This story won Finalist- Destination Travel, Online Publication category in the 2017 North America Travel Journalists Association competition.
Most visitors to Seattle, Washington who want to see works by master glass artist Dale Chihuly would most likely visit the Chihuly Gardens at the base of the Space Needle. But just 30 minutes to the south in Tacoma, Washington, you can also see a diverse series of his permanent art glass installations set in a variety of very distinct environments.
I love the work of master glass artist Dale Chihuly. His pieces are big, bold, bright, colorful and his huge installations seem to defy gravity. So when I recently had a day in the Seattle area, I chose to go south to Tacoma and explore the Chihuly Trail. A native of Tacoma, Chihuly has used his international prominence to help revitalize the downtown area. By donating numerous pieces for permanent installations, and helping to develop the Tacoma Museum of Glass and the connecting Bridge of Glass, Chihuly has turned Tacoma into an art glass destination.
Tacoma Art Museum (TAM)
I started my tour of the Chihuly trail at the Tacoma Art Museum whose comprehensive collection of Chihuly art glass spans most of the phases of his career, which started in the 1970’s. In the gallery where his many pieces are on display, there is also a fascinating video that describes how he developed and installed his various large exhibitions throughout his career and also shows how he and is team go about making the very large glass pieces. His first big exhibition was Chihuly Over Venice in 1996, the historical home of art glass and also where Chihuly studied his craft and learned the team approach to glass blowing. Since then, he has done numerous installations annually all over the globe including Jerusalem, London, and in many large public gardens throughout the US.
The most interesting Chihuly display at TAM is the Ma Chihuly’s Floats which showcases 39 glass spheres of various sizes displayed on a stone wave sculpture created by artist Richard Rhodes. The floats were inspired by Japanese glass fishing floats and were donated to the museum by Chihuly as a tribute to his mother. The many colorful spheres of glass are ingeniously displayed – when you look at them from certain directions, it looks like the waves and the balls go on forever.
My next stop on the Chihuly trail was the distinctive Union Station, about a block south of the Tacoma Art Museum. This Beaux Arts style building was built in 1911 during the height of train travel in the US, but now has been converted into a courthouse. This building as well as the seven blocks around it are on the list of National Registry of Historic Places in the US.
Complementing the beautiful outside architecture and copper dome, are five large art glass installations in the lobby, all donated by Chihuly. Hanging from the 90 foot high glass dome as if it were floating in the air, is one of Chihuly’s distinctive, colorful End-of-the-Day chandeliers. In each of the half circle arches on the second floor are four other unique installations. One wall is The Basket Drawing Wall which displays the paintings that were the start of the creative process Dale used to make his glass baskets series. On the Opposite wall is a the Lakawanna Ikebana, a very large circular metal frame displaying a collection of glass flowers and intertwined vines.
In the arch window over the entrance door is the red Reeds installation. Some of the red glass reeds are more opaque and some are more translucent, thus reflecting different amounts of light. The wood log holding the reeds comes from the Tacoma area.
But the piece that slams your visual perceptions when you walk into Union station is The Monarch Window right across from the entrance doors. The orange glass set against the blue sky on a black grid frame is stunning. These pieces are part of Chihuly’s Persian series, and got the name Monarch because when the building vibrates from passing trains, the orange reflections on the floor flutter, making it look like monarch butterflies.
All of Chihuly’s pieces add so much to the setting at Union Station that it would be hard to imagine the lobby without them – but then I guess that is the point.
Bridge of Glass
Next to Union Station is the Bridge of Glass which takes you to the Tacoma Museum of Glass. The bridge has three more Chihuly installations. First you walk under the multicolored Seaform Pavilion with thousands of pieces of art glass that include examples from many of his series.
The tunnel of the Seaform Pavilion opens up onto the Crystal Towers which Chihuly specifically designed to act as a gateway and beacon of light to the city of Tacoma.
The final installation on the bridge is the Venetian wall, which, in Chihuly’s words “were placed as if the pieces were a block in a quilt”. The special pieces in this wall represent 14 years of experimentation and innovative glassblowing on Chihuly’s part. The wall is lit by natural sunlight during the day and fiber optics at night which gives it a completely different look.
Tacoma Museum of Glass
Once you cross the Bridge of Glass, you get to a very interesting large upside down metal cone structure which is the auditorium and hot shop for the Tacoma Museum of Glass. Inside the museum are a number of galleries showcasing works by various glass artists. But the fascinating centerpiece is the hot shop where you can watch a resident artist and his/her teams create intricate works of glass art.
Watching the teams of glass blowers working together to make the resident artist’s concept pieces was like watching a choreographed ballet. Each member seemed to have designated tasks and roles that changed as the pieces developed. Rods went into furnaces to pick up molten glass or into “glory holes” to reheat the glass to keep it hot enough to work with. The glass was rolled, blown, pulled, patted, stretched and shaped until it finally had the shape imagined by the artist. I kept holding my breath, expecting at any moment to see them run into each other with the long hot rods, but each person seemed to know their roles and place in the dance. The process of making the final product took a very long time as each piece was manipulated by the teams before they were attached together.
The museum also has a very ingenious program to get kids under the age of 12 involved in the glass design process. Children submit drawings of their ideas, and each month the museum’s resident Hot Shop Team picks a design and turns it into glass. The winning child artist gets to sit in the front row of the auditorium to watch their creation being made, which they then get to take home. Some of these child designed pieces are on display in the museum, and they are very creative and looked quite challenging to implement.
University of Washington at Tacoma, Snoqualmie Library
I could have watched the hot shop artists all day, but had to move on to the next stop on the Chihuly trail. I crossed back over the Bridge of Glass and headed uphill to the Snoqualmie Library at the University of Washington at Tacoma. In the second floor student reading room inside the tower, suspended over an octagonal conference table, is the Chinook Red Chandelier. This impressive sculpture is made up of over 900 individual glass pieces, is 19 feet tall, and weighs 1500 pounds. It uses different shades of red glass which is coated with gold or silver, so that it shimmers like a beacon, especially when lit up at night. What an inspiring environment for learning and creativity.
The Swiss Restaurant and Pub
From the Library, I kept walking uphill to the edge of the university campus to the Swiss Restaurant and Bar. Not only is this a great place for a meal, but they also have a collection of eight Chihuly Venetian pieces on display above the bar. Dale and his team would eat lunch at The Swiss when they were putting in the installations at Union Station, and offered to display pieces in the pub at the end of that project. Apparently Dale Chihuly likes to collect all sorts of things, and The Swiss also has a collection of some of his accordions. After all that walking, it felt great to sit, relax, enjoy a great meal and a drink, and take in the eclectic environment of the pub.
I really enjoyed my day discovering the Chihuly Trail in Tacoma. It was an inspiration in color, shape and light. It was also enlightening to see how one man’s success as an artist and his philanthropic projects could be so beneficial in revitalizing a community and turn it into a desirable travel destination.
If you decide to check out Tacoma’s Chihuly Trail, you can download the STQRY app on your mobile device. The app has a map with all the locations of the Chihuly pieces, as well as stories you can listen to for all the stops on the trail.
Do you have thoughts or comments about this post? I would love to hear from you on my facebook page.
Enjoy and thanks for visiting.