Prince of glass: As sovereign of his hometown's cultural scene, glass artist Dale Chihuly draws world to Tacoma

June 30, 2002 

Two attractions share top billing at the Tacoma Convention and Visitor Bureau Web site: Mount Rainier and Dale Chihuly.

Other cities have great views of the mountain, but Tacoma is the best place in the world to see the artwork of the native son credited with single-handedly transforming glass from craft to high art in the 20th century.

No other city comes close to Tacoma's 12 public displays of Chihuly's art. To fans - his collectors include Queen Elizabeth II, Robin Williams, Elton John, Mick Jagger and Bill Gates - Tacoma is Mecca.

"I love Tacoma," Chihuly said during a lunch break while overseeing the placement of thousands of glimmering sea shapes on the 500-foot Chihuly Bridge of Glass last week.

Tacoma has several reasons to requite that love.

The pedestrian bridge connects downtown to the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art; both open Saturday.

Without Chihuly there would be no Museum of Glass, which was conceived in 1993 as a center for his art before it developed into a broader contemporary museum.

Without him there might be no new Tacoma Art Museum, now under construction on Pacific Avenue, and no downtown theater district, said Michael Sullivan, an architectural historian and friend of Chihuly.

"In Tacoma in the '90s, the most recognized Tacoman was an artist, and for a working-class town, that's quite an interesting phenomenon," Sullivan said.

"It gave conservative thinkers permission to accept the cultural development that went on in the '90s. Dale showed that the arts were a path to legitimate success."

Tacoma's economy benefited from Chihuly's skyrocketing fame. From 1990 to 2000, he bought three buildings downtown and moved his worldwide shipping operation here. With about 45 employees, he is the largest private cultural employer in Tacoma.

He also helped start, and continues to support, community programs such as the Hilltop Artists-in-Residence and Seniors Making Art.

And he donated much of the art that's on public display here, including an estimated $9 million worth for the bridge, five giant installations on ongoing loan at Union Station and Tacoma Art Museum's permanent collection of his works - the largest publicly held gathering in the world. Chihuly gave the art to TAM in 1987 in honor of his late father and brother.

Chihuly is a powerful marketing tool, said Bill Baker, the Portland consultant who drew up The Art of Northwest Living tourism plan for Tacoma. The mayor and City Council proved his point earlier this month by refusing Chihuly's request to remove his name from the bridge.

"The unwritten little vision you've got (in Tacoma) is to become the home of American art glass," Baker said.

Tourists flock to Union Station, where an estimated 55,000 people visit Chihuly's works each year. You can't go far in Tacoma without seeing a Chihuly.

But not everyone is pleased about that. His detractors say he has saturated the city with repetitive displays.

"It's overdone to the point of nausea," said 61-year-old Stuart Atwood of Olympia during a recent visit to the Washington State History Museum, where American Indian trade blankets Chihuly collected are showing this summer. "He sure is good at self-promotion."

But how well does Tacoma really know its leading celebrity?

'A mover'

Dale Patrick Chihuly, the second son of George and Viola, was born Sept. 20, 1941, at Tacoma General Hospital. George was a butcher who became a union organizer for the meat cutters and traveled often.

They lived in a modest three-bedroom house at South 11th and Lawrence streets. Its arched entryway still sports the original 1904 stained-glass window.

In 1950 - after having lived a year in Spokane, then returning to Tacoma - the Chihulys bought a house near North 33rd and Mason streets. Viola, who just turned 95, still lives there, but is in poor health after several strokes.

Her sister, 88-year-old Naomi Cyr, described Dale as an energetic kid - "a mover ... he was never still."

He loved to draw and made decent grades at Stadium High School before transferring to Wilson, where he graduated. He was "an average kid," said Gardner "Red" Mayo, 81, a neighbor who still mows Viola's lawn and thinks of Dale as a son.

"The one thing is, he always wanted to help everyone," Mayo said. "He got that from Vi."

The family was close-knit, Cyr said. After holiday feasts, they'd run around the block holding hands.

That bond was torn apart when Dale was 15. His brother, George - who had joined the Navy to get a scholarship so he could finish college - was killed in an airplane accident training for the Naval Air Force in Pensacola, Fla.

Less than a year later, his 51-year-old father died of a heart attack, partly due to grief, Dale believes.

He and Viola clung to each other to cope. She was a lenient mother, but Dale never got into serious trouble.

"When I was younger, I'd say, 'I'm going to run away from home,' and she'd say, 'OK, see you later then,'" Chihuly recalled. "So I'd go. But then eventually, I'd just want to come back."

George had left some debt, so Viola went to work as a barmaid at Parkway Tavern and Dale worked for the railroad, then on the assembly line at the Hygrade meatpacking plant.

