Fire, risk and accident shape glassblower who shattered norms

Cover of Chihuly on FireKnown for his signature eye patch, Dale Chihuly lost sight in his left eye at the height of his career in the 1970’s, losing the depth perception so critical to precise glassblowing.

Forcing a pivot in the artist’s process, the injury led to the very kinds of asymmetrical glass forms that have become synonymous with Chihuly’s creative style.

“Chihuly was the first person in glass to exploit accident in an art form that—until then—was celebrated for its exactitude,” said Henry Adams, the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University and author of the new book Chihuly on Fire.

Still active at 74 and widely regarded as the world’s greatest living master in glass, Chihuly’s works capture the restlessness and essence of his subjects, often plant and animal forms brimming with elaborate ribbing and streaks of color.

“He is unbound by the limitations the word ‘glass’ suggests,” said Adams. “He’s produced art unlike anything ever seen in glass before.”

Playing off accidents

In the book, Adams notes the irony inherent in the accident that reshaped the artist’s life and work: Glass—Chihuly’s chosen medium of expression—has also been his nemesis; in fact, it nearly killed him.

Thrown through a windshield in a traffic accident in 1976—requiring 250 stitches in his face—Chihuly lost function in his left eye. Six months into his recuperation, he set about to re-learn his craft.

Artist working on glass blown artIn no time, “…[he] progressed from forms that seemed clumsy and misshapen to some of the most astonishingly beautiful objects ever made in glass,” writes Adams.

The eye patch has become an unmistakable ingredient of his persona, “endowing him with a mysterious quality setting him apart from everyone else,” Adams continues.

Paradoxically, the auto accident proved to be a career breakthrough: While Chihuly maintains a strong grasp on the act of blowing glass, the technical skills of many artisans go beyond those he developed before and after his accident. Thus, Chihuly leads a studio of skilled glassblowers to execute his imagination—similar to many professional sculptors, who rely on specialized foundry workers.

“He plays the role of coach of the team,” said Adams, who followed Chihuly in his Seattle workshop, watching how the artist creates drawings of ideas to suggest directions for his well-coordinated crew.

Shaping glass into an art form

Throughout his 50-plus-year career, Chihuly confronted a hesitation in critical circles to consider glassblowing to be art, rather than merely a craft.

“He’s had trouble getting folks to take him seriously outside of his circle,” said Adams. “Still, if you’re successful you attract criticism—that’s the nature of being an artist.”

glass blown artOften commanding six-figure prices, Chihuly artworks and installations—in hotels, casinos, botanical gardens and other large-scale locations—reflect the value placed on creations that push into new territory, especially at critical junctures in an artist’s career.

“You get to a point where you can repeat yourself and other people can catch up with you—or you can make some kind of new innovation, where you’re moving forward to a place other glass artists aren’t attaining,” said Adams. “Chihuly has made a life of that.”

While much has been written about Chihuly before, the narrative of his life so far has remained fragmentary, said Adams. Chihuly on Fire, adapted from an essay Adams wrote 20 years ago and now published by the Chihuly Workshop, seeks to align the disparate stages of the artist’s career and reveal the scope of his achievement.

“We come to see a coherent artistic vision—and maybe for the first time—understand the breadth of risk and intelligence in his work,” said Adams.

Henry Adams

“Glass is shaped with fire and has very strong element of danger,” added Adams. “I suspect that one of the attractions of glass for Chihuly is this element of danger.”

Chihuly on Fire comes on the heels of another recent Adams book on an American artist, Thomas Hart Benton: Discoveries and Interpretations, released in fall 2015 and profiled in The Daily.

Adams also unveiled research on the architecture of Thomas Jefferson at the 225th anniversary celebration of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston in January, which coincided with the opening of the exhibit, “The Private Jefferson,” featuring Jefferson’s personal papers and architectural drawings.