Dale Chihuly

Clearly Art: Pilchuck's Glass Legacy

The origins of Pilchuck can be traced back to 1968, when I went to Maine for the summer to teach glassblowing at Haystack. Hidden away on a sleepy little island, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts was a very special, almost magical place. I was completely taken with everything about it — the salty air, the moss-covered woods, the clean coastal light. I was especially taken by Fran Merritt, the school's founder. Inspired by this one-off visionary, this big-hearted Maine-iac, that summer I started to dream about created a Pacific Coast equivalent to Haystack.

The dream crystallized further at the Rhode Island School of Design, where I'd been hired in the fall of 1969 to start up a glass department. At RISD I concocted a simple but effective teaching philosophy: motivate students to work hard, to immerse themselves totally in the medium, and interesting—sometimes even astonishing—results would inevitably follow. If students could spend enough time with the glass, I knew their talent would ultimately surface. Instead of handing out assignments along conventional lines, I asked them to come up with projects and ideas of their own. Then I let them develop the skills necessary to execute their personal vision by having them work alongside the most accomplished visiting artists I could find. And lo and behold, this somewhat unorthodox teaching method—a variation on the classic atelier model—seemed to work. Of course, with students as gung ho as Jamie Carpenter, Dan Dailey, Therman Statom, and Toots Zynsky, it would have been pretty hard for things to go wrong. Therman, for instance, bribed the night guards to let us keep the shop lit 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those first months at RISD amounted to the most creative, highly charged institutional experience I've ever been a part of. The energy flying around the place was enough to make your head spin.

In many ways RISD was the antitheses of bucolic, isolated Haystack. The setting in Rhode Island was anything but sheltered. We were right in the thick of the social and political ferment that was starting to rock the nation in the late 1960's and it was kind of intoxicating. To protest escalation of the Vietnam War, we staged demonstrations that shut down RISD. During the downtime that resulted from this strike, a graduate student named John Landon and I began to talk seriously about starting a glass school. The right location, we knew, was crucial. Right from the get go, I never even considered situating it outside the borders of Washington State. The temperate Northwest climate was perfect, and we liked the idea of art students hitting the road and heading west to work in a rugged new landscape.

Our vision of a glass school was nudge abruptly toward reality when, in 1971, the Union of Independent Colleges of Art awarded my colleague Ruth Tamura and me a $2000 grant. Our project was considered highly irregular, if not outright crazy. Part of our proposal was to allow sixteen gifted art students, two from each of the eight art schools in the UICA consortium, to come to Pilchuck free of charge for the summer.

My good friend Art Wood, a master graphic artist, designed a recruiting poster for us. In the imagined setting for the school that flowed from Art's pen, huge Douglas firs stood above the waters of Puget Sound, with the craggy, glaciated summits of the Cascade Range towering in the distance. Below the seductive landscape was a line of type that probably should have given applicants pause: "Recipients are to meet at Dale's mom's house in Tacoma, Washington." The bald truth was that as the weeks ticked down to Pilchuck's first session, we still didn't have a clue where the school was going to be.

Shortly after the poster was distributed, textile designer Jack Lenor Larsen—a colleague of mine at the University of Washington—introduced me to John and Anne Hauberg, art patrons from Seattle who were renowned for their generosity. The Haubergs said they had a site that might be suitable for our purpose—an abandoned barn, farmhouse, and outbuildings on a corner of a tree farm they owned fifty miles north of Seattle. They called the place Pilchuck, after the river Pilchuck that flowed through the property.

A couple of days before the sixteen students who were to make up the school's inaugural class showed up at my mom's home, Landon and I got our first look at the tree farm. The Haubergs had assumed we would want to make use of their empty buildings, but Landon and I were immediately drawn to a different part of the property, a hilltop clearing that had a commanding view of Puget Sound and the Skagit River Valley. Unfortunately this hilltop, with which we'd fallen hopelessly in love, had nothing on it but a bunch of cows—no buildings, no electricity, no utilities of any kind.

As insane as it probably seemed to people more rational than us, we decided we would rather build Pilchuck from scratch than move into the existing, less spectacular site. I guess there's something to be said for being young and impulsive and more than a little bit crazy.

I hastily wrote, and then hand-delivered a letter to John Hauberg, asking him to drive up to the tree farm and discuss letting us use the new site we'd discovered. Despite the impracticality of the location, I felt very very strongly that this mountaintop, with its striking views down to saltwater and beyond, was where the school should be. John, no doubt sensing the depth of my conviction, responded immediately. After walking back and forth across the hill, Hauberg, Landon, and I agreed that the Pilchuck hot shop should be built on the sit where it stands today.

