July 2009 Issue
Sea of Glass
Columbus' Franklin Park Conservatory celebrates the work of Dale Chihuly.
The colorful spheres floating among the koi darting to and fro in Franklin Park Conservatory’s Pacific Island Garden could easily be mistaken for giant beach balls.
But these multihued globes in shades of neon yellow, red, green and blue are not water toys: Each of them weighs approximately 80 pounds and is worth, on average, $24,500 apiece.
The distinctive orbs are the handiwork of glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose crystalline creations are a focal point in the 114–year-old Columbus botanical garden.
From July 4 through March 28, the conservatory is showcasing his exquisite designs in “Chihuly: Reimagined.” The exhibit is composed of Franklin Park’s signature $7 million collection of 24 installations, comprised of more than 3,000 pieces of glass. Since many of them have been in storage since the artist’s last retrospective there in 2003, the show offers a fresh look at his versatile works, which will reappear in new configurations and in different places throughout the conservatory. Three new sculptures, which Chihuly created especially for the exhibit, will also be unveiled.
“When people think of glass, they think of little paperweights or figurines,” explains Anne Boninsegna, Franklin Park Conservatory’s chief operating officer. “But Chihuly does huge, huge pieces — chandeliers and towers that are of such magnificent scale that they can’t help but be impressive.”
And, she adds, the conservatory is the ideal showcase for his work, since much of it is patterned after the forces and forms of nature — ranging from a “Torchiere” resembling tongues of red and orange flame to brilliant clusters of “Blue Herons” and violet “Neodymium Reeds” nestled among green-glass grass.
“The shapes are so organic,” Boninsegna says. “They really play off the natural structure of plants and sea life.
“That really makes sense for us.”
The artist agrees.
“I love conservatories, and Franklin Park is a real beauty,” says Chihuly, by phone from his studio in Seattle. “The architecture and the settings provide so many opportunities to work in.”
And, he muses, the botanical garden represents a nostalgic return to his childhood roots in Tacoma, Washington.
“I was raised in a house that had an incredible garden,” Chihuly recalls. “I used to play there all the time. I really loved it.
“Although,” he adds, with a laugh, “I was never very keen on gardening.”
The same, however, cannot be said for glass-blowing.
The 67-year-old Chihuly seemed headed for a career in interior design and architecture. But a weaving class he enrolled in during his sophomore year at the University of Washington proved to be the artistic detour that would alter his course.
“For our final project, the instructor encouraged us to add something unusual to our work,” he recalls. “I chose little bits of glass to create a tapestry.”
Weaving quickly fell by the wayside as he incorporated more and more glass into the design.
“There’s something about glass that’s so magical — the way that light goes through it,” Chihuly says. “It’s really completely different than any other material.”
Pilgrimages to Germany, Czechoslovakia and Italy helped cement his ambition, as did an early experiment with melted stained glass.
“I gathered up the textures, that were sort of like honey, and blew a bubble,” Chihuly recalls. “I was very lucky to get that bubble.
“From that moment on, I knew I wanted to a glass-blower.”
The artist spent a year working as a commercial fisherman in Alaska to earn money for graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where he received an M.S. in sculpture in 1967.
In 1971, Chihuly founded the Pilchuck Glass School, which led Seattle to become a mecca for artists from around the world. Despite an automobile accident that caused him to lose sight in his left eye, Chihuly remained undeterred. As his renown spread, so did his designs. He’s created installations for a variety of settings, ranging from London’s Victoria & Albert Museum to the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.
While Chihuly puts the finishing touches on the Franklin Park show (and begins plans for an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, entitled “Chihuly Illuminated,” which will run Sept. 25 through July 4, 2010) he philosophizes about what he hopes the impact of his work will be on visitors to the conservatory.
“People who normally go to the
botanical garden might not necessarily be interested in art, and after seeing my work, they just might get interested in sculpture or glass,” he reflects.
“And those who already know my work may never have been to the conservatory. Hopefully, they’ll realize what a great place it is, and continue to visit after the show is gone.”