Letter From Washington

Heart of Glass

When folks say “art” in Seattle, they reach for their Chihuly.

The New Northwest’s distinguishing feature isn’t rain or money or coffee. It’s Chihuly. Not “Dale Chihuly.” Not “glass art by Dale Chihuly.” Chihuly is all you need to say, whether you’re talking about a particular glass piece (“a Chihuly”) or evoking the movement, the institution, the aesthetic, and the regional identity epitomized by the Northwest’s (and the glass world’s) most famous artist. Not since Bernini decked Rome with fountains, or at least not since the Wyeths became Maine’s official art family, has an artist so exemplified the spirit of a city or region–and it took three generations of Wyeths. Chihuly’s work doesn’t say anything outright about us, but he’s the best mirror we’ve got for divining what we’ve come to today.

A little background, with apologies to anyone who lives here and already knows it all. Dale Chihuly is the artist/celebrity who gets most of the credit for elevating glass blowing from one more craft to a bona fide–and wildly popular and lucrative–art form. He grew up in Tacoma, Seattle’s soporific little-sister city, and headed first back East, and then to Venice, to study in the emerging studio glass movement. In 1972, on a tree farm north of Seattle, he founded the Pilchuck Glass School, which made that movement an institution even as he turned it into an industry.

Try as we may, we can’t escape the glass Chihuly makes (or rather, has others make): the lurid “Venetians,” writhing “sea forms,” and extravagant, candleless “chandeliers” resembling giant wasps’ nests or clusters of water-filled condoms. The loftiest galleries and living rooms out here have their Chihuly bowls; the crasser tourist galleries stock copycats. To gain “Seattle credibility,” the apartment set in the sitcom Frasier sprouted one. No new cultural palace or festival shopping experience is complete without a Chihuly (click here if you think I’m exaggerating). Seattle’s new symphony hall boasts two Chihuly chandeliers.

Chihuly himself is just as much a fixture as his Chihulys, especially in of the Seattle Times’ gossip column. (Sample: “While a tour of the [Chihuly] studio is standard for celebrities, Bono did it one better. He tried his hand … at glass blowing.”) The Seattle Opera commissioned a set (in Mylar) from Chihuly. Only Leonardo da Vinci and King Tut have topped the attendance record set by Chihuly at the Seattle Art Museum. The first project Paul Allen picked for his new film company was a study of artists’ inspirations, including … you guessed it. But the ultimate confirmation of Chihuly’s stature is the lottery hometown artists stage to mock Seattle’s star-struck provincialism and celebrity fawning: The winner gets to “smash a Chihuly.”

But Seattle still lags behind its erstwhile rival Tacoma in Chihuly-mania. For Tacoma, glass is a last chance at world stature. Its grandest landmark, the Neo-Baroque Union Station, has been renovated and reopened as a Chihuly showcase, with the mother of all chandeliers in its atrium and more big pieces scattered around. This is just the warm-up to the International Glass Museum (originally the “Chihuly Glass Center”) being built on Tacoma’s waterfront, reached by a 474-foot “Chihuly Bridge of Glass.” Tacoma’s captains of industry and finance all ponied up for it. As one of them told the Times, “Every downtown needs a niche.”

Chihuly is the natural choice for Tacoma and not just because he’s a native son. His is the perfect art for boosters, wannabes, new money, and self-conscious arrivistes. In other words, perfect for the precociously wealthy, culturally callow New Northwest. Glass has the museum seal of approval, but it’s supremely and (as practiced by Chihuly) almost purely decorative–blissfully unburdened with threatening, ambiguous, or other meanings. “You don’t have to be smart or art-historically sophisticated to understand these,” a Chihuly’s assistant explains in one of several documentaries on him by Seattle’s public TV station. “They’re merely beautiful.” Forget Sister Wendy and her gloomy paintings; glass, shimmering and vacant, is the ideal TV art, a match for Riverdance and the tenors.

Glass also suits a money-drunk, technology-intoxicated place like the Northwest. It’s showy and luxurious, as glittery as jewelry and a hundred times bigger. It’s hard, slick and, literally, edgy. At the same time, Chihuly taps an earlier, earthier ecotopic sensibility. His forms evoke not only phalli and vaginas but sea squirts and anemones–the marine biosphere that sustained the first Northwesterners, which we still delude ourselves into thinking we’re sustaining. His “baskets” mimic Native American basketry outright. The implicit, if wishful, message: We can have our machines and money and preserve the wild, unspoiled Northwest.

But beautiful Chihulys are just part of the Chihuly phenomenon. Chihuly himself is the main show. With his rampant curls, bluff growl, black eye patch, and bright-colored pirate shirts and scarves, he’s the perfect foil to geek chic, a year-round version of the “Seafair Pirates” who frolic at our big summer parade–the artist for the new buccaneer capitalism, the jester who amuses (but never challenges) the geeks. He reprises the Renaissance role of artist as courtier, standing like a third senator onstage when President Clinton visits, partying on Paul Allen’s yacht with Robin Williams, Candice Bergen and, of course, Bill and Melinda Gates. This year, when Gates hosted his annual CEO Summit, the world’s most celebrated gathering of tycoons, who provided the entertainment? The Vienna Philharmonic and, with “an exhibition of glass-blowing art,” Dale Chihuly.

Not that he blows glass himself, though he still says things like this, from the 1994 book Chihuly Baskets: “Glass blowing is a very spontaneous medium, and its suits me. … I’ve been at it for thirty years and am as infatuated as when I blew my first bubble.” Chihuly hasn’t actually blown since 1976, when an auto accident cost him an eye and his depth perception–and made his career. He acquired the trademark dashing eye patch, without which he’d be just another chubby little guy with frizzy hair. And he hired other people, including top Italian masters, to blow more glass than he could alone–enough to make him the Christo of glass, decking Northwest streams and (you’ve gotta admire the chutzpah) Venetian canals with bright globes and tubes.

The Eye-Patched One has gone far, and so has this town. How far? Consider the other time, 50 years ago, that Seattle had a distinctive, defining artistic tradition–and not one but two celebrity artists. Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and others in the generation later dubbed “Northwest visionaries” drank deep of both the drizzly, mossy natural scene and of Asian art and philosophy. Tobey sketched spinach hawkers and bums at the downtown Pike Place Public Market and was sometimes mistaken for one. Graves hid out in the deep woods. Tobey painted calligraphic “white paintings” and Graves bodhisattva birds, in delicate gouache and pastel–media notably unsuited to large atriums. Today these seem as quaint as hand-bound books or handwritten letters.

Chihuly succeeds because he’s not a maker of art in the usual sense; he’s a coach, ringmaster, and impresario–and, above all, an entrepreneur. No one expects entrepreneurs to do the production work. No one argues anymore over whether Gates is really a techie or worries about Jeff Bezos’ literary taste. And no one cares whether Chihuly blows glass.

Like Seattle’s software, bookselling, and coffee tycoons, Chihuly has triumphed by marketing and branding the hell out of his product, elevating it to something at once precious and ubiquitous. The Northwest trick is not so much to create something out of nothing as making something very large out of something small, and then repeating the process. A hundred million PCs, a billion “personalized” book and CD sales, a zillion cups of coffee … or hundreds of chandeliers made of brittle blades of glass. Which is, after all, just melted silicon.