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Dale Chihuly's American Indian Influences

Iconic baskets and Pendleton woolen blankets inspire far more delicate interpretations in glass.

Photography: Courtesy Chihuly Garden and Glass

Dale Chihuly revolutionized the art of blown glass, transforming the delicate material into monumental sculptures and large-scale installations. But before he interspersed glass fronds amid the greenery of the Kew Gardens in London, before he suspended 700-pound chandeliers over Venice, and before he installed 2,000 riotously colored glass blossoms on the ceiling of the Bellagio in Las Vegas, the avant-garde artist created intimate earth-toned glass vessels inspired by Native American blankets and baskets.

At the new Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle, you can see these early works mingling with their Native American influences in a permanent exhibit modeled after the Northwest room of the artist's legendary Boathouse studio on Seattle's Lake Union. In the breathtaking exhibit, wooden shelves display Chihuly's glass Tabac Baskets alongside woven originals from the artist's personal collection, which he began after a 1977 visit to the Washington State Historical Society. It was there that the artist discovered a pile of nested misshapen Native American baskets from the Northwest Coast that would change his art forever. 

Struck by how time and gravity had caused the baskets to slump and bow, the innovative Chihuly began employing gravity in his glass blowing to form vessels with organic shapes and flowing rims. By adapting the historical society's unusual display tactic, Chihuly devised a unique approach to exhibit glass. Resting one, two, or three glass vessels precariously inside one another, Chihuly created the signature look he has become known for.        

A dramatically lit table that spans the length of the exhibition hall supports additional smoky ochre-tinted glass baskets, whose looping edges beckon a finger to trace their rims. Bold Navajo Blanket Cylinders are also displayed, demonstrating Chihuly's first application of his now famous “drawing pickup technique,” whereby glass threads are arranged on a flat surface before a molten cylinder is rolled over them, fusing stunning sketches of Navajo blankets to the vessel. 

Introduced to Navajo blankets as an interior design student at the University of Washington in the 1960s, Chihuly soon became an avid collector of Native American trade blankets, compiling a collection which now contains more than 700 designs, including four the artist created himself in collaboration with Pendleton Woolen Mills. Three additional limited edition designs will be unveiled early in 2013 and will be available for purchase online at www.portlandpress.net or in person at the Chihuly Garden and Glass bookstore. 

Recent innovations at Pendleton allowed Chihuly full artistic freedom when creating this new series of woolen blankets. Taking advantage of the new technology, Chihuly pushed the limits of the looms, creating designs that are as expressive and gestural as his glass work.

As an homage to his Pendleton inspiration, exquisite blankets from Chihuly's personal collection fill the far wall of the exhibit hall depth to height. The vibrant colors of chartreuse, hot pink, and canary yellow from the iconic blanket designs stand in sharp contrast to the sepia-toned photogravures by Edward C. Curtis, also collected by Chihuly, and hanging on the neighboring wall.

Despite the critical impact of the Southwest on Chihuly's work, the artist did not venture to that part of the country until 1974, when he was invited to set up a glass hot shop for the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. Transforming an 1890s barn into a studio, Chihuly introduced the art of glassblowing to a small group of Native American students, including Pueblo glass artist Tony Jojola.   

When asked recently if he has any plans to return to his Native American influences, Chihuly pointed out that the brilliant colors of the Pendleton blankets continue to guide much of his current work. “I worked at Pilchuck [Glass School] this summer on Cylinders and [worked] at the Museum of Glass for its 10-year anniversary this September on Soft Cylinders,” Chihuly said. “The drawings on the artwork are inspired by my love of Pendleton Trade blankets and are made up of hundreds of glass threads.”

 

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