I'm standing with Dale Chihuly in a large open, high-ceilinged room called the hot shop. The reason for the name is immediately clear. Along one wall several furnaces glow orange -- this is where the glass goes for its transition to the molten state -- and the heat can be felt ten feet away. Another wall contains row on row of colored glass rods that will be ground up and added to the clear glass according to Dale's design.
Like an alchemist who magically turns lead into gold, Dale Chihuly turns plain glass into works of art. It's easy to understand why his creations are in high demand among private collectors, institutions and museums around the world. In fact his work is so well regarded and so well known that the mere mention of Chihuly conjures up images of impossibly beautiful curves, shapes and colors, fantastic compositions that transform common light into something extraordinary.
Dale is soft spoken and reserved, tranquil as he stands calmly sipping his coffee, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding din and clatter and ordered chaos of the hot shop. A small army of artisans hurry about, moving deliberately from one task to the next, each intent on his or her own contribution to the act of creation.
This is a team effort and Dale is constantly asking for their opinions, input and creativity, which he happily encourages them to incorporate into the work. There is, after all, a lot of spontaneity and serendipity in the glass. But make no mistake; it's Dale's vision. He is in charge. Every ship needs a captain.
"Watch closely," Dale says, "this all happens very quickly."
A gaffer spins molten glass at the end of a blowpipe and the glass begins to change. Dale's right, it does happen fast. There's not much time before the glass will cool and lose its plasticity, so Dale steps in with two large paddles, and in a few deft motions, what was an amorphous mass a few moments before is now an incredible work of art.
Dale Chihuly has been doing this for nearly 50 years now, and man, he is good.
But Dale's work goes far beyond creating and displaying the single piece. In fact, it's rare to see one in isolation. An important part of his art is the way in which he combines individual artifacts into compositions that are sometimes incredibly complex and sometimes elegantly simple.
Dale and his team have mounted amazing large-scale exhibitions at locations across the globe, including one in Jerusalem that drew a million visitors. True, his art works on a grand scheme, but it's also accessible at a more intimate scale, too. Even a simple arrangement of a few pieces thoughtfully lit on a table or shelf is a happy event not to be missed.
Dale Chihuly's next exhibition, Through the Looking Glass, will be in Boston at the Museum of Fine Arts from Sunday, April 10th 2011, through Sunday, August 7th 2011. For more information, visit mfa.org or www.mfa.org, or chihuly.com.
Darby Roach is a designer and a writer and heads up his own marketing agency, Orbit Direct. His most recent book, Your Three Second Window, demystifies the design process by explaining why we like the things we like, how to see and think as a designer, and what each of us can do to introduce harmony into our lives through enhanced aesthetic experiences.
Find out more about Darby and follow his blog at DarbyRoach.com