As Dale Chihuly put the finishing touches on a painting, his vice president of operations, Billy ONeill, set the edges on fire with a blowtorch. Luckily, the Museum of Glass hot shop is a pretty safe place to play with fire a gaffer had a damp rag handy, and the smoky edges were, after all, part of the art.
It was all in a days work for the Tacoma-born international glass artist, who was at the museum making glass art with his team to celebrate the museums 10th anniversary in front of a sellout crowd Sunday afternoon.
Its great to be back in Tacoma I love Tacoma, said Chihuly during his lunch break at 3 p.m. Tacomas a beautiful place.
Born and raised in Tacoma, Chihuly began his career in glass art at the University of Washington after studying weaving at the University of Puget Sound and didnt look back. After further study at the Rhode Island School of Design and in glass studios in Venice, the artist went on to bring glass techniques to the Northwest, founding the Pilchuck Glass School in Seattle in 1971 and building a 50-year career of worldwide success in museums and immense glass installations such as Chihuly Over Venice.
In 2002 he was one of the key instigators of the Museum of Glass, supporting its founding financially and artistically.
Directing his team (the artist no longer physically blows glass due to an eye injury), Chihuly made art in the hot shop for the museums July 2002 opening and again in 2006. So inviting him back for the 10th anniversary was an easy decision.
Its a big deal for us, said director Susan Warner of Sundays event, which sold out 1,200 timed hot shop entry tickets well beforehand. Were always ecstatic to have Dale. Hes the reason the museums here.
The artists visit began with a guest appearance in the hot shop for the museums annual fundraiser Saturday night, which was also a sellout at around 350 people, and continued with a public appearance Sunday.
From 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Chihuly, along with artists Flora Mace, Joey Kirkpatrick, James Mongrain and Joey DeCamp, was on the hot shop floor with his team of gaffers, surrounded by an audience wielding cameras, phones and hypnotized stares. As Mace and Kirkpatrick laid out designs of colored glass canes and gaffers expertly transferred glass bubbles in and out of the furnaces to make pieces for Chihulys Soft Cylinders series, the artist himself sat behind a desk daubing paint onto large smoke drawings.
A variation on the two-dimensional work Chihuly has been creating for the last few years, the paintings were based on images of some of the hot shops floor grates, imprinted onto paper with a blowtorch. After Chihuly finished daubing red dots or swirling a blue signature on the drawings, ONeill moved in to singe the border with a flaming blowtorch occasionally setting the edges alight to create a blend of intense primary color and smoke ochre.
Ive been a huge Chihuly fan since I moved to Seattle in 1989, said Katrina Olsen, videoing the process on her phone from the top balcony. Its interesting to see how he goes from art on paper to how they interpret it in glass.
Its just so pretty to watch, said Tara Sahlberg of Tukwila, who bought tickets for herself and a friend three weeks ago.
Hes done so much to bring this art to life in this area, said her friend Maeghan Souza.
Not everyone in the crowd was a Chihuly fan, though. The Ellis family was visiting from Maryland and happened into the museum, and though son Michael thought it fascinating to see how the 17-person team flowed seamlessly around the space with burning-hot tools, none of them had heard of Chihuly or even knew which of the team he was.
The blowtorch, though, was a big attraction for 11-year-old Tyler Moravec, whose mom, Heather, is a museum member and had bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.
Its pretty cool, he admitted.
And though Chihuly and team had been churning out one cylinder and around five drawings every hour by the time the museum brought out a birthday cake just before lunch, the recently-turned-70 artist was still looking fresh.
I think the museum is fabulous, Chihuly said. Its hard to believe its been 10 years. Theyre doing a great job their own shows, their own catalogs. Its really important work.
Reach Rosemary Ponnekanti at firstname.lastname@example.org or 253-597-8568. Read her blog at blog.thenewstribune.com/arts