Dale Chihuly is arguably Tacoma’s most famous son, his name synonymous with the art he pioneered. Since establishing a glass school at the Rhode Island School of Design in 1969, his other-worldly glass sculptures are recognized all over the globe.
Chihuly, 75, recently spoke with a reporter about his long battle with depression and bipolar disorder. For a man so eloquent in art, he’s stayed quiet about an illness that’s affected most of his adult life. He says the debilitating depression episodes started in the ‘70s.
The artist’s disclosure was prompted by a lawsuit filed last week by a former handyman who claims credit for some of Chihuly’s work. Chihuly’s lawyers denied the claim and wrote that he suffers from bipolar disorder, something the legal action might have brought to light.
While outside forces forced Chihuly’s hand, it doesn’t undercut the value of what he’s sharing.
When celebrities like Chihuly admit their lives don’t match the glossy magazine covers, it tells those who share a similar pain “you are not alone,” and it empowers them to seek help. It also offers a reminder that people with mental illnesses can lead lives of immense creativity and success.
Further, it helps when someone held in high esteem tries to articulate the near impossible. Emotional pain isn’t easy to describe, which only adds to the discomfort.
As this newspaper has reported many times, almost 20 percent of Pierce County adults meet the criteria for a mental disorder and are grossly underserved. The lack of treatment compounds the South Sound’s problems with homelessness and opioid abuse.
It might be easy to chalk up Chihuly’s illness to another case of the tortured artist, to put him in that category with Vincent Van Gogh, Ludwig van Beethoven, Sylvia Plath and other so-called maestros of madness. Yes, studies exist to support the theory that mental disorders and genius are interrelated. But the truth is that mental disorders affect all demographics.
According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 4 adults suffer from some form of diagnosable mental disorder. Yet even in this age when there’s almost no such thing as TMI (too much information) and it’s hip to be confessional, talking candidly about a mental disorder can be met with resistance.
The pervasive myth that mental illness is a character flaw, that people who suffer lack the ability to “suck it up” or “stay positive,” is alive and well.
Leslie Jackson Chihuly said her husband wanted to speak about his illness because it is a large part of who he is; empathy for others was another motivation.
The ultimate aim of all art is empathy. When artists go to work, they hope the person standing in front of the sculpture, painting or poem will feel something deeply — delight, awe or even repulsion — and that these emotions will create a chain of human connection, possibly lasting centuries.
For an artist such as Chihuly, who has brought so much beauty to the world, this latest move makes sense. Empathy has been molded into his work all along. The Wilson High School graduate was instrumental in getting the Hilltop Artists program off the ground. It began as a program to reach at-risk Tacoma youth and has a graduation rate of 97 percent.
Chihuly has not forgotten where he came from, and he’s certainly changed our city for the better. But perhaps we are most proud he has chosen to share his mental health struggle. Its stigma can be the hardest of all surfaces to crack.