Tacoma: City of Glass

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Tacoma: City of Glass

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.

Tacoma: City of Glass - Thea Foss Waterway
Thea Foss Waterway

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

Tacoma: City of Glass - display at 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.

Tacoma: City of Glass - displays at Museum of Glass

Tacoma: City of Glass - The Hot Shop at Museum of Glass
The Hot Shop at Museum of Glass

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.

Tacoma: City of Glass - into the fire at the Museum of Glass Hot Shop
Into the fire

Tacoma: City of Glass: Kids Design Glass exhibit at Museum of Glass
Kids Design 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.

Tacoma: City of Glass: Museum of Glass art on display
One of art pieces on display at Museum of Glass

Tacoma: City of Glass - sculpture outside Museum of Glass
Sculpture outside Museum of Glass

Chihuly Bridge of Glass

Tacoma: City of Glass - 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.

Venetian Wall

Tacoma: City of Glass - Chihuly Bridge of Glass Venetian Wall

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.

Crystal Towers

Tacoma: City of Glass - Chihuly Bridge of Glass Crystal Towers

The Crystal Towers are on the centre of the Bridge. Each tower contains 63 large crystals made from Polyvitro.

Seafoam Pavilion

Tacoma: City of Glass - Chihuly Bridge of Glass Seafoam Pavilion

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.

Tacoma: City of Glass - Seafoam Pavilion

Union Station

Tacoma: City of Glass - Union Station
Tacoma Union Station

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.

Tacoma: City of Glass - Chihuly art in Union Station
Chihuly art in Union Station

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.

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Tacoma, Washington (City of Glass) is full of glass art. The birthplace of Dale Chihuly features a number of his blown glass works. There is a museum dedicated to glass art and art pieces can be found in other museums and public spaces.

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  1. I remember Bill taking me to this when we just met, some 9 years ago. My gosh it has added so many amazing pieces you have showcased here, like the Crystal Towers, the Bridge of Glass and the sculpture outside. I would love to go back. Your post gave me such good memories. Thanks.

    1. Carol, I’m glad the post brought back good memories. The Bridge of Glass is certainly worth going back for.

    1. Veronica, I haven’t been to Corning, although I’d like to see the glass museum there some day. The glass art in Tacoma is pretty spectacular. I know there is more in the Tacoma Art Museum, but I didn’t get there this trip.

    1. Michele, Chihuly’s work is amazing. I’ve seen pieces of his work similar to the underwater ceiling in other places and I am always blown away.

  2. I’ve seen a few of his exhibits but this would really be a fun museum to explore and enjoy all of his work, now I really need to make the effort to visit this area.

  3. LOVE Chihuly- what a master artist he is. The Hot Shop looks interesting. I had a glass blower friend years ago and used to watch her work with baited breath. Need to get to Tacoma and see all the glass!

    1. Jackie, I also enjoyed the museum in Seattle. I think both are worth visiting, but I agree that the Tacoma Museum of Glass doesn’t seem to get the same public attention. The Tacoma Art Museum will also be on my schedule if I get back to Tacoma – it apparently has a nice Chihuly collection as well.

    1. Thanks Cindy. Looking through your site, it does appear we have a lot of common interests. It is great to connect.

  4. Hi Donna! Hope you get a chance to visit TAM next time. The museum has the largest retrospective collection of Dale Chihuly’s works on continuous view. TAM also has brochures for the Chihuly Walking Tour which visitors can use on their SmartPhones to trek Tacoma and view his works around town while getting the details of each piece. TAM also just received an amazing gift from the Benaroya family, with an additional 125 iconic works of glass by Northwest and international master glass artists. This new gift places TAM among the top 5 museum glass collections in the nation!

    1. Julianna, I do want to visit TAM. It will be first on the agenda on my next trip to the area. I’ve heard about the gift from the Benaroya family and it’s exciting. I did not know about the Chihuly Walking Tour. That sounds very cool!

  5. You did a great job once again with Dale Chihuly. The art of glass blowing is quite fascinating isn’t it? Our daughter took a class a couple of years ago. Living in Seattle, glass art is displayed in many buildings and art galleries. Lovely photos!

  6. I’ve heard about Dale Chihuly before, but never got to see any of his exhibitions. The glass ceiling at the Seafoam Pavilion seems very similar with the one at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. I wonder if that one was also designed by Dale Chihuly.

    1. Anda, the glass ceiling at Bellagio Hotel is indeed one of Chihuly’s works. It’s a favourite of mine. You can find a few other Chihuly pieces in the hotel.

  7. I was eager to read this article because of Pittsburgh’s long history in the world of glass. There’s a great display at the Heinz History Center when you make it here someday! And the Phipps Conservatory has some of Chihuly’s pieces. Your array of photographs sure makes the Museum of Glass enticing. I love the swans as well as the art on the pedestrian bridge. Isn’t it wonderful, the things that add beauty to our world?