At 78, Glass Artist Dale Chihuly Is Adapting to New Challenges and as Busy as Ever

Dale Chihuly, known for his monumental glass installations, has lately been working on paper and considering the potential of exhibiting online.

Dale Chihuly at work in his studio. Copyright Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved.

From a studio in Washington state, where COVID-19 hit hard in the pandemic’s early days, Dale Chihuly, at 78, is producing elegant new objects that draw their inspiration from lace. The style, which he calls Chihuly Merletto, has its roots in the island of Murano in the Venetian lagoon.

The “lace” refers to delicate patterns in transparent basket shapes. Chihuly’s palette, usually explosive in its color, is mostly white and black here, although red trim sneaks in on the darker objects.

Virtual visitors can sample Chihuly Merletto at the Traver Gallery in Seattle, where the works are being shown (and sold) for the first time. Arranged on long tables, rather than on pedestals, the glass objects have the feel of excavated antiquities. The artist’s drawings for these new works, also on view, distill the swirling patterns into two dimensions.

SEE ALSO: How the Rise of Quarantine Nudes Inspired Artists Working in Isolation

Next month (July 18), Chihuly opens an indoor and outdoor exhibition at Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville, marking the tenth anniversary of his last show there, which drew 350,000 visitors. No surprise, there’s a summer floral theme and the scale fits the surroundings—the other end of the spectrum from subdued lace.

A new work in the style of Chihuly Merletto. Copyright Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved.

By email, the artist reflected on the new Merletto style and on adjustments that he’s made during the pandemic.

On the origins of the lace-like Chihuly Merletto⁠—“I noticed similarities between the patterns of the ancient technique of merletto, which was developed by the Muranese in the 15th century, and drawings I had created with a bundle of pencils held in my hand. This inspired me to explore the merletto technique in a new way and take on this unique challenge.”

A preparatory sketch for a new sculpture Copyright Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved.
And this year has come with challenges beyond those he set for himself. “Because of CDC and Washington state guidelines on social distancing and safety, we are unable to blow glass in the hotshop,” Chihuly says. Glassblowing is generally a two-person job at minimum, and for the kind of work Chihuly makes, often more. But the break allowed him to turn his attention elsewhere. “For the past few months, I have been focused on drawing, which I love, and on my collections. While I miss my team, the time alone has provided a rare break for reflection.”

The pause in physical exhibitions also led Chihuly down new paths. “This time has helped us explore how virtual exhibitions can be woven into our traditional approach of showing work. In some ways, I do already show my work virtually⁠—we create a brief video for each exhibition and have several films of glassblowing featured on the Studio website.”

Dale Chihuly with a studio assistant.
Dale Chihuly with a studio assistant. Copyright Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved.

Being an artist known for creating monumental installations, it’s no surprise he feels that “the impact of art is most powerful in person.” And yet he just as readily admits, “But beauty knows no boundaries and translates well through digital means. Also, this is not exactly new. Not everyone can travel to exhibitions, and I know there are people who have been following my work via social media or the website for years, some without ever having the chance to see it in person. My team works with collectors via email regularly, and we can facilitate one-on-one Studio Gallery visits adhering to local safety guidelines. The scope of what we can do in person has been limited, but it hasn’t disappeared completely.”

A work in progress. Copyright Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved.

Though the art world has been shaken to its core by the social disruption mandated by Coronavirus restrictions, Chihuly knows it will bounce back. “Art will exist for as long as humans walk the earth. Whether it is a painting, a sculpture, a song, book, or movie, art inspires and heals. Artists are driven to express themselves, and if we are lucky, the work finds the right audience at the right time. Sales of artwork, and the demand for artwork, have and will always vary due to economic impacts that are out of our control. However, those who have a true appreciation for art will continue to find ways to engage with it, and artists will continue to pursue their creative practice.”

Update: An earlier version of this article stated Dale Chihuly’s age as 79. At the time of publication he was 78.

At 78, Glass Artist Dale Chihuly Is Adapting to New Challenges and as Busy as Ever