Interview with Dale Chihuly '63

Dale Chihuly signature

Much has been written about Dale Chihuly’s startling accomplishments as an artist—he is widely regarded as having single-handedly paved the way for glass to be accepted as a medium for serious art—but relatively few know about the 1963 Puget Sound alum’s Tacoma roots and his continuing commitment to his hometown. On a perfect Northwest summer afternoon, President Pierce caught up with her friend Dale Chihuly at the famous boathouse on Lake Union. What follows are excerpts from that meeting, a conversation that touched on everything from growing up in Tacoma to the influence of family to the thought behind Chihuly’s three-story window in the recently opened Wyatt Hall on campus.

Interview By Susan Resneck Pierce

Watch a slide show of the Wyatt Hall Chihuly Window installation

In the Evelyn Room, Seattle Boathouse

President Pierce: A great deal has been written about your art, but not much about your early life and what experiences led you to where you are today. So can we start at the beginning?

Dale Chihuly: I was born September 20, 1941, in Tacoma General Hospital. I don’t have very many early memories, certainly not before I was about 4 years old. I remember a little candy store–what we would now call a convenience store–around the corner.

We were on South 11th and Lawrence, less than a mile from the University. About a block from there is Franklin Elementary School, where I went to kindergarten and grade school. I ended up going to some other schools in Tacoma as well because we moved to Spokane for a year then moved back. I went to Grant and then Sherman and then Washington grade schools. So I ended up going to about four grade schools and then Mason Jr. High.

In 1950 we moved into the house where my mother is now, at North 33rd and Mason Street, which is about a mile from the University in the opposite direction of our old place.

My father, George S. Chihuly, was a butcher. Later he became a union organizer for the meat cutters and traveled a good deal of the time. He died of a heart attack in 1958 at the age of 51.

I was very close to my brother, George W., who was six years older than I. My brother went into the Naval air force when I was 15 and was killed flying a plane at Pensacola. My dad died the next year, and I think it may have been partly due to my brother’s death. That was a very rough time for both me and my mother.

Pierce: I know you are very close to your mother, who still lives in Tacoma.

Chihuly: She was a great mother, in truth, a very lenient mother, an if-you’re-going-to-do-something-wrong-you-should-do-it-at-home kind of mother. She had my brother when she was about 29 and had me when she was 35.

When my father was alive, she never really worked. After dad died he left us $5,000 in debt, a lot for those days. So my mother was forced to go to work. She was a barmaid at the Parkway Tavern, which still exists. They had a little grocery store there and she poured beer. She didn’t make much, but she would have given me anything. She never spent money on herself. You couldn’t even buy her a dress. She made it very clear that she was not interested in presents. Honestly, I don’t think she cares about objects. But she loves her house and she loves her garden and she likes to cook for people.

She encouraged me to go to college because she and my father never had the chance. My brother did get two years of college. One of the reasons he went into the Navy was to get a scholarship so he could go back. I think my dad always felt guilty about that a little bit because he probably could have saved some money and helped him out.

Pierce: So what inspired you, educationally?

Chihuly: I was not a particularly good student. Well, I was a pretty good student up to about the 4th or 5th grade. But after that I lost total interest in school. There may be many reasons: I got distracted by cars and girls and drinking–all those things that young boys do.

I got in trouble, too, in high school, for doing stuff I shouldn’t have. But, fortunately, and largely, I think, because of my mother’s influence, I managed to never get in very much trouble. I ran around with guys who ultimately did get in trouble. I would never–you know, sometimes we put out a street light, my first work in glass!–but I wouldn’t steal a car. I never got to that point.

No matter what happened, my mother always understood. She never came down on me very hard and never, ever, told me what to do. That’s why, later, when she asked me to go to college it was a big deal.

Pierce: It’s strange that you say you were uninterested in school. Clearly, you now have a very strong work ethic and your search for perfection is legendary.

