Wednesday, 25 January 2017




“Did you visit any museums over break?”

“Three or four. One was all about this artist who… well, you know Chihuly.”

“Oh, cool!”

Detail of Nijima Floats. The glass spheres were inspired by Japanese fishing net floats that drift onto Washington Beaches. Photo by Erika Robertson.

 How many contemporary artists get that kind of instant recognition? Growing up in the Northwest, I feel like I’ve always been aware of Dale Chihuly’s work. He’s an innovative glass artist, entrepreneur, and collector. But until I moved to Toronto, I didn't realize how much he contributes to Washington’s culture and reputation abroad.

Born and raised in Tacoma, Chihuly brought the practice of art glass from Italy back to his hometown. He’s very visible there today, as shown the Chihuly Bridge of Glass at the Museum of Glass. Today, Tacoma is a former industrial seaport that is reinventing itself as a funky, innovative, coastal city. Walking through Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle Center, I traced regional connections from the artist’s hometown, through his museum, to the café.

Glass Forest, a collaboration between Dale Chihuly and James Carpenter. Photo by Erika Robertson.

Visitors to the ROM’s recent exhibition, CHIHULY, know it’s almost impossible to take a bad photograph of those glass sculptures. The camera loves those vibrant, smooth surfaces against black backgrounds. The museum’s lighting technicians illuminate the bold, yet delicate material. The sculptures remind me of the urban Northwest’s optimism, new modernist style, and reverence for natural forms.
Glass blowers interpret the process of hand blowing a glass bottle. Photo by Erika Robertson.
From the galleries, I was drawn outdoors to the Community Hot Shop. The mobile glass studio is designed to look like an airstream trailer. It reminded me of a food truck, but the ‘cooking demo’ consisted of two glassblowers making a bottle. According to Conor McClellan, the hot shop was a response to popular demand: guests wanted to see the process of glass blowing alongside the finished artworks.

While turning, heating, and shaping the glass, Conor explained that Dale Chihuly was once a gaffer, working from the bench like him. When the artist lost his eye, he moved to a designer role. This allowed him to hire more skilled workers, expanding the range of possibilities. As an institution about a living artist, Chihuly Garden and Glass feels almost like a showroom; guests can even buy a slumped bowl in the gift shop. Can those who don’t take home an original Chihuly carry away a piece of the Northwest in their memories?

Now that's a souvenir! Photo by Erika Robertson.
Beauty is a theme throughout the exhibition. Wall texts say as much, but tombstone labels for individual pieces are absent. The café’s menu quotes the artist as saying, “I love to find the beauty in everyday objects.” Vitrines in the restaurant tables display pieces from Chihuly’s personal collection. Mine happened to contain strings of glass beads, but others held ceramic animals and bottle openers. Other than a few sentences in the menu, these displays are presented without context.

Certainly an innovative approach, but I wonder who beaded these and how they came to the artist's collection. Photo by Erika Robertson.
Like the galleries, my meal is full of bright flavours and Pacific Rim fusion. The café offers Ste Michelle wine from Woodinville, Washington and local Beecher’s cheese curds next to meaty clam chowder. I tasted the char siu (Cantonese barbeque) sandwich with miso aioli and pickled slaw, itself a reference to Southern barbeque with a hint of báhn mi. (Ironically, the one thing you can’t get in this Seattle eatery is espresso. I overheard staff sending more than one customer across the square to Starbucks.) The flavours seem to say ‘this is the Northwest: funky, international, and irreverent.’

Is this sandwich a product of tasty, tasty cultural appropriation? According to author Soleil Ho, the answer may depend on who's in the kitchen. Photo by Erika Robertson.
Collection Café’s curation embraces regionalism: “the distinctive local character of a geographic area, or to a people's perception of and identification with such places” (source). To me, the practice of taking things, whether objects or foodways, out of context and remixing them characterizes Tacoma culture. Tacoma’s recent past, filled with boats and red brick, is thrown together with fragments gathered from around the world and mixed with enthusiasm for anything innovative. It’s flavourful, but we need to consider where it all comes from and how it arrived on our plates.

In a globalized era, is it possible to define regional flavours and cultures? Is it worthwhile? In my next article, I visit MOHAI’s Edible City, which attempts to capture Seattle’s complex cuisine and food industry.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post. What do you think of the idea that Chihuly doesn't make - or sometimes contribute at all - to the works of art that bear his name?