Overwhelmed by light and colour: Dale Chihuly's glass art shines at ROM

A new exhibition at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum features monumental glass installations by American sculptor Dale Chihuly, whose immersive creations shatter any illusions that glass blowing is just for vases and bowls.

'It's a show that gives you pleasure. It's pure delight ... It's magical,' curator says

Chihuly, a new exhibition opening this weekend at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, features 11 monumental installations by the contemporary American glass artist. (Dale Chihuly/Chihuly Studio)

Pure delight. Magical. A sense of wonder. These are just some of the sentiments used to describe contemporary artist Dale Chihuly's immersive sculptures, which shatter any illusions that glass blowing is only for vases and bowls.

Chihuly, a new exhibition opening this weekend at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, features 11 monumental installations by the contemporary American glass artist. Seven were created specifically for the ROM.

Glass as a high art material​

A man, in silhouette in foreground, attends a preview of the Chihuly exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

He's an artist everyone can get behind, according to Diane Charbonneau, who guest curated the ROM's new show. She's also curator of modern and contemporary decorative arts at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, where she pulled together Canada's first Chihuly exhibition back in 2013.

"People are so fascinated by his art that, actually, the first thing they will do is take a selfie of themselves in front of the works," Charbonneau told CBC News.

"It's a show that gives you pleasure. It's pure delight. In terms of shape of colour, his work has a feeling of familiarity, because nature is Chihuly's theme. It's magical."

Chihuly works with glass, ice and even plastic. Not content to create small glass objects typical of the studio glass-blowing tradition, he stretches the limits of what can be done, both in scale and form.

Red Reeds on Logs, contrasting tall glass reeds with white birch logs found in Ontario, was created for the ROM exhibit. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"He has a vision and an ambition to make people realize that glass is a material like any other, like bronze, that's fit for high art ... He wants to make glass noble," Charbonneau said.

Ode to Venice, the artist's favourite city

The Laguna Torcello installation is a garden of glass that allows visitors to walk amongst Chihuly's many shapely creations. The name of the piece refers to one of Venice's many islands. 

Inspired by Venice, the Laguna Torcello installation is a garden of glass that allows visitors to walk among Chihuly's shapely creations. The name of the piece refers to one of Venice's many islands. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Here is a wider view of the Laguna Torcello installation. (Leanne Hazon/CBC)

After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1968, Chihuly received a Fulbright Fellowship that same year, which allowed him to travel to the Venini glass factory in Venice. That trip shaped many of his ideas about how to work with glass.

Charbonneau describes Laguna Torcello as an enchanting underwater garden: "You feel like you're underwater with these strange Beluga forms or weeds that seem to be growing out of water, but different colours."

Lie on the floor for the best view of this work, Chihuly says

Even if you have to lie on the floor to get the best view of his Persian Ceiling installation, artist Dale Chihuly encourages you to do so. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The installation Persian Ceiling has always been one of the artist's most popular pieces. He first started creating his Persian series in 1986 as a way to expand the possibilities of glass blowing, in terms of colour and pattern.

Inspired by ancient Persian glass and by sea forms, Chihuly creates distorted glass shapes and blasts everything with colour. His biggest ambition is for his art to make people feel good, he has said.

Inspired by children: the Boats series 

Ikebana Boat is one of the installations on display at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Chihuly first started filling boats with blown glass objects in Finland in 1995. He was there for an exhibition, setting up installations along the banks of a river, when he noticed young boys filling their rowboats with glass pieces he'd been discarding into the river.

Variations of Chihuly's Boats can often be seen outdoors, such as his Sunset Boat in the pond at Britain's historic Chatsworth House in a 2006 exhibition sponsored by Sotheby's.

"There's an immediate appeal to his work," according to Charbonneau. 

"Chihuly's work is about emotion and so he really appeals to the child in us, to our sense of wonder. You're transported into another world. Once you enter the first gallery you say 'Wow' and then you just want to see more."

A visitor snaps a cellphone image of Float Boat, another one of the installations at the ROM. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Teamwork is key

Because of the ambition of his large-scale works, Chihuly employs a team approach to bring his artistic visions to life.

Glass artist Dale Chihuly, at right in blue shirt, works with his team of master glass blowers at his Seattle studio in 1993. (Dale Chihuly/Chihuly Studio)

"To put these exhibitions together he has to work with engineers, architects. He has his own installers, his own lighting specialists. Lighting is really important to get all the effects," said Charbonneau.

"Glass can refract light, so he works with light also to enhance his pieces."

'Director, rather than dancer'

Dale Chihuly creating one of his favourite forms at his studio in Seattle in 2000. (Dale Chihuly/Chihuly Studio)

In 1976, Chihuly lost sight in his left eye after a car accident in which he was thrown through the windshield. A body-surfing accident three years later dislocated his right shoulder and forced him to enlist the assistance of other artists for the arduous work of glass-blowing.

The artist has said he's come to love his role as "director, rather than dancer."

This teamwork approach hasn't hurt his appeal: Chihuly's creations are seen in museum collections, on university campuses, in conservatories, at hotels and at corporate headquarters all over the world. 

"He's passionate about his work. And all the people who work with him are nourished by this passion he has about what he does," Charbonneau said.

Inspired by Native baskets

Chihuly was inspired to create his Fire Orange Baskets series in 1997 after seeing Native American baskets on display at the Washington State History Museum. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Chihuly started his Fire Orange Baskets series after seeing Native American baskets, misshapen with age, at a museum in Washington. He decided to recreate those distortions, but in glass. The pieces at the ROM were created specially for this exhibition, with baskets that are among the largest Chihuly has ever created.

"This show is a must," says Charbonneau. "This is a magical way to be introduced to fine works of art. If you look at the details you'll just ask yourself: 'How did he do this? How can he blow a glass sphere so big and it doesn't break?'"

The exhibit includes a section devoted to Chihuly's early experiments in his Baskets series. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Is it 'real' art?

Some art critics have suggested Chihuly's art as a lesser form because it's populist or because he uses a team of people to create his installations.

Chihuly brings art to people who might not necessarily be interested in a Renaissance painting or a complex contemporary art pieces, says the show's curator. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Charbonneau doesn't buy either argument, pointing out that even the great masters of the Renaissance used apprentices, while modern artists such as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst all used a studio approach. Plus, art doesn't have to be stuffy for it to be good, she added. 

"A work of art is supposed to bring you pleasure. What he's doing is actually bringing art to people who won't necessarily be interested in looking at a Renaissance painting, for instance, or some other contemporary art pieces that are a bit more complex to understand because you may not have the art history references. It might be a bit too obscure. But who says that because you have an immediate emotional response, it's not art?"

'A beacon to come inside'

Chihuly's Icicle Chandeliers and Towers sculptures are each made up of hundreds of pieces of blown glass, with each of the two chandeliers and two towers being strung together on steel frameworks. 

A close-up look at Chihuly's Green Icicle Chandelier at the ROM. (Dale Chihuly/Chihuly Studio)

He's also created Lime Crystal Tower — standing more than four metres high and weighing about 1,360 kg — especially for the ROM. It's the first thing you'll see when you enter the Toronto museum's lobby.

"It's lit up so you can see it at night from outside," Charbonneau said. "It's like a beacon to come inside and see all the pieces."

Chihuly will be on display at the ROM through Jan. 2, 2017.