I’ve admired it from afar for way too long now. For years, I’ve walked the grounds of the Seattle Center, passing it by. Each time, I told myself that I didn’t have time for a visit. Perhaps you can relate. Maybe you promised yourself that one day, you’d make time to explore Chihuly Garden and Glass. According to TripAdvisor, it is considered the 1st of 499 things to do in Seattle and so, for me, that day was Tuesday.
Featuring the works of world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly, this long-term exhibition celebrates its 10th anniversary on May 21, 2022. Sitting on top of the old Fun Forest (ask your folks), everything about this space reflects Chihuly's handiwork, from the fixtures and displays in the gift shop to the outdoor garden and all of the interior design. It's all Chihuly's vision. He is a multi-talented man with opinions.
The man, the artist, the legend
Born in Tacoma and raised in the Northwest, Dale Chihuly graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in 1959 without a real plan on what to do afterward. He had no desire to attend college, but his mother convinced him to attend the College of Puget Sound. He transferred a year later to the University of Washington to study interior design and learned how to fuse glass at the same time. This led him to drop school and study art in Florence, Italy. When he returned in 1963, he took a weaving class using shards of glass in his tapestries. In 1965, he graduated from UW with a Bachelor of Arts degree in interior design and tried his hand at glassblowing.
Even now at 80 years of age, with glass creations on display all around the world, Chihuly continues to keep busy and create something new. He visits the Garden and Glass often. He has a whole team of people who work with him, some for as long as 30 years. These people consist of color experts, glass blowers, sculptors and gaffers who help to move around the heavy stuff. He communicates his visions best through paintings (that he calls drawings), which help his team get a real understanding of where he is coming from.
Building the garden
My tour guide for the day was Michelle Bufano, Executive Director of Chihuly Garden and Glass. She has known the artist for some 25 years and has been here since the groundbreaking. As it turns out, putting together a building to house many of Chihuly’s best works was the simplest part of the Fun Forest's transformation. The biggest challenge was creating the garden portion, even though Chihuly has worked with garden projects before.
"He’ll go into the botanical garden in Chicago or go all over and he’ll place artwork against the backdrop of the plants. But we didn’t have any plants. We only had cement," says Bufano. "So he had to build from the ground up, side-by-side with landscape architect Richard Hartlage to decide what it was going to look like."
Even then, nothing was certain. They didn’t even know if the trees would take root. But the end result was — and continues to be — stunning. And no two trips are exactly alike as the garden changes all of the time.
"We have to balance between the art and the plants," says Bufano. "The summer is probably the fullest time of year where you don’t see the art as much. Other times of the year, we have to remove plants and [come up] with a whole new vision for what that might look like, while still trying to keep that original thought of what Chihuly and Hartlage had put together."
The garden looks beautiful right now. But I'm told that it is beautiful any time of the year. Bulbs are planted at the end of February, and everything comes alive during the summer.
Goodbye Neon Garden, hello Winter Brilliance
Another "garden" that has been here since day one has now passed on. Neon Forest (which highlighted Chihuly’s experimental artwork from the early 1970s) was the first exhibit visitors would see here. After nine years on display, it has been swapped out with a new exhibit called Winter Brilliance. Having first appeared in New York at Barney’s windows display during the winter of 2015, this new work features a collection of icicles. And it's still a work in progress. Right now, visitors will only see a preview of the full presentation that is to come.
"We are adding a video-mapping component which will include light and music and it will only happen during the holiday season," says Bufano. "So most of the year, people will see it like this." Which is still very impressive, but will become even grander when new projectors are installed, lighting up specific parts of the artwork in November.
It sounds very intriguing. The other exhibits are just as impressive. Chihuly Garden and Glass features many rooms, each with its own distinct theme. These rooms include:
- Northwest Room: Filled with Chihuly’s personal collection of Native Indian baskets and blankets, alongside his own baskets made of glass, which mirror the original’s designs.
- Persian Ceiling: This hallway is illuminated from the ceiling, holding dozens of brilliantly colored Persian art. Look up and you’ll see clusters of flower-like designs shining down upon you.
- Mille Fiori: This collection means "A Thousand Flowers" and was my personal favorite. It’s like walking through an electronic garden of color at midnight.
- Ikebana and Float Boat: Highlighting Chihuly’s love for the sea, this room features two large boats filled with colorful orbs set above a "sea" of reflective black Plexiglas which mimics the ocean.
- Chandeliers: This room is unique in that all of the chandeliers here were once hung in Venice, Italy and have that distinctive Chihuly look to them.
- Macchia Forest: This room will trick your eye into thinking that the light is coming out from inside the large 'bowls' or 'vases,' but in reality, the lights come from above, reflecting the white-ish coating inside each piece and the many molded colors that wrap around the outsides.
- Glasshouse: Dale Chihuly also has a love for Victorian glasshouses and so when the Garden and Glass came about, he knew that he needed to have one all his own. It’s a beautiful space that houses many special events throughout the year and is punctuated by the amazing, 100-foot-long installation suspended from the ceiling.
- Theater: There is also a small theater at the end of the journey showing short films showing Dale Chihuly doing what he does best and how he does it.
- Bookstore: No trip is complete without a stop at the bookstore filled with all kinds of good stuff. And if you so happen to have a few thousand dollars just burning a hole in your pocket, you can purchase your own glass artwork.
The Art Plaza and Collections Cafe
The Art Plaza is a unique outdoor space at Gardens and Glass which features a Community Hot Shop where glassblowing demonstrations are presented throughout the year (except for summer). The art that is created here is later sold at the Space Needle and the proceeds for each piece goes back into the artist community of Seattle. It is also a great place to enjoy Pacific Northwest wines, beer and handmade, stone-fired Neapolitan pizza.
The Collections Café is one space that Michelle Bufano recommends as it features 28 personal collections of the artist, including ceramic dogs, bottle openers, pocketknives, alarm clocks, old radios and, my favorite, accordions hanging from the ceiling. Most collections are actually embedded within each of the dining tables, too. The cafe serves three types of Neapolitan stone-fired pizzas (Formaggio, Margherita and Pepperoni), hearts of romaine salad and house-made barbecue chips. Ask a server for a booklet copy showing off the collections found in the cafe.
Just the beginning
While May 21, 2022 is the actual 10th anniversary of Chihuly Garden and Glass, this is only the start of the celebrations. They will be encouraging former guests to write in and talk about their favorite exhibits. They will be featuring select stories on their website and social media throughout the next several months to celebrate.
Visit the Chihuly Garden and Glass website for more information.
Jeff Totey is a freelance writer for Seattle Refined. Follow more of his work here.