Alaska Fishing to Kibbutz, Chihuly Drifted to Hot Glass

Dale Chihuly has filled the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with chandeliers, boats bearing flower stems and spheres and a forest of turquoise reeds. There’s also a remake of an early-1970s neon installation made with James Carpenter that looks like a lake of swans.

These days Chihuly, 72, who was born in Tacoma, Washington, works in Seattle with a team of 90. Most of his pieces are for business or residential clients. We spoke by phone.

Rosboch: How did you begin working with glass?

Chihuly: As a kid I was always interested in glass, but it wasn’t until I had to take a weaving class at the University of Washington in the early 1960s that I made my first artistic use of it -- I started weaving little bits of glass into tapestries.

One night a few years later, I melted some glass in a little oven and blew a bubble. I’d never seen glass blowing before so I was lucky to get it. And as soon as I blew that bubble I decided I wanted to be a glass blower.

Rosboch: How did that unfold?

Chihuly: I was working as a designer for an architect. I quit, went to Alaska and became a commercial fisherman to earn money for graduate school.

In 1966, I went to the University of Wisconsin, which was the first school to offer a glass-blowing program, and from there to the Rhode Island School of Design, then to Italy to study for a year in Venice. Then I started a glass program for RISD, where I taught for 10 years.

Father Figure

Rosboch: I understand you had an unusual experience in Israel.

Chihuly: It was 1962, in the middle of my college career, and I wasn’t doing that well, so I decided to travel. I had a little Volkswagen that I sold for $1,100, which gave me money for transportation to and from Europe and $75 a month for seven months.

In Istanbul I ran into a guy who was driving to Israel. I went with him and ended up at the kibbutz at Lahav.

I was only there for a month or two but there was this one guy who took me to sites like Masada, and I really looked up to him. He was my age and almost like a father to me.

When I went back to school, I was totally changed. I became a stellar student and ended up graduating in interior design and getting a good job.

Rosboch: Tell me about the glass-blowing process.

Chihuly: Well, you have a furnace that has molten glass in it -- anywhere from 50 pounds to thousands of pounds. You take a steel blowpipe, put it in the furnace and gather up some molten glass on the end of it, almost like honey. You take that out, make it symmetrical and blow a little bubble. Then you dip the blowpipe again and add another “gather” -- the number of gathers determining the weight.

Once that’s done you start forming the glass and you can work with tools. I work a great deal with natural things like heat, fire, centripetal force and gravity.

Loose Medium

Rosboch: What inspires you?

Chihuly: All kinds of things. And when you’re working with molten glass things just happen. It’s probably about as loose a medium as you could work with. It’s almost like working with water, very liquid and you can do a lot of things with it.

But traditionally it’s always been very tight. Glass blowing goes back 2000 years and there’s hardly anything that’s not symmetrical. Fortunately I was able to get around that.

(“Chihuly” runs through Oct. 27 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1380 rue Sherbrooke Ouest, Montreal. Information: +1-514-285-2000; http://www.mbam.qc.ca.)

(Lili Rosboch writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on birds, Jeffrey Burke on books.

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