Exploring the art of Dale Chihuly and other glass artists in the city of Tacoma, Washington
Glass has the ability more than any other material to bring joy and a certain happiness to people. ∼Dale Chihuly
I cannot imagine anyone not being wowed by Dale Chihuly’s glass-blown art. Born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, Dale Chihuly is a prolific glass artist and has made a significant impact on the American studio glass movement. Museums and public art installations in Tacoma showcase Chihuly’s work and that of other glass artists.
Tacoma is a mid-sized city approximately thirty miles southwest of Seattle. It was settled in the mid 1850s and incorporated in 1875. In the 1870s, the Northern Pacific Railroad chose Tacoma as the western terminus for its transcontinental railway. Thus began a long-standing rivalry with Seattle. With a natural harbour and a railroad terminus, Tacoma became a centre for shipping and forest products. Later in the century, when Seattle got its own railway and the Klondike Gold Rush began, Seattle took prominence in the area.
Today, despite a reputation of “living in the shadow of Seattle”, Tacoma remains a significant container port. It is also a centre for technology and art. It was the art, specifically the glass works, which brought me to Tacoma.
Museum of Glass
The vision for the Museum of Glass was created in the 1990s from an idea born during a conversation between Phil Phibbs, a former president of the University of Puget Sound, and Dale Chihuly. Initially the museum focused exclusively on Chihuly, but Chihuly insisted the mission should include glass works by worldwide artists. The Museum opened in 2002.
In addition to art displays, the Museum offers opportunity to learn more about the process of creating blown-glass art. In the Hot Shop, visitors watch the process of glass blowing while an emcee explains and answers questions. There are four basic steps in glass blowing. First raw glass is melted in furnaces. Second, when molten glass is the consistency of honey, artists gather it onto a blowpipe and sculpt into shapes using tools. Third, the shaped piece is placed in a slow-cooling oven (annealer) to gradually cool to room temperature. Fourth, once cool, the piece is taken to the Cold Room where tools are used to complete the shape and surface. Glass gets its colour from chemicals added to the molten glass.
I was intrigued by one of the Museum’s programs, Kids Design Glass. Children aged twelve and under are invited to submit designs for glass sculptures. Each month one or two is selected by the Hot Shop team. They create two copies of each – one for the child designer, one for Museum display. The children’s imaginations sometimes creates an interesting challenge for the glass-blowing team.
Chihuly Bridge of Glass
The Chihuly Bridge of Glass if a 500-foot-long pedestrian overpass linking the Museum of Glass to the downtown Tacoma on the other side of the freeway. There are three distinct installations making up the installation.
Closest to the Museum end of the Bridge is the Venetian Wall, display case walls on either side of the Bridge containing over 109 Chihuly sculptures.
The Crystal Towers are on the centre of the Bridge. Each tower contains 63 large crystals made from Polyvitro.
At the other end of the bridge is the Seafoam Pavilion, a ceiling made of 2,364 objects providing visitors walking under it an almost underwater feeling in a sea of glass.
On the other side of the bridge is a copper-domed building. Based on the way it looked I assumed it was a train station (or had been once upon a time). It turned out to be the Tacoma Courthouse but it had originally been built in 1901 – 1911 as a railway passenger station. Tacoma Union Station is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture. Architects Reed & Stem had partnered with architects Warren & Whetmore to build New York City’s Grand Central Terminal. My home city of Winnipeg also has a Union Station. It was designed by Warren & Whetmore in the Beaux-Arts style, which may be part of the reason I recognized Tacoma’s Union Station as a railway terminal.
Tacoma Union Station is of interest beyond its architecture. It contains a few pieces of Chihuly art. Because the building is now a courthouse there are security and access restrictions, but the security guard allowed us into the rotunda lobby to view the artwork.
The Tacoma Art Museum, which I did not have time to visit, also has a collection of Chihuly works. Other museums to visit in Tacoma include Foss Waterway Seaport, Washington State History Museum, Children’s Museum of Tacoma, and LeMay – America’s Car Museum. I will try to get to these other museums in a future visit, but Tacoma’s main attraction for me remains its glass art.
Destinations Detours and Dreams monthly e-newsletter contains behind the scenes information, sneak peeks ahead, travel story recaps and more. SIGN UP HERE