Strategically hidden behind trees and shrubs next to the Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass offers catnip glimpses of its treasures in between all that greenery. Snippets of astoundingly vibrant sculpted glass, in myriad forms and colors, effectively seduced me enough to fork over the entrance fee to see what this beguiling collection was. And, thus, I was introduced to the genius of Dale Chihuly.
Born in 1941 in neighboring Tacoma, Dale Chihuly has devoted his life to crafting glass as a fine art. After graduating from the University of Washington, he enrolled in the first glass program in the United States, at the University of Michigan, and received a Fulbright Fellowship to study the art in that beacon of glass blowing, Venice. He established the glass program at the Rhode Island School of Design and later cofounded an international glass center in Washington State. Despite being blinded in his left eye following a serious car accident in England, Chihuly soldiered on, creating extraordinary works of blown glass, until a shoulder injury made the heavy lifting involved in the process impossible. Nevertheless, he has left a legacy of fantastic, and fantastical, art.
Bestowed with a dozen honorary doctorates as well as two NEA fellowships, Chihuly has been rightly recognized for his talents. His prolific output can be found in more than 200 museums around the world, and since my introduction to his pieces in Seattle I’ve seen his work at the entrance to the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska; scattered around the grounds of Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida; and in one of the largest permanent collections of his work, at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, where a 55-foot tower of 2,100 individual hand-blown glass pieces (illuminated 24 hours a day) that weighs 12,000 lbs. greeted me. But Seattle still retains its pride of place as my favorite.
Chihuly was invited to be a part of the rejuvenation of the Seattle Center, designing an exhibition hall, garden installation, and a glasshouse on a 1½-acre plot next to the Space Needle. Opened in 2012 as Chihuly Garden and Glass, this stimulating display of glass has been charming visitors ever since, and as soon as I entered, I fell under its spell.
Meandering around the indoor galleries, I was captivated by Chihuly’s command of the medium, shaping heated glass (at a scorching 2,150°F) with the consistency of honey into a wide variety of shapes and forms before letting it cool for several hours into a fragile permanence. A chandelier of twisting swirls of pale-yellow glass tapers down to bubbles, some with a dollop of a bud about to blossom. The 20-foot-tall Sealife Tower teems with amber-colored seashells, snails, starfish, and other sea creatures swimming through the azure, turquoise, and cobalt-blue tendrils of kelp-like glass. The Persian Ceiling above me looked like a random collection of glass objets d’art you would find piled up in an attic, backlit and resting on a flat panel of clear glass supported on beams and throwing reflections of rippled colors onto the white walls below it. A full garden of glass flora—resembling lily pads and reeds and aloe plants—bursts into color in Mille Fiori, Italian for “a thousand flowers.” Although that would be a perfectly accurate title of this work, it takes on a second, more resonant meaning: Mille fiori actually refers to a type of honey, when bees are collecting it not from one type of flower, but from many—a thousand flowers—and the nod is given to the viscous honey-like consistency of the heated glass as it’s being crafted.
My favorite pieces were the Ikebana and Float boats. Resting on highly polished black Plexiglas, these two rowboats are filled with glass—the former with curvy, translucent floral shapes that harken back to the Japanese art of flower arrangements that started in the seventh century; the latter with varying sizes of speckled, spotted, and striped balls, like a concentrated collection of planets from around the universe in colors that would make Day-Glo jealous. These creations stem from Chihuly’s time in Finland, where a local river served as his afflatus to throw large glass forms off a small bridge into it to see how the glass interacted with water and light. Teenagers would scoop them out of the river and amass them in their rowboats, bringing them back to shore. Chihuly liked the way the glass looked in the boats, and voila!—an unanticipated masterpiece.
Upon entering the 400-foot-tall, 4,500-square-foot arched glasshouse, my eyes were immediately drawn upward to the massive sculpture hanging from the ceiling. One of Chihuly’s largest suspended sculptures—at an astounding 100 feet long—this piece comprises many individual elements, all in shades of amber, orange, red, and yellow. Although this single piece dominates the room, there’s plenty of negative space to walk around it and admire it from directly below or off to the sides. You’ll also love looking at all those fiery colors reflected in the sheer walls of the building as well as at the illuminated Space Needle towering above you through the clear glass ceiling—a deliberate setup by Chihuly, stemming from his lifelong appreciation of conservatory design.
I exited the glasshouse into the garden. Dusk had long passed, and a perfect night had descended upon Seattle, freshly scrubbed from another day of rain. Here in this 26,000-square-foot outdoor space—the source of the refulgent patch I had spied from the Space Needle—I strolled along paths lined with a wide variety of trees, shrubs, perennials, grasses, ferns, vines, and flowers specifically chosen to complement both the smaller installations and the handful of monumental sculptures they accompany, all glowing in striking colors. I stopped to admire the absurdly tall and slender Reeds on Logs; the Icicle Tower, a column of spiky citron glass that might have broken off a Gatorade ice palace; the Crystal Tower, a pillar of fuchsia-colored crystals you might expect to find in a geology museum; and the Sun, an explosive 13’-high orb churning in yellow and orange, as if Medusa’s unruly, living snake-hair had been transformed into glass and was experiencing hundreds of solar flares simultaneously.
Chihuly has said that he wanted people “to be overwhelmed with light and color in a way they have never experienced.” After visiting Chihuly Glass and Garden, you’ll be richer from the realization of his dream—and the fact that he achieved it so perfectly.