Chihuly: It was just a question of wising up and applying myself. I always paid my own way, had a lot of jobs in Tacoma, starting with mowing lawns when I was about 11. Then I was a busboy. I worked at Bernie’s men’s store down on Broadway selling clothes. I worked for the railroad, switching trains; this would have been when I was about 16. I can’t even remember all the jobs I did. When I was 16, they let me into the meat cutters union. I know they shouldn’t have when I was 16–I think you had to be 18–but they let me in and I was a card-carrying union member. I went to work at the Hygrade meat packing plant, which was torn down just recently. While in school I could work in the summers and at night. I think I got $2.80 an hour in 1958, which was a good wage.

I didn’t have to slaughter cows; I worked on the assembly line. The guys down there admonished me to go to school now and then. "You don’t want to do this for the rest of your life," they said. I didn’t really want to go to school, but since my mother kept encouraging me to go to college, I said I would.

Pierce: As I recall, your mother specifically wanted you to attend Puget Sound.

Chihuly: Yes. I applied and got into what was then called the College of Puget Sound. I didn’t have great grades in high school, maybe a C average or a little better. I was 17 when I started in early September. I was a little younger than most, and I looked even younger.

I don’t exactly remember what I took at CPS at that time except two things: I took a weaving course, partly because I knew there would be a lot of girls in the class. Maybe that weaving course set some seeds. I remember being very interested in it. [Weaving later became a strong influence in Chihuly’s work.]

And I took a great course with Professor [Phil] Hager. He was famous for writing everything he did on 3x5 cards.

I really liked being at CPS. I liked the campus. I hadn’t had a lot of exposure to being around a university, and it seemed peaceful, academic, rarified.

Pierce: Your mother still keeps some of your earliest efforts in her home. Did you grow up knowing you were going to be an artist?

Chihuly: I don’t think I did. Nevertheless, I was creative, as a kid. I remodeled my mother’s basement, a little rec room which is still that way. Don’t ask me what made me do that. I had an emerging interest in design, I guess. I put in a hi-fi, a bar, burlap walls. I was going to do an egg-crate ceiling. It had all this ’50s stuff in it. Very Frank Lloyd Wright. But cheap stuff. I built some of the furniture myself–I just had a chair in a furniture show at the Tacoma Art Museum that I built in the early ’60s.

I don’t recall what I took in high school, but I don’t think I did a whole lot of art. My mother claims I used to draw a lot as a kid, that I’d lie on the floor with my Crayolas and was very content to be by myself. In Mason Junior High I took some shop courses: wood shop, metal shop. Those courses I remember, and I still even have some of the wood objects I made. I know they influenced me in terms of materials and craftsmanship.

Pierce: The first time I met your mother, she told me a story about how when you were young she used to clap her hands for you and your brother to come–I thought she said to the top of a hill–to watch the sun go down.

Chihuly: It was actually when we were on 11th and Lawrence, and we walked about a block up the rise at the north end of Lawrence. It was probably a vacant lot back then.

Pierce: She said that she thought that watching the sunset was what lead you to your interest in color.

Chihuly: She’s probably right. I couldn’t pinpoint a specific event that sparked my interest–although I do remember those sunsets, and also my mother’s interest in flowers.

Pierce: So your interest in design was beginning to assert itself in high school and your first years of college. What came next?

Chihuly: I transferred to the University of Washington to study interior design. It was the only place nearby offering such a program.

My first year in architecture at the UW was pretty hard. I didn’t feel overly talented, and I also didn’t work very hard at my studies because I became the rush chairman of my fraternity, which meant I had to work at getting other people in. I didn’t have enough time to develop, academically. I sort of figured out that I was wasting what little money my mother had to give. So I quit. I sold the Austin Healy 100-4 my brother left me when he was killed and bought a Volkswagen. I sold the Volkswagen for $1,100, which, together with the $75 a month my mother sent me for seven months, paid for me to go to Europe, just traveling, just wandering. I ended up working on a kibbutz in the Negev Desert on the Israel-Jordan border.

My life dramatically changed on the kibbutz, even though I was only there a couple of months. When I returned to the States I became a really good student. This was in 1963. It wasn’t until 35 years later that I returned to Israel [to install Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem in the ancient Citadel.]

