Dale Chihuly: Art Glass Comes Home (and puts Tacoma, Washington, on the map) by Ed Wetschler
"We came from Seattle to see Chihuly glass," said a man on the Tacoma Art Museum’s guided walk. Impressive, because I can remember when nobody traveled 33 miles south from Seattle to see anything in Tacoma. But now, with the growth of the University of Washington’s fine downtown campus, the restoration of Union Station, and the rise of museums, restaurants, espresso shops, and, this winter, the Hotel Murano (as in Murano glass), this city shows signs of getting sexy.
Much of the inspiration — and art –for its revival came from Dale Chihuly. As the Elvis of the art glass world, this native son of Tacoma has radically expanded the universe of shapes, sizes and colors — he’s never met one he didn’t like — that glass can embody.
Of course, controversy often tags along with fame and fortune, and Chihuly is no exception to that rule. "I’m unloading my Chihuly’s," a collector told me last month. "I can’t accept the fact that he has a team of glassblowers who actually do all the work."
It’s a common complaint, notwithstanding the fact that the artist is too disabled to blow glass himself, but Tacoma homesteader Jori Adkins doesn’t buy it. "No glass artist does this sort of work in a room by herself," she declares. "And the fact that he’s a world-class marketer should not detract from the beauty and influence of his work. If it weren’t for Dale Chihuly, this area wouldn’t be the major center of glass art that it is."
I’ll confess that when I first saw large Chihuly works some 15 years ago at the Atlantis Casino in the Bahamas, I thought them too gaudy, too casino. I wasn’t nuts about the pieces I saw in New York and Tokyo, either. But when I saw his work in Tacoma, everything feel into place, everything made sense.
I realized then that Chihuly’s whimsical, vaguely figurative pieces are not just made in the Northwest, but also for the Northwest–whether the artist knows it or not. Their bold and outrageous forms fit right in with a region that launched grunge rock and a hyper-caffeinated populace. Their fearless hues brighten up gray days, radiating the heat of the ovens where they were created. And the range and quality of work in Tacoma is unequaled anywhere else.
So even if I’d seen Chihuly’s art in other cities, I hadn’t really seen it at all, hadn’t felt the exhilaration it can produce until I saw it in Seattle’s kid-sister city. Want to experience some of that heat and exhilaration yourself? Here’s a guide to the greatest hits of the glass world’s Elvis:
TACOMA ART MUSEUM
Housed in an abfab contemporary building, the Tacoma Art Museum shows off the world’s largest permanent retrospective of Chihuly glass, starting right in the lobby. These works are arranged for aesthetic impact rather than in chronological order, but because many of Chihuly’s series, or periods, evolved from earlier ones, I’ll offer a clue or two about what begat what:
Baskets: Made in the 1970s, the baskets seem to be falling in on one side, just like soft, antique American Indian baskets. A wonderful illusion; after all, this is glass.
Seaforms: This series from around 1980 was born when the Chihuly studio used ribbed molds to form delicate, transparent pieces that resemble clams and sea urchins. Groups of these lovely creatures snuggle together like some underwater Peaceable Kingdom. Who knew glass could be so cuddly?
Macchia: As Chihuly puts it, "The Macchia series began with my waking up one day wanting to use all 300 of the colors in the hot shop." God help him, he succeeded. Some of the bowls from this series have so many layers of colors and macchie (spots), it’s as if they had swallowed psychedelics. Coincidental, I’m sure.
Persians: This series, which debuted at the Louvre in 1986, evokes the Seaforms, but without all the ribbing that gave rise to shell-like textures. What does catch your eye is the wavy lines that were inspired by Middle Eastern tapestries.
Ikebana: These attention-getters from the early 1990s evoke Japanese flower arranging; they also push the limits of how improbably tall the Chihuly studio could fashion flower stalks out of glass.
Niijima Floats: Reminiscent of Japanese fishing floats, these massive, Charms-hued bubbles reside in the courtyard from spring through early autumn and are dedicated to the artist’s late mother.
DETAILS Open Tuesday-Sunday through Memorial Day and daily in summer; $7.50 per adult. 1701 Pacific Avenue; 253/272-4258; tacomaartmuseum.org.