Jamie Carpenter and Bob Hendrickson, ace woodsmen and builders, arrived a few days later. Construction began at a breakneck pace. At the same time, the students began appearing in Tacoma at my Mom's. She bedded them down, fed them, and then sent them north by bus. As soon as they arrived at Pilchuck, the students were handed tools and told they would be building their own living quarters. In the interest of having a dry place to sleep, most of them went right to work. For my part, I took up residence in a 1970 Dodge truck. Landon erected a Sioux teepee on "inspiration Point," and Jamie Carpenter, after salvaging some discarded windows, built a house out of glass. Pete "Kansas City" Robinson lived with his girlfriend in a hollowed-out 14-foot-wide cedar tree trunk.

Clearly Art

We discovered that one of the students, a guy from Seattle named Jonathan Block, had a knack with the telephone, so right away we set him up in a crude sort of office, where he became Pilchuck's version of Milo Minderbinder, scamming materials for the school with a zeal that was awesome to behold. A natural wheeler-dealer, Jonathan procured much of what we needed from government and Boeing surplus outlets; most of the rest came from thrift shops. Another student, Michael Norot, sewed the roof for our glass furnaces. I still have a vivid image of Michael, sitting on his butt in the tall grass of the hillside, stitching together army-surplus tents to make a circus-style roof for the hot shop, which was the first thing we built.

Make no mistake: that first summer was a rough one—in some ways it was the worst summer I remember. But it was also the best summer I can remember. We worked like mad. Despite two straight weeks of nonstop rain, fourteen days after the students arrived we lit furnaces and blew the first piece of glass. The Haubergs were impressed by the determination we'd shown, and our willingness to suffer, I suppose, in the name of art. John was amazed that we'd built the hot shop so fast. Until then I think he'd considered us to be just a bunch of hippies, but from that point on both he and Anne took a keen interest in the school.

I was surprised at how quickly everything had fallen into place. Amid the frenzy; I realized I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing: blowing glass. My first installation at Pilchuck was a series of "floats" that I sent off like soap bubbles to sail in the pond behind the glass shop.

At RISD I'd learned that if you wanted to attract top-notch students, you needed to have a faculty of top-notch artists. Towards that end, Pilchuck invited a stream of distinguished artists-in-residence, including many painters and sculptors whose work had not previously been associated with glass. Pilchuck's facilities for working with molten glass succeeded in luring them from far and wide, because even though it was an ancient craft, in those days glassblowing was an almost entirely unexplored medium on the contemporary art scene. At Pilchuck, the artists-in-residence had the chance to see their wildest ideas given form by a team of glassblowers, which was a fairly unique opportunity. The notion of teamwork, by the way, was integral to the concept of the school.

Italo Scanga—my closest friend and mentor, a man known for his radical ideas—visited Pilchuck many times. I recall Italo coming into the hot shop and declaring, "I'm going to make glass with garlic." His plan was to pour molten glass onto the marveling table, put a garlic flower on top of it, and then quickly cover it with another puddle of molten glass. Presto!: the herb would blow a bubble as it gave off superheated garlic gas. Another time Jamie and I blew glass into a mold Italo had made out of bamboo. Needless to say, it burned up instantly, but I guess we succeeded in producing some sort of anti-Vietnam War statement.

The school hummed with a kind of manic energy in the early years. Right from the start, it also was imbued with a certain integrity—an integrity that stemmed in no small part from Italo's purity of vision. Among Italo's regular rantings and ravings, for example, he was often heard to proclaim, "There will be no giftshop bullshit at Pilchuck!" The school also managed to resist what might be described as the "craft mentality" and other subtle but tempting dangers, such as the commune ideology that was so much in vogue at the time. I felt it was important that distractions be kept to a minimum—I wanted every ounce of Pilchuck's energy to be focused intensely on the making of art.

At the conclusion of Pilchuck's first summer, John Hauberg came to me and asked how much we had overspent our original $2000 grant. I candidly replied that the grant money disappeared in the first week, and that I'd borrowed an additional $7000 from a bank to cover the school's bills. Not only did John write a check to pay off that loan, he had grown sufficiently enamored of what we were doing up on his tree farm that he casually inquired what it would cost to keep Pilchuck running for a second summer. I told him it would be great to have a $25,000 annual budget. He agreed to foot the bill without batting an eye. And he continued to foot the bill for many years to come. Thanks in large part to John's uncommon generosity, Pilchuck not only survived but flourished. And for that, a whole lot of us are profoundly grateful.

Published in Clearly Art: Pilchuck's Glass Legacy, Whatcom Museum of History and Art, 1992.