How one man blows glass into art

Published: Monday, January 8, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 7, 2007 at 11:57 p.m.
CORAL GABLES - A starburst of yellow glass cones hanging from an oak tree makes an unlikely forest chandelier. Red reeds rise from the cactus garden, spiraled hand-blown wonders snake from a rowboat floating on Pandanus Lake. And where the macaws fly low, the pink crags are piled like a massive tower of rock candy.
Dale Chihuly's work has transformed the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden here, adding spheres of multicolored glass to ponds where lilypads once floated alone and kaleidoscopic columns to patches that before were only green. The reach of the world's premier glassblower extends far beyond the cycads and palms of Coral Gables, though, to the Louvre and the Met, to Jerusalem and to Seoul.
Like Louis Comfort Tiffany and Rene Lalique before him, Chihuly has helped elevate what often is thought simply as a craft to a fine art and captivated millions who've seen his work.
Count among them Bruce Greer, president of the board of trustees at Fairchild, who was instrumental in bringing Chihuly's work here two years in a row.
''The predominant word, from intellectuals to children is the same,'' Greer said. ''Wow.''
Sixty-five, with paint-splattered shoes, a bush of curly hair and a black patch over his left eye, Chihuly (pronounced chuh-HOO-lee) was born in Tacoma, Wash., to a butcher-turned-union organizer father and homemaker mother. As a teenager, he lost his father to a heart attack and his brother to a Navy plane crash. He was depressed but reluctantly enrolled in college on his mother's insistence.
Chihuly had decided to pursue a life in interior design and architecture, but learned to melt glass and did some innovative work incorporating it into woven tapestries. He was in his mid-20s and had never seen glass blown when he first picked up a pipe and tried it.
''I'm just amazed that there was this bubble at the end of the pipe,'' he said from his Seattle studio. ''From that point on I wanted to be a glassblower.''
In four decades since, he has regenerated the artistic view of glass more than anyone else since Tiffany garnered attention with stained-glass windows and lamps a century ago. He has - excuse the pun - shattered what the public thought possible with the medium, building bigger, more complex pieces than ever before.
''Tiffany made large stained-glass windows, but Chihuly does these huge installation pieces that become architectural in a different way, very sculptural installations,'' said David Revere McFadden, the chief curator at the Museum of Arts & Design in New York. ''Chihuly's sense of the theatrical is much more dramatic.''
Chihuly's assessment of his work is simple: ''I like to make things that nobody's seen.''
The artist's love of glass led him to Alaska as a young man, where he worked as a fisherman to earn enough to study glassblowing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It brought him a Fulbright, allowed him to travel the globe, to shadow the world's masters of glass. It allowed him to establish programs teaching glass art to others and has pulled off incredible exhibitions and installations in hundreds of museums and private collections.
But glass also nearly ended Chihuly's life and forever altered the way he works.
In 1976, traveling in England with painter friend Seaver Leslie, he was in a head-on collision as the pair approached a rotary intersection in the countryside west of London. He spent weeks hospitalized, received 256 stitches in his face, lost his left eye and nearly lost his right one.
The vision that remained lacked depth perception, complicating his already delicate work, but Chihuly says he has not dwelled on the accident.
''It was never a sad thing for me,'' he said. ''I felt so lucky that I ended up with one eye because it was very close to losing the other one, and I could have been killed very easily.''
Chihuly was able to continue blowing glass for a few years, but dislocated his shoulder while bodysurfing in 1979 and had to give up the gaffer job, as the lead glassblower is known.
Since, he has led others in a symphony of work to realize his artistic visions. Nearly 100 people work for him today, helping create intricate pieces such as ''The Sun,'' the massive collection of orange and yellow coils rising from the Fairchild grounds until the exhibition closes May 31.
Martin Blank, who went to Chihuly Studio for a three-week job and stayed for 12 years, including time as the master glassblower, said his former boss was extremely involved in executing his visions.
''It's not like he was hands off, ever,'' Blank said. ''Dale has an innate sense of how things should be done.''
Blank described Chihuly as gregarious, but very demanding, often pushing his employees to come in on weekends and holidays and work through lunch. Despite the sometimes exhausting work, 43-year-old Blank, who now heads his own glass art operation, called his experience with Chihuly among the most stimulating and profound of his life.
''He's been incredibly courageous in his vision and he's never let anyone tell him he can't do it,'' Blank said. ''It's because of that that he's become one of the world's greatest artists.''
Today, Chihuly's name has become one of the most recognizable among American artists.
Today, Chihuly is stopped on the street by people who recognize him as a familiar face from a story they read or saw, an exhibition they visited or perhaps the man behind the stunning hand-blown glass sculpture that makes up a section of the lobby ceiling of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. His name has become one of the most recognizable among American artists.
Memories of that day in 1965, when he first discovered the wonderment glass brought him, have not faded, though. As that bubble bloomed from the tip of his pipe, he was amazed that his initial try yielded any success.
What luck, Chihuly thought. This will become my life. This will define me.
And it has.

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