After stints at the College of Puget Sound and the University of Washington, where he studied architecture, learned to melt and fuse glass - a substance that had always fascinated him - and became rush chairman of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, Chihuly dropped out. He sold an Austin-Healy car his brother left him to pay for a ticket to Europe, where he wandered for seven months, subsisting on the $75 a month his mother sent him.

He is not Jewish, but his time on a communal kibbutz in the Negev Desert on the Israel-Jordan border matured him and laid the foundations of his now-legendary work ethic, he says. When he returned to UW in 1963, he had new focus as an architecture and interior design student.

In a weaving class, he began to incorporate shards of glass into his tapestries. For that he won the Seattle Weavers Guild Award in 1964.

When he graduated in 1965, he got a job with John Graham Architects in Seattle but wasn't satisfied there.

One night, in his basement, he had an idea. He had fashioned a small kiln and decided to melt a piece of stained glass. He took a poster down from his wall and used it as a tube to blow a bubble in the melted glass.

He had never before seen glass blown.

"That was something," he said. "I looked at that bubble, and I wanted to be a glassblower."

He quit the architecture firm, worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska to earn money for graduate school, then beelined to the University of Wisconsin to study with glass pioneer Harvey Littleton.

After earning his master's degree in sculpture, he enrolled in 1967 at the Rhode Island School of Design. That year he met the Italian-born sculptor Italo Scanga, a young professor at Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia who was lecturing at Rhode Island School of Design.

They immediately developed a mutual admiration, based first on their shared passion for art and color. Chihuly considered him a brother - he has dedicated books "For my brother Italo" - and they looked alike as younger men, with their wild hair. Scanga, 69, died of heart failure at his studio last summer.

Chihuly had started to gain national attention by the time he graduated from Rhode Island School of Design in 1968. That same year he was awarded the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant for work in glass and a Fulbright Fellowship, enabling him to study and work in Europe.

Invited by architect Ludovico de Santillana, son-in-law of Paolo Venini, Chihuly became the first American glassblower to work in the fabled Venini factory on the Italian island of Murano. The masters taught him their time-honored traditions, and he taught them to think of glass as more than craft - as art.

When he returned to the United States, he established the glass program at Rhode Island School of Design.

But he wanted an alternative glass school in his native Pacific Northwest. So in 1971, with the help of art patrons Anne Gould Hauberg and John Hauberg, he started the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, where hundreds of artists from around the world have now studied.

Five years later, Chihuly went to England to lecture about his new work and look for a place to show it. He and his friend Seaver Leslie were driving in the middle of the night when they were involved in a head-on collision.

Leslie was largely unhurt, but Chihuly flew from his passenger seat through the windshield.

"I nearly died," he said.

In photographs from that time, he looks as though a lion had scratched him across the face. After 256 stitches in his face and several weeks in the hospital, Chihuly emerged blind in his left eye and with permanent damage to his right ankle and foot, where he still wears a brace.

"He never complained," his aunt Naomi said. "He figured, 'That's the way I'm supposed to be, I guess.'"

Glassblowing is dangerous without full depth perception, but Chihuly continued blowing regularly until three years after the crash, when he dislocated a shoulder in a bodysurfing accident.

He still blows occasionally, but he mostly had to set down the stick, which gave him a chance to reignite his childhood flair for drawing. If Chihuly was disappointed, he didn't show it, those close to him say. He took advantage of the team concept that's central to glassmaking and that has enabled his productions to become so large-scale.

"My real love was never the glassblowing, but the object itself," he said in 1998.

The year of the accident, contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired some of Chihuly's works, and he was launched. Since then he has shown at major museums around the world, hotels and nontraditional art venues including the Venetian canals and Chicago's Garfield Park Conservatory greenhouse. He's currently negotiating with London's Kew Gardens for an installation.

His shows, like last year's at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, are consistent blockbusters, drawing raves from crowds if not always from critics.

His works reside permanently at more than 200 museums, in the White House and with more than 10,000 collectors. His installations can sell for up to $1 million.

He lives in Seattle, where he opened his private studio, the Boathouse, in 1990.

Visualizing Chihuly

Chihuly keeps his personal collections in Tacoma. He signs his works here. They're photographed, registered and shipped from here. His publishing company, Portland Press, is based here.

He used to tool around town in a pink pickup truck with a "Visualize Tacoma" bumper sticker. These days, people probably don't realize how often he's here.

"His collection is a metaphor for his brain," said Michael Sullivan. "The fact he keeps it here rather than Seattle ... there's something home- and womb-like and trusting about Tacoma for him, something very basic to his nature."

Sullivan described Chihuly as "a really likable, wired guy, the type to answer e-mails in the bathtub." He sometimes wears a colorful plastic watch on each arm, "like double-time," Sullivan said.

Lately, aside from his art, his major focus is his and longtime partner Leslie Jackson's 4-year-old son, Jackson Viola.

Young at heart is the way Chihuly has always been, said Isabel Andrade, Viola's caretaker for 20 years and Chihuly's close friend.

