The Avant-Garde Glass of Dale Chihuly Returns to the Missouri Botanical Garden
By Rachel Huffman
Daring. Vibrant. Elegant. Extravagant. Highly charged. Awe-inspiring.
Dale Chihuly’s avant-garde glass art has been described in myriad ways, but the native of Tacoma, Washington, prefers to allow people to experience and interpret his work without preconceptions.
From Seattle to Las Vegas to St. Petersburg, Chihuly’s whimsical work dazzles people across the country, and his newest exhibition will show at the Missouri Botanical Garden from May 2 to Oct. 15.
Uniting art and nature, Chihuly in the Garden 2023 has been curated expressly for the St. Louis attraction. The ambitious exhibition will feature 20 dramatic installations in dialogue with their immediate environments – Chihuly’s impetus for drawing art-lovers outside and inspiring garden-lovers to see art in a new light.
“I love placing my work in gardens and green spaces,” Chihuly says. “The Missouri Botanical Garden features lovely vistas and bodies of water that I can weave into the exhibition experience.”
Chihuly in the Garden 2023 won’t be the first time that the world-renowned artist has brought his colorful, fluid glass forms to St. Louis. In 2006, he brought an exhibition to the Garden, which was incredibly popular among residents and tourists alike, and with 79 acres, the site offers plenty of new places that excite him, where he wants to plant his work.
Visitors will find the 20 installations in 15 locations throughout the Garden, from the Emerson Conservatory to the Climatron to the Japanese Garden. We’re not talking about a small glass flower here and a single glass bowl there; instead, the exhibition will feature an all-consuming sun above outstretched blossoms, beautiful boats loaded with brilliant glass balls and massive towers with thousands of intertwined pieces of blown glass.
Using form and color to ignite joy, the installations will play with the landscape and captivate the viewer.
“Both the Missouri Botanical Garden and Chihuly Studio understand how art can come alive in a garden,” Vickie Campbell, vice president of visitor operations at the Garden, says. “In this type of setting, art becomes mesmerizing.”
In a weaving class at the University of Washington in the early 1960s, Chihuly wove small pieces of glass into tapestries, marking his first artistic use of the medium. A few years later, he melted glass in a small oven and blew a bubble. In that moment, he knew that he wanted to be a glassblower.
In order to raise money for graduate school, he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska for six months. In the following years, he received a Master of Arts in sculpture from the University of Wisconsin and then a Master of Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design.
After working with glass for more than 50 years, Chihuly still finds the medium alluring, enrapturing and exciting. “Whether as a material for art or for scientific advancement, the possibilities with glass are endless,” he says. “We continue to learn about the material, to explore it and to push it to its limits. That’s what I really enjoy.”
In 1968, Chihuly also worked at the Venini glass factory on the island of Murano, where he first observed the team approach to blowing glass, which is critical to the way he works today. “I work on a large scale,” he says. “Having a team allows me to conceptualize without limits and to scale my work to a level that would be difficult for anyone to achieve as an individual.”
Glass is one of the few materials through which light can travel, and Chihuly uses that to amplify his work.
“My practice involves the principles of light, space and form,” he says. “Each is an essential element. The way light travels through and exposes transparent materials is powerful, and when color is involved, it is quite moving.”
When asked if he has a favorite color, Chihuly says, “I’ve never met a color I didn’t like.”
During this year’s exhibition, the Garden will also host Chihuly Nights, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the artist’s masterpieces in an extraordinary way.
“Chihuly Nights will be a real treat,” Campbell says. “The team from Chihuly Studio will set up the lights so that they illuminate the pieces perfectly, bringing both the glass and Dale’s vision to life.”
Alongside the spectacularly lit artworks, enjoy live music, cocktails and pop-up offerings all summer long.
Chihuly in the Garden 2023 is a rare opportunity to see art and nature like never before. “My practice has always been driven by an exploration of the material, the power of translucency and how the work might change the environments in which it is placed,” Chihuly says.
How will your perception of the Missouri Botanical Garden change after this exhibition?