Glass artist Dale Chihuly’s favorite restaurant is Harry’s Bar in Venice, he said last night as he dined on a beet and string bean salad at another Cipriani outpost, a catering hall at 55 Wall St. in New York.
Chihuly was there to pick up the Fritz Redlich Alumni Award from the Institute of International Education. The New York-based nonprofit administers exchange programs, including the Fulbright.
The institute’s Opening Minds to the World Gala Benefit also honored the organization’s chairman, retired banker Thomas S. Johnson. The more than 400 guests included Herbert Allison, former head of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, and Morris Offit, chairman of Offit Capital Partners.
Chihuly walked to the stage in black shoes covered in splotches of color, accompanied by a brass-heavy instrumental version of U2’s “Beautiful Day.”
In 1968, Chihuly sailed from New York on the S.S. Michelangelo to take up a Fulbright fellowship in Venice. He carried a battery-operated record player on which he listened to Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” album.
A friend advised him to “shave the beard, buy a new suit, get a pair of wraparound shades and don’t look back,” Chihuly recalled in an interview. He kept the mustache and bought a suit in Venice and “a beautiful pair of two-toned leather boots for $100.”
He rented a room in a palazzo for $50 a month, fell in love with spaghetti alle vongole, and got to work studying glass blowing from the masters on the island of Murano.
“In the heyday of the Venetian empire, a glass blower wasn’t allowed to leave the island,” Chihuly said. “If he tried to leave, he was beheaded. If he made it to England, he was knighted.”
Chihuly studied at the Venini factory, where he spent most of his time observing. “I was too intimidated to blow glass myself,” he said.
Back at home he found the courage to work with the material. “I rely a lot on fire, gravity and centripetal forces,” he said. He became a master artist with installations and museum exhibitions all over the world, including Venice.
He also created the Mellow Yellow Chihuly Persian Chandelier, which hangs in his dining room, where he and his wife, Leslie Chihuly, chairman of the Seattle Symphony, recently hosted a dinner for Ludovic Morlot, the symphony’s new music director.
It could have turned out differently.
“When I was a senior at the University of Washington I got a Fulbright to study weaving in Finland,” he said. “The host country rejected me.”
Chihuly Garden and Glass, an indoor and outdoor exhibition of the artist’s work, opens in Seattle in the spring.
(Amanda Gordon is a writer and photographer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are her own.)