Color and Light in Chihuly’s Garden and Glass

A boat balances on its edge overflowing with irregular forms that reflect the mirror below and cast shadows on the surrounding walls. Inspired by the Japanese art of ikebana flower arrangements, Dale Chihuly’s “Niijima Float Boats” are one of many large-scale installations that both amaze and inspire. Chihuly’s work has been an obsession of mine for a few years now since I was first introduced to a show in the Frederik Meijer Gardens of Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2010. I attended the Meijer Gardens to write a paper for my Art History class but was swept into the magic of his glass sculptures specifically designed to complement the natural elements.

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The Chihuly Garden and Glass museum is one of Seattle’s main attractions and rightfully so. We pre-ordered our tickets to enter the museum when it first opened on a Monday morning in anticipation for the main event of the day. Fifteen minutes into the galleries, my camera froze with an SD-card error message that could not be reset. I feared not only missing the opportunity to photograph the glass art but that all my previous pictures would be lost and no more able to be photographed with only a couple days into our vacation. Security made an exception for us to leave and return to the museum so that we could hail an Uber to our hotel and I could insert a new camera card. While the original card still had an error, thankfully, we were able to continue with the back-up card. While this turn of events deflated my initial excitement, Derek picked up my spirits by taking turns with the camera so that we could enjoy the experience together.

As we proceeded through the gallery spaces, each room emphasized the magnificence of the glass with dramatic illumination of colorful shapes and patterns. Chandeliers defy gravity and spiraling rods of contrasting color schemes elevate past eye-level from the ground up. We were immersed into an otherworldly experience from mere objects that could slip through fingers and crash into tiny pieces. Chihuly changed the game of glass as a fine art form by working from an experimental impulse to create beautiful things in collaboration with a team of glassblowers who share in his creative process. His very persona is expressive and dramatic. Chihuly himself wears bright, solid colors, sketches with a fist of colored pencils and a splatters a tube of paint onto paper to express all three-hundred colors of glass fibers available to him in the hot shop.

Installations such as the Ikebana Niijima Float Boats, Northwest Baskets, and Macchia Forest are examples of Chihuly’s appreciation for cultures that influence his work. As a native of next-door Tacoma, Washington, Chihuly has collected Northwest Coast baskets and over seven-hundred blankets from local tribes. Influenced by colorful woven threads, Chihuly experimented with glass fibers in his Baskets and Cylinders that complement the patterns of Native American traditions while pushing the boundaries of symmetrical, functional glass forms. Chihuly’s float boats reflect water and light from his experiences observing teenagers with fishing nets floating off the coast of a village outside of Tokyo called Niijima that reminded him of growing up along the beaches of Puget Sound. The Macchia series is inspired by the Italian word for “spot” where each open form is speckled with shards of colored glass when rolling the molten glass during the blowing process.

We were also able to observe a short demonstration of the glass-blowing process by an artist who guided visitors through the steps of expanding a glass bubble from a very powerful open flame. After viewing the installation spaces, we watched a couple short films documenting Chihuly’s teamwork and creative process on site-specific projects around the world. Masters of the technical craft, these artists push his ideas to the limits to create pieces that are as large and thin as they can be when combined to set the stage for splendor.

Chihuly Garden and Glass

The museum pieces continue into a glasshouse that Chihuly designed himself and also outside where glass is paired with horticulture that brought me back to my first visit of the gardens in Grand Rapids where each piece interacts with its environment to either blend in or completely stand out. While I was most captivated by the colors and reflections in the Ikebana Floats, Derek’s favorite installation was the Sealife series representing underwater creatures in monochromatic variations of blues. Each piece is comprised of hundreds, if not thousands, of individual glass objects that play a small part in the grand design viewed as one large tower of creativity. After experiencing Chihuly’s work in person, it can feel as if other artwork pales in comparison to these larger-than-life-sized works of drama. While we browsed the gift shop of Chihuly-themed trinkets, we chuckled at the giant sequoia seedlings for sale that could reach the heights of clouds over generations. With that, we left the spell of Chihuly’s magic behind us and sighed in contentment with colorful glass flickering in our thoughts.  

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