Seattle is the epicenter of the Studio Glass movement in America. Right next door, in Tacoma, is the Museum of Glass.
It is not a coincidence that Tacoma is the birthplace of Dale Chihuly, the grand pooh-bah of the Studio Glass movement here in the U.S. And, while the museum itself is not a direct homage to Chihuly, respect is paid in the form of two huge, outdoor sculptures and a 500-foot-long pedestrian bridge adorned with blown glass works from his "Venetian," "Ikebana," "Putti," "Seaform" and "Persians" series. The Chihuly Bridge of Glass was commissioned by the museum, and designed by Austin-based architect Arthur Andersson working in close collaboration with Chihuly. This glorious overpass allows pedestrians to cross above the highway and adjacent railroad tracks to reach Tacoma’s Thea Foss Waterway and the Museum of Glass, and is outshined only by the majesty of nearby Mt. Ranier.
The Venetian Wall portion of the Chihuly Bridge of Glass is an 80-foot long installation of 109 Chihuly sculptures behind translucent glass walls held in stainless steel frames, a setup that allows for natural backlighting during the day. The group includes some of the largest blown-glass works executed in the history of the movement and offers an uncommon opportunity to compare examples across the range of Chihuly’s output, and decipher the way that each series informs the next.
At the opposite end of the bridge, the Seaform Pavilion is topped with a ceiling housing 2,364 glass objects suspended in mid-air, all designed by Chihuly. This tunnel is transparent; the 50 x 20 ft. ceiling permits the viewer to pass beneath a cacophony of color, brilliant light and undulating form. This experience is unequalled in the field of glass.
Serving as beacons of light for the city and the bridge, two Crystal Towers rise 40 feet above the bridge’s deck to mark the center point of the bridge. Each tower consists of 63 monumental, hollow crystals created of polyurethane. "As with glass," Chihuly says, "it is really light that makes the Polyvitro crystals come alive." Each raw crystal appears to be brutally cut from a glacier of blue and, on the day of my visit, each also served as support for birds, alive and busy building nests.
The Museum of Glass is not an art museum that was begun with a collection in hand. Instead, work for temporary exhibitions has typically been borrowed from other institutions. More recently, the museum has started to build its own collection by obtaining works by artists who have had short visiting residencies in the museum’s hotshop. While the museum is not exclusive to glass -- billing itself broadly as an "International Contemporary Art Museum" -- the in-house glass making facility runs daily in an effort to entertain and educate the public on the potential and versatility of glass as an artistic medium.
Presently on exhibit at the museum is "Myth, Object and Animal," a survey of works by William Morris, a studio glass artist who once worked for Chihuly and who now is considered a leader in the field. Morris possesses dexterity with glass, pronounced like nobody else. Morris is known for exploiting the limits of scale in his blown glass creations, and expectations for this medium are expanded further in his four current installations at the museum.
Particularly impressive is his large-scale installation from 2004, titled Mazorca. Ears of maize, pottery vessels, native masks, money and other artifacts, all made of glass, hang from ropes in a dense curtain. Through his craft, Morris is able to take us through ancient civilizations, using corn as a metaphor for harvest and regeneration, and evoking an allegorical representation of man’s relationship to the earth.
Another extraordinary work is Morris’ Artifact Panel (1998), a museological array of 350 glass objects exhibited on a 50-foot-long wall. A wide variety of vessels, figurines and artifacts, all made of glass though resembling bone, stone, pottery and other materials, suggest travels to ancient cultures both known and unknown. The level of technical mastery is awesome, as are the innovations in color and surface texture.
Also on hand is Cache (1993), a kind of huge flotilla of elephant tusks, primitive tools and bone fragments measuring 5 x 6 x 36 ft. long. Made of wood, metal and blown glass, the installation has the spirituality of a burial plot.
In the hands of Chihuly and Morris, glass is a medium in which extravagant technical effects find their place in contemporary esthetics. Keep your eye on the new Museum of Glass. More is to come.
JOHN DRURY is a New York-based artist, writer and teacher.