Glass artist Dale Chihuly used a group of unpaid assistants for 15 years to create works that were attributed solely to him, a man contends in a lawsuit filed recently in Seattle.
Lawyers for the Tacoma-born artist said the lawsuit was “nothing more than an ugly and reprehensible display of opportunism and exploitation” by the man, who the lawyers said was seeking money to keep quiet about the artist’s deteriorating mental state.
The lawsuit was filed by a former contractor, Michael Moi, who said he first met Chihuly through a shared acquaintance, did construction work for him and eventually participated in “myriad clandestine painting sessions.”
The suit names as defendants Chihuly, 75; his wife, Leslie Chihuly; and Chihuly Studio Inc., and asks for a finding that Moi is a co-author of certain works and owns an interest in them.
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“The artist has long relied on a collection of discreet and trusted individuals to work in the shadows to create the drawings and paintings on paper glass plexiglass and canvas that bear his name,” the suit contends. “This small group which has never been acknowledged has two requirements: secrecy and unwavering loyalty.”
In the counterclaim, Chihuly, whose work is in more than 200 museums around the world, said he had long used assistants to help him execute his artistic vision, but denied that Moi, whom he described as “a handyman,” had been one of them.
Instead, Chihuly’s lawyers wrote, Moi had threatened to expose embarrassing information about the artist unless his demands for money were met.
The lawyers wrote that Chihuly had been diagnosed with “bipolar disorder, symptoms of which include depression, hyperactivity and/or mania, paranoia, impaired judgment and irrational behavior.”
They said Chihuly’s condition was rarely discussed publicly because his family and friends wanted to shield him from the “often cruel and judgmental glare of public scrutiny.”
Moi, the countersuit said, possessed confidential documents that supposedly reflect Chihuly’s personal struggles.
“Under the thin guise of this litigation, Mr. Moi is threatening to make such documents public as purported ‘evidence’ in his lawsuit unless Dale, his family, and Chihuly Inc. pay him $21 million for his silence,” according to the countersuit.
“We never asked for silence,” Moi’s lawyer, Anne Bremner, wrote in an email in response to a question about that allegation. “We asked for justice.”
For years it has been common for artists to employ assistants whose tasks ranged from stretching canvases to maintaining archives to supplying materials.
Some artists, such as Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons have employed assistants who had a direct hand in creating paintings or sculptures, sometimes even being paid an hourly wage and functioning like members of an assembly line to produce works that later sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more.
Moi’s lawsuit describes a less formal arrangement, saying he was never paid by Chihuly, became an employee or signed any type of work for hire agreement.
Rather, the suit contends, Chihuly “repeatedly and consistently” promised him future compensation, saying his studio kept careful records, and that he would at some point “take care of him,” which Moi took to mean his share of the profits of works they had created would be ascertained and awarded.
Moi’s lawsuit said he and Chihuly got to know each other in 1999 aboard the artist’s boat, the Meteor, which was captained by Billy O’Neill, a mutual acquaintance.
O’Neill eventually became Chihuly’s assistant, the lawsuit said, and Moi was hired to repair roofs on houses owned by Chihuly. Before long, Moi’s lawsuit states, he began receiving phone calls from assistants, including O’Neill, asking him to take part in “frequent and impromptu painting sessions.”
The lawsuit described the process: Moi and O’Neill would pour paint onto lines of heavy stock French watercolor paper arranged on floors. Moi would then use foam mops to create the background and body of pieces.
Chihuly would follow, adding dots, drip and lines and, finally, his signature.
Later, the suit said, Moi used a blowtorch to “‘burn’ thick layers of paint and metallic dust” onto works being created by Chihuly.
By 2012, the lawsuit said, Moi began working on plexiglass paintings at the Chihuly studio. At that point, Chihuly played no part in the creative process, the lawsuit said, adding that his role was confined to signing finished pieces.
O’Neill was fired from the studio in early 2015, the lawsuit said, and, around the same time, Moi’s contact with Chihuly trailed off.
He later was told a new group of assistants had been hired, the suit contended, saying he then realized “neither Chihuly nor the Chihuly studio was going to compensate him for his years of painting work as promised.”