Designed by Reed & Stem, one of the firms that created New York’s Grand Central Terminal, Union Station is now a (free) museum for large Chihuly pieces. The chandelier has a helluva lot of shapes and colors, even for Chihuly, and I’ll tell you why: It was assembled from other works’ leftover parts. (No wonder he called it End of the Day.) My favorite installation is the Monarch Window, with orange jellyfish shapes that cast butterfly ghosts on the floor in the morning. Open Monday-Friday. 1717 Pacific Avenue; 253/572-9310.
CHIHULY BRIDGE OF GLASS
A pedestrian bridge linking the main drag (Pacific Avenue) to the world-famous Museum of Glass on the waterfront, this walkway has three large, free outdoor exhibits. The first, an overhead display with hundreds of Seaforms, is a test of one’s cervical vertebrae. I flunk.
The second installation is the soaring, glacier-blue Crystal Towers that seem cut from Mount Rainier’s glaciers. The third, the Venetian Wall, frames 109 fantastical, over-the-top vases in a case that lets light flood through their rich colors. I could stand here for hours, mouth agape and camera a’clicking. Open 24 hours a day. I mean, how’re you going to close a public bridge?
MUSEUM OF GLASS: INTERNATIONAL CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
Chihuly helped establish this museum, and it was with MOG that he installed art on the bridge. Ironically, this 21st-century institution does not permanently display The Godfather’s works, unless you count the bridge (above), which is terrific.
In the Hot Shop Amphitheater you can see artists stick gobs of glass into hellfire ovens, hit molten glass with hard objects (careful!) and/or blow it into complex shapes and, in general, do scary stuff you should not try at home. For sheer risk, tension, teamwork and triumph, this spectacle handily beats Superbowl Sunday. Open Wednesday-Sunday until Memorial Day, the third Thursday of each month, and daily in summer; $10. 1801 East Dock Street; 866/468-7386; museumofglass.org.
A half dozen or so multicolored Venetians — I can’t even guess how much they’re worth — live on a shelf over the bar in this big, utterly unpretentious watering hole/restaurant. How’d that happen? The place catered meals when Chihuly’s gang was installing art here in the museum district, and I guess Elvis liked the sandwiches. Open seven days a week; 1904 South Jefferson; 253.572.2821.
VETRI INTERNATIONAL GLASS AND WILLIAM TRAVER GALLERY
Set in a historic warehouse next to the Museum of Glass, these attached galleries sell Chihuly Studio Edition pieces (from around $4,000 at Vetri) and a splendid array of works by both emerging and top-dollar artists. Open Tuesday-Sunday. 1821 East Dock Street. Vetri: 253/383-3692; vetriglass.com. Traver: 253/383-3685; travergallery.com.
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, TACOMA, LIBRARY
Ask someone to point you toward the room with the 23-foot Chinook Red Chandelier. The power and warmth of this squiggly, near-monochromatic mass of glass will make you ponder the fact that for many years no one was interested in buying Chihuly’s chandeliers.
Open daily during the school year. 1902 Commerce Street; 253/692-4440.
WALK THE WALK
Two Chihuly walks, actually. Tacoma Art Museum’s docent-led walks offer a good two-hour introduction to Chihuly at the Tacoma Art Museum, the Chihuly Bridge of Glass and Union Station. Tours start at the museum, Tuesday-Saturday, at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. The $10 admission includes museum admission. 1701 Pacific Avenue; 253/272-4258; tacomaartmuseum.org.
The other Chihuly walk is the new cellphone tour, Ear for Art. It’s available 24/7 and covers all the sites mentioned in this article. Call 888/411-4220.
PARK ‘N’ EAT
For information on parking at the Tacoma Art Museum, visit http://www.tacomaartmuseum.org/page.asp?view=177.
For information on parking at the Tacoma Dome and taking the very cool streetcar into the Museum District, or for information on bus service from Seattle, visit www.piercetransit.org/tds2.htm.
The Swiss (above) is a great place for university vibes, local brews, and creative sandwiches as well as conventional pub fare. If you’re up for fusion cuisine in a grand and avant setting, go for Indochine Asian Dining Lounge Restaurant; 1924 Pacific Avenue, 253/272-8200. At the very least, stop by for a peek and a killer gelato cone.