Glass Artist Dale Chihuly Seduces Eyes, And Blows Minds, At The MFA

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You might know Dale Chihuly’s work without knowing you know it. The Seattle-based glass artist's surreal large-scale forms — chandeliers, orbs, pointy icicle towers — have wowed people all over the world. They look like giant pieces of shiny candy, hanging over canals in Venice, floating in botanical gardens, also in galleries and at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas.

Here at the Museum of Fine Arts, with an eye-popping 40-year retrospective called “Through the Looking Glass," Chihuly is doing something he’s never done before — describing his visually enchanting works to students who are blind.

"This one has been blown into an optical mold, so the optical mold makes ridges on the glass, so it kind of makes the edge going around kind of undulating, like scallops," he explains to the group from the Perkins School for the Blind. Then Chihuly asks them to pass around an object that resembles the amorphous, flowery shaped things that fill the first installation.

For Chihuly, One Accident Led To A New Perspective

The students run their fingers along a smooth, glass piece made with scorching heat, gravity and centrifugal force at Chihuly’s studio — or "hot shop" — in Seattle. They "see" the sculpture with their hands. And they respond to the artist. Curiously. Warmly. Perhaps because he’s also visually impaired.

"Because I don't have the sight in my left eye, I don't have any depth perception," Chihuly says to them, adding, "I also don't have any peripheral vision on my left side." This eye injury is the result of a car accident. It happened in 1976. Chihuly was driving to see another artist while visiting England and hit the windshield. He wasn't wearing a seat belt.

Glass artist Dale Chihuly (Andrea Shea)
Glass artist Dale Chihuly (Andrea Shea)

It took months for Chihuly to recuperate. To this day he wears an eye patch. Instead of holding him back, though, that accident could be seen as a turning point in the glass-blowing artist’s career.

"I've often wondered what the lack of depth perception, what it does for me, because it's truly difficult to know where things are in space without two eyes. But somehow I think it's probably made me see things differently, and probably made my work different than somebody else’s," Chihuly said.

It also changed the way Chihuly executed his art. After the accident he no longer felt safe manipulating molten glass, so a head gaffer (as glass-blowers are called), took over the hands-on work and Chihuly expanded his team into something of an army.

Team Chihuly

"It’s a big crew, altogether it’s about 90 people," he said.

And Chihuly choreographs all of them — from glass-blowers to installation experts. They start with his drawings or paintings, and end with surreal, fluidic sculptures. Chihuly compares himself to a conductor or film director.

"I like working with a team because one, you can do so much more, but also they influence what you're doing," he said, elaborating, "So the more creative they are, the more creative I am."

"I've often wondered what the lack of depth perception does for me, but somehow I think it's probably made me see things differently."

Dale Chihuly

"I like to think he’s like Bill Belichick," said Gerry Ward, curator or Decorative Arts and Sculpture at the MFA. "That’s what a coach does — he gets a group of people moving in the same direction with a common goal, but the vision is his."

The Art Of Blowing Glass

And Ward said Chihuly revolutionized the art of blowing glass, "in the use of color and in the size of some of the vessels he’s been able to make. But it’s his own interpretation of them that I think makes him so special, and I think this ability to work on a grand scale. As he always says, 'If big is good, bigger is better. If one is terrific, twelve is even better.' "

The "more is better" mantra is a familiar one for Tom Lind, Team Chihuly’s project manager. He's worked with the artist for 19 years, and said even with so many projects and people to orchestrate, Chihuly is not a Hitchcockian control freak. Instead he encourages the team to experiment with shapes, assemblages, and a palette of some 500 unique colors.

"There’s been more than once where he’s said, 'Yeah, give it a go, but if I don’t like it I’m not going to use it,' but at least you have to try because if you don’t try you’ll never know," Lind reflected, adding, "that’s a great part, where you get to explore."

Lind flew to Boston two weeks before Chihuly arrived to oversee the massive show’s installation. Thousands of pieces of glass traveled across country in six semi trucks. Standing in the gallery, we watched as the crew unpacked and put together a 58 foot-long fantastical work called “Mille Fiore.”

"It’s kind of a festival of colors. Mille Fiore means 1,000 flowers," Lind said.

This week "Mille Fiore" is complete and ready for the public’s eyes.

Chihuly's 'Mind-Blowing' Sculptures

"It’s mind-blowing, it really is," said Dave Wildman, a cultural critic and writer for Time Out Boston. Until this week's press preview he’d only seen pictures of Chihuly’s candy-colored sculptures.

"When I walked around the corner and saw this particular exhibit here, I felt like I was walking into the movie 'Avatar.' It also has this — I don’t know if I should say this," he laughed, "but I get this sort of head shop kind of feel."

"On the contrary, there's no reference to a head shop," Chihuly said, amused.

But there are references to Chihuly’s love of the sea. As a kid he said he walked along the shore picking up pieces of beach glass. And his Seattle studio is on the water. The artist's connection to nature is obvious in his work. The dazzling, organic-looking sculptures seem to have a life of their own. They pulse. And yes, they’re trippy. Seductive. They draw you in, tantalizing your senses. But not just the sense of sight. In fact, the MFA might want to hire a few extra guards to watch over "Through the Looking Glass," because I have to say it’s really hard to stop yourself from reaching out and touching the thousands of colorful pieces in the show.


This program aired on April 8, 2011.

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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