Although one usually associates the term “fine art” with paint and canvas or chisels and stone, we are experiencing rapid growth in the number of artists who prefer the creative rush of working over a white hot forge or breathing through a pipe to shape molton glass. Z’Scoop profiles two master workers whose creations in glass and ironwork have contributed to the rebirth of these ancient, now contemporized art forms.
He became proficient in the glassforming technique known as free-blowing. The process involves blowing short puffs of his breath into a molton portion of glass called a “gather” which has been spooled at one end of what is known as a blowpipe. This has the effect of forming an elastic skin on the interior of the glass blob that matches the exterior skin caused by its removal from the heat of a furnace. By continuing to puff his breath into the pipe, the glassworker can quickly inflate the molten glass into a coherent blob and at the same time, work it into a desired shape.
Chihuly began experimenting with glassblowing in 1965, and in 1966 he received a full scholarship to attend the University of Wisconsin at Madison.. He studied under Harvey Littleton, who established the first glass program in the United States at the University. In 1967, Chihuly received a Master of Science degree in sculpture. And after graduating, he enrolled at the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 1968, Chihuly earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in sculpture from the RISD. That same year, he was awarded a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation grant for his work in glass, as well as a Fulbright Fellowship. He traveled to Venice to work at the Venini glassworks factory on the island of Murano, where he first saw the team approach to blowing glass.
After returning to the United States, Chihuly spent the first of four consecutive summers teaching at the Haytack Mountain Schook of Crafts in Deer Isle Maine. Further European travel ensued to meet contemporary glass blowers in Germany and the former Czechoslovakia.
In 1976, while Chihuly was in England, he was involved in a head-on car accident. As the result of flying through the windshield, his face was severely cut and he was blinded in his left eye. After recovering, he continued to blow glass until he dislocated his right shoulder in a 1979 bodysurfing accident. No longer able to hold the glass blowing pipe, he hired others to do the work. Chihuly explained the change in a 2006 interview, saying “Once I stepped back, I liked the view,” and pointed out that it allowed him to see the work from more perspectives and enabled him to anticipate problems faster. Chihuly describes his role as “more choreographer than dancer, more supervisor than participant, more director than actor.”
Working with a team of master glassblowers and assistants has enabled him to produce architectural glass art of a scale and quantity unimaginable working alone or with only one assistant. In 2010 the Space Needle Corporation submitted a proposal for an exhibition of Chihuly’s work at a site in the Seattle Center, in competition with proposals for other uses from several other groups.
The project, which sees the new Chihuly exhibition hall occupy the site of the former Fun Forest amusement park in the Seattle Center park and entertainment complex, received the final green light from the Seattle City Council on April 25, 2011. Called Chilhuly Garden and Glass, it opened May 21, 2012.
Benson and a handful of area blacksmiths are not the old men bent over hammer and anvil of yore. With their craft enjoying its biggest resurgence since the machine age relegated most blacksmiths to shoeing horses, today’s smiths are using modern technology to revitalize an ancient craft.
And with interior design stores as big as Pottery Barn and Crate and Barrel selling the hand-wrought curtain rods, headboards and other furnishings blacksmiths create as fast as they can order them, blacksmithing somehow seems less quaint than it used to. From New England to California, blacksmiths who supplement the traditional smithy’s hammer and anvil with power hammers and arc welders are creating everything from chandeliers and coffee tables to estate gates and giant outdoor sculpture installations for celebrity and private clients across the globe. Nationwide, there are about 3,000 blacksmiths working today, up from just over 100 two decades ago.
For Benson, a forty-nine year old ex-hippie, that means a booming business fueled by recent commissions for Oprah Winfrey and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. It means getting so much work he recently had to purchase a computer and teach himself how to use it to track new orders. Then there are flights to Hawaii to create — on-site — a metal stair railing for a multi-millionaire client.
But it also means long days spent hammering and working white-hot metal into fantastic shapes and the joy of knowing he is practicing a craft whose greatest masters worked in the 1500s.
Getting started after a stint in the Army, Benson — who had worked in a blacksmith shop when he was sixteen — bought a workshop full of blacksmithing equipment with a $1,500 loan and went to work. Today, Benson’s operation, just a few blocks from a Boeing factory and down the street from a computer disc manufacturer, is a wild mix of ancient and twenty-first century.
Instead of a coal furnace and huge leather bellows, there is a sleek gas furnace and rock music blaring from a stereo. While one man hammers a rivet that could be straight out of colonial times, another is shaping a steel frieze for a modern artist’s creation.
“It’s a romantic field with some magic to it,” says Benson, “You’re working with very basic elements — fire and water and hammers. To be able to take those and create something is really quite awe-inspiring.”
Dale Chihuly art, books, caledars, posters and prints available at amazon.com
For information about Dale Chihuly 2017 Exhibitions, please visit Chihuly.com
Artist Blacksmith Association of North America
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