Dale Chihuly | Pilchuck at 40, The Seattle Times

Pilchuck at 40: world-class glass

The Pilchuck Glass School began in a field in the Skagit Valley, with a group of teachers and 16 students. It’s grown into a world-class facility that attracts glass masters and students from across the globe.

By Gayle Clemans

Special to The Seattle Times
August 27, 2011

At the entrance to Pilchuck Glass School, a pond is home to rotating displays of art work. To the right is artist Ditmar Hoerl's pond installation, inspired by a dandelion top with rays like a sunrise, representing the beginning or "dawn" of the school's next 40 years. Photo by Greg Gilbert, The Seattle Times

Forty years ago this summer, the now-world-famous glass artist Dale Chihuly, a few other artists and 16 students headed into the woodsy green hills above Skagit River Valley and made a hot shop (basically, according to Chihuly, a couple of furnaces in a tent).

Using a $2,000 faculty grant and camping on land donated by arts patrons Anne Gould Hauberg and John Hauberg, the group spent those wet summer months experimenting with glassmaking and trying to stay dry.

And thus, the Pilchuck Glass School — now a renowned, innovative and comprehensive glass school in Stanwood — was born.

When I asked Chihuly why the secluded, idyllic setting in the Northwest was important, he said, “It had to do with the times. A lot of us were tired of being in the city, working with industrial projects. We were really just a bunch of hippies, when it comes down to it.”

But he also wanted “someplace that felt new and rugged and didn’t carry any excess baggage.” The Tacoma-born artist, who was teaching at Rhode Island School of Design, “never considered anywhere but Washington state. The climate and location were perfect. I liked the idea of students going ‘out Northwest.’ ”

During that first summer, the artists and students slept in tents or lean-tos, while artist Buster Simpson slapped together a funky little treehouse to climb into at night. Today, that treehouse remains, and has been joined by more than 60 buildings on the site, including a gorgeous lodge/mess hall and state-of-the art hot, cold and flat glass-working facilities that foster the creative pursuits of more than 500 participants each year.

The Pilchuck Glass School offers residences for students and instructors, such as this treehouse. Photo by Greg Gilbert.

Practicing artists and novices come for two- or three-week sessions, sleeping in bunkhouses or private cabins and coming together for meals in a camplike environment complete with lunchtime announcements that are greeted by table-thumping and cheers.

But make no mistake, there is serious learning and creating going on here. Mealtimes are quickly over as everyone spreads back out to various shops and work stations. Participants often work from early in the morning to midnight, taking classes such as engraving, glass pulling, kiln casting, neon and, of course, blowing glass.

Casting master Bertil Vallien watches as D.H. McNabb heats a glass piece. Image by Greg Gilbert

Visiting artists and instructors come from all over the world and have included such notable names as Seattle artist Ginny Ruffner and Muranese glass artists Pino Signoretto and Lino Tagliapietra. From the beginning, Chihuly says, the idea was to invite the best faculty possible. Artists like Jim Dine, Maya Lin and Ann Hamilton, who primarily work in nonglass media, also have been integral to the program as they learn new skills and challenge technicians to bring unconventional concepts to fruition.

Believing that the best learning comes from working side by side with practicing artists, Chihuly wanted the school to be a place where teachers create their own work, as opposed to many institutions “where students don’t even know what their instructors’ work looks like.”

Pilchuck also can be compared to the world-famous glass center Murano, Italy, where instruction is molded by tradition and insularity. Pilchuck, in contrast, was meant to be innovative, transparent and generous in sharing information, while still embracing, even craving, the traditions of glass making.

When I toured the school this summer, many of the stories I heard from students and instructors described a transformative, creative atmosphere marked by this spirit of generosity.

Artist Sean O’Neill has spent part of the past eight summers at the school, serving in various roles from kitchen worker (most of the kitchen and maintenance crew are artists on a work-study exchange) to hot-shop technician. “What makes Pilchuck unique is that it’s a creative community where people want to share what they have learned, without hesitation,” O’Neill said. “Artists come with ways of working with glass that they have distilled over years, techniques from all over the world, and they just hand it all over.”

The hot shop, center, where glass blowing is done, and the casting studio, at right, are two areas of constant activity at Pilchuck Glass School. Photo by Greg Gilbert

The success of the school lies in a paradox: a camplike enclave tucked away in the green hills, offering world-class instruction and facilities. It offers a simplified lifestyle within a secluded, beautiful, natural environment, but it also serves as a complex filter for centuries of tradition and current fine-arts practices.

One of its challenges over the years has been maintaining its special, intimate quality (it’s generally not open to the public, for example) while growing and serving an increasing number of interested artists and students.

In turn, the lure of Pilchuck, and the teaching that has taken place there, has been instrumental in building the Pacific Northwest as a dominant force in glassmaking around the world.

While the scope and influence of Pilchuck may not have been foreseen by the founding group of artists and students, whom Chihuly describes as a “bunch of ragamuffins,” the spirit of the school remains essentially the same: a pioneering, resourceful and communal quest for knowledge.

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