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Forging art and business in Dale Chihuly’s workshop

September 8, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
Artist Dale Chihuly has become synonymous with reimagining what glass can do. Having long ago stopped blowing glass himself, at 75, he heads an art world enterprise at his Seattle studio. But using a team of artists to create his works has also raised questions over who is really making his art. Jeffrey Brown visits Chihuly at his studio to discuss his career, his mental health and more.
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JOHN YANG: Turning glass into art has been Dale Chihuly’s passion for more than 50 years.

Working with such a fragile medium requires both brute strength and a delicate dance, as Jeffrey Brown found out when he visited Chihuly at his Seattle studios.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s the white-hot center of an art world phenomenon, the Hot Shop of Chihuly Studio in Seattle, where glass is heated, blown, and shaped into sculptures that have made Dale Chihuly internationally renowned for reimagining what glass can do, off-kilter baskets, giant chandeliers, installations with hundreds of parts, vibrant colors.

Most of us think of glass as a real fragile thing, right? What makes them good for art?

DALE CHIHULY, Glass Artist: Very few materials does the light go through.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

DALE CHIHULY: And it’s also manipulated in so many ways, as you see here today.

JEFFREY BROWN: The work here takes great skill, and it’s thrilling to watch. The heat is intense, more than 2,000 degrees in the glory hole, or furnace. The pipes are heavy. The action is fast.

It looks to me like a million things could go wrong.

DALE CHIHULY: Yes. Well, mostly, it could get too hot and touch back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Whoa.

The glass moves, as we watched master gaffer Jim Mongrain spin out this experimental piece. And things can and occasionally do go awry.

DALE CHIHULY: Now you see what can go wrong.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Dale Chihuly lost vision in his left eye in a 1976 car crash. And physical injuries long ago forced him to stop blowing glass himself.

At 75, he heads a multimillion-dollar enterprise, employing at least 100 craftspeople, designers, marketing, sales and exhibitions teams, and others. And he’s a man obsessed when it comes to collecting: sheets of stamps, books on Van Gogh, toy soldiers, Pendleton blankets, on and on, housed in his boathouse building.

Chihuly has long had his critics, who see more commerce than art. But the public loves him, and even by his lofty standards, 2017 has been a banner year, with major exhibitions including the Buffett Cancer Center in Omaha, Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas, and the New York Botanical Garden, where his plant-like works amid the natural flora and fauna are attracting huge crowds this summer.

If there’s a motto here, it’s think big.

DALE CHIHULY: I do think big. Usually, I try to work big. And in terms of the exhibitions, the bigger the venue, the more people that see it. And I like to bring the work to people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Why is that important to you?

DALE CHIHULY: Well, it makes me think that, you know, people will probably be happy when they see my work. And that makes me feel good.

JEFFREY BROWN: But even as crowds continue to come, including at the museum under Seattle’s Space Needle that’s dedicated to his work, this may also be the most difficult moment in Chihuly’s illustrious career, Amid renewed questions over, as a recent New York Times article asked, who is really making Chihuly art?

DALE CHIHULY: I didn’t like that headline.

(LAUGHTER)

DALE CHIHULY: But I had to live with it.

JEFFREY BROWN: That hurt you?

DALE CHIHULY: It’s a good question. If you answered that, the answer to that question was a team. I don’t think it was the best choice of words for the headline.

JEFFREY BROWN: The trouble began earlier this summer, with a lawsuit by a former contractor who claims he helped create paintings by Chihuly, but was never paid or properly credited.

Court documents portray a contentious back and forth, a man named Michael Moi claiming he participated in myriad clandestine painting Sessions, including when Chihuly himself contributed little to the conception or creative process.

Chihuly denies all of Moi’s claims about the work, saying Moi was nothing but a handyman who observed some of Dale’s struggles with mental illness and threatened to make them public.

Citing ongoing litigation, Chihuly declined to discuss the specifics of the case, but he did speak of his approach to making art, and of suffering for decades from bipolar disorder and depression.

Do you know what triggers the depression?

DALE CHIHULY: No, no idea. No idea how long it’s going to last or when it’s going to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you can’t really function during those periods?

DALE CHIHULY: Well, I function. I mean, I still come into the studio every day. I just don’t function as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much has that been a factor in your life and in your work?

DALE CHIHULY: It’s certainly been a factor. I mean, when I’m on the upside, I have got a lot more ideas and a lot more energy. And when I’m on the downside, you know, I don’t feel that way. I’m more depressed.

But, fortunately, I have that team that can kind of carry on with what I was doing when I’m on the downside.

JEFFREY BROWN: That team approach, he says, also applies to his painting. In a session we were allowed to film, assistants had already prepped the canvas, in this case, half-inch acrylic.

Chihuly spent minutes on each, squirting paint, pounding on splotches in quick gestures, toward flower designs.

DALE CHIHULY: I like to work fast. And I don’t have to do a lot of the steps that somebody else might want to do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Chihuly says he’s working in a long tradition of artists who’ve used workshops to carry out their vision.

So, then, how do you define your own role?

DALE CHIHULY: I define it as, let’s say, the director of a movie, you know?

Think about the making of a movie, and how many people it takes, and what the director does, not that they all work exactly the same. Or maybe think of an architect. Think of Frank Gehry. What does Frank do, exactly? And how many people are really involved in making one of his extraordinary buildings?

JEFFREY BROWN: So, a lot of people have the romantic idea of the lonely artist, struggling alone.

DALE CHIHULY: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: That is not you?

DALE CHIHULY: That is not me.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you separate the art from the business? Or is it all of a piece for — of what Chihuly is at this point?

DALE CHIHULY: It’s hard to separate it, you know? I mean, we do big projects that involve a lot of money. And I can’t say that I’m not interested in that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because it takes a lot of money to keep this place going, I would think, huh?

DALE CHIHULY: A lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: And also a lot of energy, which Chihuly claims he still has as well, as a firm grip on the creative vision for his studio.

DALE CHIHULY: I haven’t decided to retire yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the suggestions of a weaker Dale Chihuly, less in control, those — wrong?

DALE CHIHULY: Yes, it hasn’t — we haven’t decided to do that. The first indication would be fewer people working for me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that hasn’t happened?

DALE CHIHULY: And that hasn’t happened.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m talking to you in a year where I see you have, I don’t know how many major exhibitions. So it — it’s been a good year, right?

DALE CHIHULY: Yes. It’s not a retiring year. Let’s put it that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And even in the shadow of the lawsuit, Chihuly glass is being blown for projects lined up for years to come.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Seattle.

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