscaping, establishing a direct and immediate interaction between nature, art, and environmental light.

Moreover, Chihuly's Mille Fiori installations at the Tacoma Art Museum (2003), at Marlborough Gallery, New York (2004), and more recently at Imago Gallery, Palm Desert, California (2006) and R. Duane Reed Gallery, St. Louis (2006), reveal the artist's progression toward a logical next direction: installations that are gardens themselves. Starting as a massing of churning forms and vibrant colors, the tonality of these installations has changed to embrace a more limited, single color palate, reminiscent of the early Chandeliers. In many ways, Chihuly has come full circle; now using his mature vocabulary, he captures in these installations the joie de vivre of the plantlike forms of his early neon environments.

A dominant presence in the art world, Dale Chihuly and his work have long provoked considerable controversy as part of the art/craft debate. However, with projects such as his recent garden installations in Kew and New York, there can be little doubt that his lasting contribution to art of our times is an established fact. (left: Dale Chihuly)


About the Oregon Historical Society

The Oregon Historical Society is located in Portland, Oregon. OHS publishes journal of record for Oregon history, the Oregon Historical Quarterly. It has been published continuously since 1900. Over 150 books on Oregon history, politics and culture, as well as biographies, field guides and exhibit catalogs, have been published by OHS since the OHS Press was established in 1929. The OHS artifacts collection is comprised of over 85,000 artifacts, including ancient objects from the earliest settlements and objects that illustrate exploration in the Oregon Country, the growth of business and industry, the development of artwork and crafts, maritime history, and many other topics. The OHS Research Library contains one of the country's most extensive collections of state history materials, including approximately 25,000 maps, 30,000 books, 8.5 million feet of film and videotape, 16,000 rolls of microfilm, and 12,000 linear feet of documents. The Research Library's photographic archives include over 2.5 million images from pre-statehood to the present day. OHS Education Programs include internet resources to supplement classroom curriculum, Folklife cultural programs that focus on the diversity and beauty of arts and traditions, and teacher training and workshops on Oregon history. (source: OHS web site; right: photo of Navajo Blanket Cylinder with Native American Trade Blanket)


Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

YouTube illustrated audio presentation: Chihuly Exhibit - No Transitions [5:48] Chihuly Exhibit at the NY Botanical Gardens (Bronx, NY) on October 9, 2006

Dale Chihuly visits Google's Mountain View, CA headquarters to discuss his Gardens of Glass. This event took place on June 19, 2008, as part of the Authors@Google series. [1:02:48]

Dale Chihuly [8:32] Glass blower Dale Chihuly talks about his work and his significant impact on the Studio Glass movement.


TFAO also suggests these DVD or VHS videos:

Chihuly. World renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly is the subject of six separate documentary programs included in this 177 minute collection. Each program presents the artist at work on a different project or exploring his craft with his team of collaborators. Included: Chihuly Niijima Floats, Chihuly in Action, Chihuly River of Glass, Chihuly Working with Lino Tagliapietra, Chihuly Atlantis and Chihuly Working with Pino Signoretto.

Chihuly and the Masters of Venice (DVD) Dale Chihuly (actor), Pino Signoretto (actor) and Peter West (director) Tower Video Title Note: "Dubbed "the Picasso of 20th-century glass," American sculptor Dale Chihuly has earned international acclaim for both his breathtakingly beautiful blown-glass sculptures and his collaborative approach to art and creativity. This documentary chronicles Chihuly's historic collaboration with Italian artisans Pino Signoretto and Lino Tagliapietra, two of the world's greatest living glass masters and experts in the ancient Venetian traditions of glassblowing." Studio: Portland Press. DVD Release Date: February 24, 2004

Chihuly at the V&A (DVD) Dale Chihuly (actor) and Peter West (director). Studio: Portland Press. DVD Release Date: February 24, 2004. Tower Video Title Note: "Dubbed "the Picasso of 20th-century glass," American sculptor Dale Chihuly has earned international acclaim for both his breathtakingly beautiful blown-glass sculptures and his collaborative approach to art and creativity. This documentary chronicles Chihuly's exhibition at the historic Victoria and Albert Museum in London, which began with a simple commission for one of the artist's trademark chandeliers and developed into a fullblown career retrospective of his work."

Chihuly DVD Collection is a 4-disc boxed set released in 2004, produced by the Museum of Glass. Each DVD is 60 minutes with an additional 30 minutes of special features. The videos explore the relationship of nature and glass as Chihuly and his team work in a variety of outdoor locations, and then install glass among the lush flora at Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory. A comprehensive collection, the Chihuly DVD Collection is a globe-trotting adventure that leads to greater understanding of the man and his art. ASIN: B0000D1FJH.

Chihuly In Charlotte is a 2000 video directed by Stuart Grasberg and produced by WTVI, Charlotte Public Television..

Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000 (DVD) Dale Chihuly (actor) and Peter West (director) Studio: Portland Press. DVD Release Date: February 22, 2004 . Tower Video Title Note: "Dubbed "the Picasso of 20th-century glass," American sculptor Dale Chihuly has earned international acclaim for both his breathtakingly beautiful blown-glass sculptures and his collaborative approach to art and creativity. This documentary chronicles Chihuly's installation of 14 glass sculptures in Jerusalem's ancient citadel for the 2000 millennium celebration."

Chihuly Over Venice is a 1998 PBS Home Video released by Home Vision Entertainment. The planning and realization of an ambitious project by renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly is documented in this absorbing PBS presentation. Chihuly collaborated with master glassblowers from four countries to achieve his collection of spectacular chandeliers for public display over the canals of Venice. From Finland to Ireland to Mexico to Italy, Chlhuly and the participatlng artisans join together for a creative 90 minute odyssey. An editorial review by Rob Lightner for Amazon.com says: "Dale Chihuly's gloriously organic glass sculptures grace galleries and public spaces around the world, and Chihuly over Venice follows the artist as he visits glassblowing studios across Europe and collaborates to create chandeliers for the first international Biennale of Glass in Venice. Behind-the-scenes glimpses of the hot, dirty work are cut in with shots of the canals and architecture of Venice to create a montage of a great artist working in a city with a long tradition of artistic excellence. We also get candid interviews with Chihuly and his assistants, which fill in the knowledge and history of the man himself, his work, and the community of glass artists in the Seattle area. Chihuly over Venice is a great package for anyone intrigued by the artistic process or enchanted by the sensuous curves of glass."

Chihuly River of Glass (DVD) Title Note from Tower Video: "Dubbed "the Picasso of 20th-century glass," American sculptor Dale Chihuly has earned international acclaim for both his breathtakingly beautiful blown-glass sculptures and his collaborative approach to art and creativity. This award-winning documentary follows Chihuly to glassblowing centers in America, Finland, Ireland, Mexico, and Italy, as he and his team of artisans create delicately crafted chandeliers to be released into the canals of Venice for a unique environmental art installation." Studio: Portland Press. DVD Release Date: February 24, 2004


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