Dale Chihuly is a master of glass. Both a consumate craftsman and creative artist he uses his organic imagination and technical prowess with breath, fire, and sand to best effect. By exploiting the fluid properties of glass and taking its most fundamental vessel forms off center, his work evokes wonder, joy, and aliveness.
I first came across Dale Chihuly on TV in a Public Broadcasting documentary about his Chihuly in Venice exhibition. I don’t remember the date, but it was sometime after 1997. Looking at the magnificent chandeliers made at glass factories in Finland, Ireland, and Mexico, I was struck by the beauty and contradictions of the glass–sometimes letting light shine through its transparency and sometimes absorbing it in opaque layers of rich color. In this way the chandeliers played with the Venice’s mystery of light. A giant orange chandelier, in particular remains, with me. A mass of fiery light and shadowy dark, it played one against the other just as the slowly setting sun plays with Venice. Another image from the documentary that I carry with me is that of a host of glass globes being flung into the river below where they floated, bobbed, and twirled under a canopy of green trees. These images are just like life itself.
I lost sight of Mr Chihuly for awhile until I bumped into his work at the Rubicon Restaurant in San Francisco. The glass among other things brings me back here again and again. Sitting down to dine I feel like Alice in Wonderland with these enormous tendrils twisting and turning about me.
Then a few weeks ago when I went up to the Legion of Honor to see the Annie Leibovitz photography exhibition I bumped into him again. There in a corner of the main courtyard leading to the entrance of the museum was the most amazing yellow tree of life. As I walked past Rodin’s The Thinker at the center of the courtyard it was as though he contemplated nothing more than Chihuly’s tree. That, I thought, was just as it should be.
Seeing the tree made me covet more Chihuly wonders. But, the yellow tree was only a preview. I would have to wait until his exhibition opened. I mentally marked the date of May 8th.
In anticipation, I arranged with a couple of friends, Diana and Betsy, to head up to the City on Friday, May 9th. The plan was to have lunch and see the exhibit. Friday arrived bright, blue, and sunny. Our trip was a go.
We lunched at a Thai restaurant on Union Street and then headed over to the Legion of Honor. In barely ten minutes we were on El Camino del Mar and closing in on one of the many dramatic views in San Francisco of the Golden Gate bridge behind us and Marin Headlands across the anxious sea to our right.
At the museum, the gardeners were planting flower borders along the approach to the main courtyard. In front of us The Thinker sat on his perch deep in thought and powerful in his physical beauty. The yellow tree of life was to the left. “There it is,” I announced and pointed. “How beautiful the traces of red running through it,” said Betsy. Then getting closer I read, ” Exhibition June 14 – September 28, 2008.”
I couldn’t believe it. My cheeks flushed announcing my embarrassment. We were six weeks too early for the exhibition! Diana and Betsy both laughed, “Oh well, just another excuse for a day together,” said Betsy.
Now with time on our hands we stopped to watch some golfers tee off on the Lincoln Park Golf Course and turned to feel the wind on our faces. It is always windy here where the land and bay reach out to meet the Pacific. With the wind come the smells of earth and sea all mixed up together. As we walked down El Camino del Mar, we spotted people on the other side of the golf course walking along the cliffs. There must be a trail there. And there was. Called the Land’s End trail it makes its way out to the Sutro Baths. We started out along it taking in the water, the white form of the breaking waves, the green of the headlands, and the smell of the woods. It was lovely and as we walked I imagined Chihuly’s glass globes and tendrils dancing among the leaves and bobbing on the waves.
Author’s Note: The Chihuly exhibition will be at both The Legion of Honor and the De Young museums. Together these are called The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Information on the Chihuly exhibition can be found here.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum