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Dale Chihuly's glass of inspiration never half empty

Glass artist Dale Chihuly says his well of inspiration never runs dry, even after some 40 years pushing the boundaries of his medium.
/ Source: Reuters

Glass artist Dale Chihuly says his well of inspiration never runs dry, even after some 40 years pushing the boundaries of his medium.

"Just working with the material brings forth a lot of ideas, in both the glass blowing and in working with the glass after it's been blown," Chihuly, 69, said on the sidelines of his major new exhibit at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

"Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass," 12 installations that live up to their Alice in Wonderland billing, opens on April 10 and will run through August in the recently opened Art of the Americas wing.

The exhibit features a mix of new and early works from Chihuly, perhaps the foremost artist now working in glass and, with his distinctive curly hair and eye patch, certainly the most recognizable.

The installations contain some 7,000 individual pieces, including Mille Fiori (Italian for "a thousand flowers"), a 58-foot-long (17-meter) installation displayed in a darkened room.

Neodymium Reeds on Logs is a series of tall, purple glass rods set against freshly-cut Maine birch, while Persian Ceiling evokes a madly colored seascape.

The 42-foot-tall Lime Green Icicle Tower, installed in a high-ceilinged courtyard, weighs some 10,000 pounds (4,545 kgs) and comprises over 2,300 individual pieces of glass.

"I tend to do things on a huge scale because it's exciting. I like to push things in new and different ways," Chihuly said. "My philosophy is: when one is good, a dozen is better."

"Through the Looking Glass" was some 18 months in the planning and conception before arriving in Boston in six giant containers for a three-week assembly marathon.

The works were created in Chihuly's two facilities in Seattle -- the Boathouse, the "hotshop" where the glass pieces are blown, and the Ballard studio, which has 25-foot ceilings to help put large installations together.

Chihuly said he doesn't try to anticipate how viewers will respond to his creations, but hopes his work will lift their spirits.

"People respond to things in a different way. If you could record what people were thinking, there would be a tremendous variation," he said.

The artist has strong ties to New England. He received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, where he later taught for more than a decade.

Navajo blankets exhibited at the MFA back in 1975 inspired the artist to incorporate more Native American imagery in his glass-works. Chihuly's own blanket and basket collection is the backdrop to the exhibit's Northwest Room display.

Over the years, though, Chihuly's inspirations have become less literal.

"You see things, you hear things ... in the beginning I would be influenced by something like a basket, or a blanket. It's not that way anymore."

Chihuly often has more than a dozen projects in various stages of completion -- a manic schedule that he pulls off with the aid of a tight-knit team.

"If you're going to make glass, you really have to be a team person," he said.

Chihuly has not actually blown glass since dislocating his shoulder in 1979.

In his downtime Chihuly enjoys going to the movies. Asked to name a recent film that made an impact, the first to spring to mind was "Inglourious Basterds," the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film about Jewish-American soldiers in World War Two.

Could the movie find its way into a Chihuly installation some time?

"I imagine it's in there somehow," he said. "Just waking up in the morning brings forth a lot of ideas."