Dale Chihuly reflects on 'transformational' power of art amid coronavirus lockdown

The Seattle-based artist is preparing to debut a forthcoming collection of lace-inspired works as some states plan re-opening measures

Dale Chihuly in his Seattle studio © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

Dale Chihuly in his Seattle studio © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

The sculptor Dale Chihuly says he is “reminded of the role of art in life and emotional well-being” as he works from Seattle, one of the first cities in the US to be hard hit by coronavirus (Covid-19). “With people sheltering in place and coping with the crisis, it’s profound to think of how transformational art has been in fostering great friendships and community throughout my life, and how it has helped me and so many others persevere and thrive in times of hardship and challenge,” he tells The Art Newspaper.

At 78, Chihuly is one of the most prolific and exhibited artists working today. He is globally recognised for his expressive glass works that are installed in major museums, hotels, parks and public gardens around the world—all of which remain closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

While “safer-at-home” orders have been in effect, the studio glass pioneer is focusing on “two-dimensional work, letter writing and finalising drawings and designs for upcoming exhibitions”. Chihuly will mount a full-scale exhibition at the Cheekwood Estate and Gardens in Nashville, Tennessee, postponed from this month to July; the state is one of the first in the US to begin re-opening after lockdown. His latest gallery show, Chihuly Merletto, is slated to open as a digital exhibition in June, but now could tentatively open as a physical exhibition at Traver Gallery in Seattle as Washington state and other states across the US prepare to slowly lift social distancing restrictions.

The “merletto” (the Italian word for “lace”) collection has been in the works since last year, when Chihuly and his team began experimenting with the labour-intensive caneworking technique first developed in Murano in the 15th century. The collection, which aims to capture the hypnotising delicacy and movement of lace in basket form, is “very different from anything I’ve done before in glass, though there is a similarity to my early drawings, which I created using a fistful of pencils”, he says.

Still from a behind-the-scenes video of Chihuly working on his newest "merletto" collection in his Seattle studio. Pictured from left: the artist's wife Leslie Chihuly, Dale Chihuly and the glass artist James Mongrain. © Chihuly Studio. All Rights Reserved

The artist “looks forward to the reactions these new designs will elicit, whether people see them in person or through the online exhibition”, though he maintains that his work and art-making process, which involves a vast team of assistants and intense physical toil, can only be truly experienced and executed in-the-flesh.

“My hot shop is closed and I miss my team and the time we spend together on projects,” he says, adding that he is eager to get back to his 34,000 sq. ft studio, which employs dozens of assistants. Physical disabilities have limited the artist painting no more than an hour or two at a time a few days a week, but even that has proved a boon for his emotional health. “Telephone conversations are just not the same," he says.

For homebound viewers seeking some soothing and spell-binding content to tune in to amid the lockdown, the Chihuly Studio has released a behind-the-scenes video of the artist and his assistants working on the merletto collection, and has recently published a series of shorts detailing the making of previous works and collections in the artist’s prolific studio complex in Seattle, which helped cement the city as one of the the art-glass capitals of the US.