Like a scruffy old pirate, glass master Dale Chihuly sports a black eye patch (the result of a near-fatal car accident, not a sword fight), puffy shirts, and the jowls of a French mastiff. Chihuly has the swashbuckling swagger and feistiness down too: He's currently fighting a copyright lawsuit he's filed against a former member of his glass-blowing team, Bryan Rubino, accusing him of producing and selling "substantially, often strikingly" similar glass sculptures. Shame on you, Rubino!
A true original, Chihuly became entranced by glass blowing in the early Sixties and enrolled in the hot glass program at the University of Wisconsin, which was established by Studio Glass movement founder Harvey K. Littleton. After being accepted into the Rhode Island School of Design graduate ceramics program, Chihuly established a glass program at the prestigious art school. Now recognized as a revolutionary of the Studio Glass movement, Chihuly works with a team of artists in his Seattle studio to create stunning large-scale, multipart sculptures and his signature blown forms including Chandeliers, Ikebana, Baskets, Seaforms, and Niijima Floats. Influenced by his mother's garden and his love for the sea, Chihuly's colorful, organic shapes are gracefully embraced by natural settings, creating a fluid connection between art and the environment. It is fitting that one of his largest exhibitions including Reeds, Blue Herons, the onion-shape Walla Wallas, and a sixteen-foot-tall tower of hundreds of twisted red and chartreuse tubicolous pieces is opening this weekend at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.
"Chihuly at Fairchild," which took thirteen days to install, is a huge score for the gardens. "We're hoping about 200,000 visitors will come during the exhibit," says Nannette Zapata, Fairchild's director of marketing and communications. "Our goal is to bring a whole new population to the gardens to explore and learn." If any artist can do it, the internationally renowned Chihuly can execute the task with ease.
Last year, on the other coast of Florida, his exhibition drew record crowds at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, and was so successful that the artist will open his first permanent, museumlike collection, the Dale Chihuly Gallery at the Arts Center, in downtown St. Pete in January 2008. His remarkable exhibits, which consistently evoke gasps of delight and amazement, have cross-generational appeal and eschew the raised-pinky, wine-sipping snobbery of other fine art events.
If you are interested in meeting the fuzzy-haired artist, Chihuly will be at the gardens Friday, December 2, from 3:00 to 4:30 p.m. to sign copies of his book Gardens and Glass. The event is free with paid admission. Since one visit to the gardens will not suffice, you will have to return for a special evening tour. At Tropical Chihuly Nights you can admire the magnificently illuminated pieces every Thursday from 6:00 to 8:00. "The light is so brilliant it's a whole different look," gushes Zapata. "Chihuly at Fairchild" is open December 3 through May 31 at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden, 10901 Old Cutler Rd, Coral Gables. Tickets range from $10 to $20 daily; $15 to $30 on Thursday nights. Call 305-667-1651, or visit www.fairchildgarden.org. To learn more about Chihuly, visit www.chihuly.com.