Andrade remembers meeting Chihuly one afternoon when he was picking up his mother so she could see him receive an award from the governor. He was wearing a tuxedo.

"My daughter was only 4 years old, and she was playing outside in the dirt with two other babies," Andrade said. "Dale just sat on the ground and started playing with them. His mother said, 'Dale, you're going to get dirty!' It didn't matter to him."

Chihuly also has a youthful capriciousness. He removed pieces from the "Lackawanna Ikebana" installation at Union Station at the last minute, for instance, and last week was switching out Venetian sculptures on the Bridge of Glass' "Venetian Wall," which was built to his liking months ago.

Wearing his eye patch, a peach shirt and shoes speckled with paint, Chihuly seemed relaxed strolling Pacific Avenue last week, despite his entourage. He shouted, "Lookin' sharp!" at a vintage car passing by. A teenager leaned out of a pickup to yell, "Nice shoes!" and wave.

Many Tacomans who have never met him love Dale Chihuly for his exuberant glass. Take Chip Cooper, 28, who lives with his wife and son in the house where Chihuly first grew up.

"I think he's awesome," Cooper said. "He's done a lot for the city, and I'm glad he's still doing things here."

Chihuly earned the loyalty of many Tacomans in 1993, when he set 100,000 pounds of neon in ice inside the Tacoma Dome. Some 35,000 people accepted his invitation to see the spectacle for free - more than visit the Tacoma Art Museum in a year.

Many got to shake the artist's hand when the neon-on-ice show opened late on the second day.

"Dale said, 'Let's go out and talk to people,'" Sullivan said. "Every fifth or sixth person, it was, 'I went to high school with you, my nephew knew you.' It was like old home week."

Chihuly is one of the rare artists who transcend their disciplines to become of historical interest, said history museum director David Nicandri. "He's in the top three most famous people of all time from Tacoma."

Some critics say Chihuly lacks taste and subtlety. They subtract points for his technique; he draws or paints what he wants, then has a team of studio artists and craftsmen create it. And they dislike the cult of personality around him.

"One cannot get past the sense that the name on the glass is less a signature than a brand name," an art critic for the Arizona Republic wrote recently.

Seattle artist Charles Krafft and the Mystic Sons of Morris Graves organized "Smash a Chihuly" in 1997 and sold raffle tickets for the opportunity to break a valuable Chihuly bowl.

"When you're on top, people want to knock you down," said Rick Gottas, owner of American Art Company (a gallery that does not sell Chihulys). "I don't think the guy walks on water, but I think the work is going to stand the test of time."

The Tacoma Convention and Visitor Bureau Web site spotlights a piece in Chihuly's "Monarch Window" at Union Station. The top of the site reads, "Dale Chihuly, Monarch."

Publicly uncomfortable with his unofficial position as reigning monarch of Tacoma's cultural scene, Chihuly has doubts about adding to what's here. He is considering an installation in Wright Park but rejected a request for an installation from designers of the new convention center.

"I don't know how much work to have (in Tacoma)," he said. "On the one hand, I think the more, the better, because it's nice to have a destination point."

He didn't mention what was on the other hand.

Even those who don't appreciate his generosity can't deny it.

They might talk to 81-year-old Red Mayo, who'll attend the sold-out, high-priced Museum of Glass gala opening Wednesday because Chihuly bought him a ticket.

What would Mayo say to Chihuly's critics?

Mayo thought for a moment before saying, "Well, I suppose that's what critics are for."

Jen Graves: 253-597-8568
jen.graves@mail.tribnet.com

1. Chihuly Bridge of Glass, between Pacific Avenue and the Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art

• "Crystal Towers," "Venetian Wall," "Seaform Pavilion"

2. Federal Courthouse at Union Station, in and around courtrooms, 1754 Pacific Ave.

• "Macchias," "Persians," "Basket Cylinder" and paintings on paper

3. Pacific Lutheran University, Mary Baker Russell Music Center, Parkland

• "Persian Window"

4. Sheraton Tacoma Hotel, Lobby, 1320 Broadway

• "Macchias"

5. Stadium High School, Library, 111 N. E St.

• "Flame Orange Basket Set With Black Lip Wrap"

6. The Swiss, 1904 Jefferson Ave.

• Eight "Venetians"

7. Tacoma Art Museum, 1123 Pacific Ave.

• 30-piece permanent collection

8. Tacoma Financial Center, Lobby, 1145 Broadway

• "Seaforms"

9. The News Tribune, 1950 S. State St.

• "Kelso's Beacon"

10. Union Station, 1754 Pacific Ave.

• "Chihuly at Union Station"

11. University of Puget Sound, Wyatt Hall, 1500 N. Warner St.

• "The Chihuly Window"

12. University of Washington Tacoma, Library, 1902 Commerce St.

• "Chinook Red Chandelier"

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