I became the most serious student in the program. I didn’t have much money, of course. I lived in a union organizer’s house in south Seattle. He had liked my dad, and he let me stay there in the basement. Often I would work at school until about midnight, then drive to south Seattle in my ’49 Hudson Hornet. But I rarely made it home. I’d be so tired that I’d pull over and sleep in the car somewhere down there on East Marginal Way. Then I’d wake up at four in the morning, drive to the house, change clothes, take a shower and head back. I got so tired doing that that I took the back seat out of the Hudson and put in a mattress so at least I could sleep in the car more comfortably. Finally I got tired of driving home and just slept on campus.

We worked hard in architecture/interior design. Those were demanding programs with good students; it was very competitive, and I was that way. I’m pretty sure I never pulled an all-nighter, though. I’m just not the type that wants to stay up all night. I’d rather have two or three hours sleep. I never function well without sleep.

Pierce: When did you finish your B.A.?

Chihuly: In 1965. I then got a job with Seattle’s John Graham Architects, designers of the Space Needle.

Pierce: But by all accounts you still had an inner tug involving color and translucence and light. You had already done some weaving with glass for your classes at the UW. When did you begin blowing glass?

Chihuly: As I said, I was living in this little house–I mean, I’m talking little. The house was probably 500 square feet and then 500 square feet in the basement. I bought a small ceramic kiln. One night I melted glass between four bricks, put a blow pipe in there and blew a bubble, which was unusual because from what we can tell I’d never seen glass blown.

There was a very cool guy in Everett named Russell Day. By far he was the one person in the Northwest who knew the most about glass. I called him that night and said, "I blew a bubble, Russell." And he came down in his orange Corvette. After that I was obsessed with glass blowing.

Pierce: And that interest led you to the University of Wisconsin?

Chihuly: Harvey Littleton [founder of the studio glass movement] had just started teaching glassmaking there. At the time it was the only program in the country, and I knew I had to study with Harvey. But how? I still didn’t have any money. A friend of mine, who was actually a better interior designer than I, was working at a big architectural firm, but he didn’t like his assignments. His dad had a fishing boat. I said to him, "If I can get you a job working at John Graham and you can get me a job on your dad’s boat, would you switch?" And so we did.

Pierce: After Wisconsin you went on to Rhode Island School of Design, some incredible collaborations, groundbreaking installations and recognition by some of the most prestigious museums in the world. But throughout, you have been incredibly loyal to Tacoma. You’ve also been generous with your time. For example, you’ve been working with kids on the Hilltop, the Bridge of Glass and the Museum of Glass now under construction downtown on the Thea Foss Waterway. And, of course, you did this wonderful window sculpture for the University.

Chihuly: The rebound of downtown Tacoma has been heartening to watch. My studio owns four buildings there. The latest we acquired is the incredible Nisqually power plant. It’s at 25th Street, up the hill two blocks, a building all by itself, with 80 percent windows. It has a beautiful little courtyard and a smaller, matching building that echoes the other exactly, all in its own block. The main floor has 50-foot ceilings. I don’t know what I’m going to do with it. I’ve got some ideas. We just restored all the windows exactly like they were: wood single-paned glass. Now we’re working on the roof.

Pierce: Dale, I know there is the mistaken myth that you lost the sight in your left eye in a glassblowing accident. What really happened?

Chihuly: Ironically, it was the glass of a car windshield, in an accident in England in 1976. I had 256 stitches and was in the hospital for weeks.

Pierce: Briefly, what can you tell us about the "Chihuly Window" in Wyatt Hall on campus?

Chihuly: Well, as you know, the idea started that day in your office, when our eyes happened to fall on a copy of the University admissions viewbook lying on a table. We were struck by the cover photo of ivy on the University buildings: The autumn colors and the fragility and intricacy of the leaves hanging on stone.

The installation contains 150 individual pieces of glass arranged on a custom-fabricated steel framework. It is on a west wall, so light will filter through the glass and colors will move across the floor and walls as the sun progresses. By night it will be lit from the inside and visible from Union Avenue.

In truth, I got carried away, going way beyond my original plans for 15 pieces of glass. But Puget Sound is such a terrific place that I wanted to do it justice.