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Chihuly: Blending glass and nature

SEATTLE — Visitors to conservatories and botanical gardens may have already experienced the work of glass artist Dale Chihuly, whose creations have popped up among the flora in special exhibitions for more than a decade.

Now it's possible to see some of his glass art in a similar setting at Chihuly Garden and Glass, an exhibit that opened last year with a 30-year lease on space beneath the famed Seattle Space Needle.

Chihuly, who grew up in nearby Tacoma, can recall when the Space Needle opened for the 1962 World's Fair. The Needle is owned by the Wright family, which asked Chihuly to exhibit his work on a 1.5-acre plot that includes a refurbished building that previously housed an amusement-park pavilion.

In addition to an exhibition hall with eight galleries, Chihuly Garden and Glass also features a 40-foot-tall glass-and-steel structure inspired by two of Chihuly's favorite buildings, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and the Crystal Palace in London.

The Glasshouse, which received LEED Silver certification last year, also brings to mind a conservatory, a notion cemented by the outdoor gardens that surround it. Chihuly's artwork fills the gardens and seems to fit into the space as if the pieces had been there all along.

"I think of my work as being pretty natural itself and organic, not everything, but most of it," he said in a recent phone interview. "And it just works very well in nature. I've even said at times that I'd like people when they come upon my work in nature that they might not even know it's man-made."

Chihuly said he first experienced his glass art in a natural setting at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Island, Maine, when he taught glassblowing in the late 1960s.

"We took the glass out and put it in moss and lichen," he said. "Then a couple of years later when we started Pilchuck Glass School (in Stanwood, Wash.), I made a piece that would float in the pond."

The 71-year-old artist studied interior design at the University of Washington, graduating in 1965. He later received degrees in sculpture and fine arts and studied glass on a Fulbright Fellowship in Europe. He was injured in a car accident in England in 1976 and lost the sight in his left eye. A few years later he dislocated his shoulder in a bodysurfing accident, making it difficult to blow glass. At that point he transitioned to the role of director, supervising others in his studio.

"Around 2000, I did my first big conservatory show at Garfield Park (Conservatory) in Chicago," he recalled. "I always wanted to work in conservatories or glass houses, but it's expensive to do an exhibition of mine and conservatories didn't have a budget to do a show. ... After that, different botanical gardens got a hold of me and in most cases it helped their attendance a lot to have a show of mine."

Chihuly's work runs the gamut from steely reeds in bold, brilliant colors to bowl-like shapes of the glass in his Macchia Forest that bring to mind sea creatures. Chihuly Garden and Glass includes some of his elaborate glass chandeliers and a Mille Fiori installation that resembles an indoor garden of glass.

But it's the outdoor garden that's sure to change over time as plantings grow up and around Chihuly's glass art. Michelle Bufano, executive director of Chihuly Garden and Glass, said about 22,000 flower bulbs were planted in the garden this past fall.

"We do work on it on an ongoing basis with Dale and his studio to make sure the dialogue continues between the art and the plants," she said. "We continue to make changes and revise it as the garden starts to grow up."

Chihuly seemed pleased with the variable nature of the outdoor garden.

"A year from now, it's going to look a lot different," he said. "We'll have to decide how much we'll cut back or what else we want to add. It's a little bit of a work in progress."

In addition to examples of Chihuly's art, the pavilion also includes the Collections Cafe, a restaurant that houses some of the many items Chihuly has accumulated over the years. Vintage accordions hang from the ceiling, dozens of bottle openers are displayed in a glass case, and each table stores a collection beneath its glass top, from clocks to string holders.

"I'm probably somewhat of a hoarder, I suppose," Chihuly said. "I have 850 Pendleton blankets, if that gives you any idea, and 500 accordions."

Where does he keep all this stuff?

"I've collected buildings as well."