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Visual Edge: Chihuly Drawings at Museum of Glass

Dale Chihuly draws with energy, directness and dramatic presentation

Venetian drawing by Dale Chihuly, on display at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. Photo courtesy of Dale Chihuly

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I have always thought Dale Chihuly's drawings were more impressive than his glass creations, but I have never seen enough of his drawings to say so until now. "Chihuly Drawings" at Museum of Glass makes the case quite emphatically. One hundred and eighty-six drawings fill the main gallery at MOG, and the impact is overwhelming.

What makes the drawings stand out is their energy, their directness and their dramatic presentation. Chihuly glass - the bowls, the flowers, the massive chandeliers - for all their impressive size and brilliant color, come across as slick and commercial in comparison with the drawings. And I don't believe it is just that the drawings are less ubiquitous. I believe they are more honest. There is an immediacy and spontaneity to the drawings that can't possibly be matched by the glass that is created by studio assistants in slow, laborious processes. 

The drawings do not have the assembly line look of the glass. They are done by hand by Chihuly himself, not assistants, and they are done quickly. There is a quality to them reminiscent of Jackson Pollock's drip paintings, and photographs of Chihuly at work give evidence that their working methods are much the same. He works in pencil, charcoal, colored inks, acrylics and other media. Many of his "drawings" are really large-scale paintings, but it is fitting to call them drawings because of the emphasis on energetic mark making. Like Pollock, he often works on the floor. He spreads his colors with brooms, mops and sponges, and he drips and slings paint out of buckets and squeeze tubes. He even burns them with acetylene torches - anything for a unique surface texture. The majority of the drawings are 30 by 22 inches, and there are a number as large as 60 by 40 inches.

For many of the same reasons that I find his drawings more impressive than the work in glass, I find his work in pencil and charcoal more impressive than the more "finished" look of the works with acrylic and other painterly media. As you enter the gallery you're faced with a wall of some 20 pencil drawings on paper, some with colored inks. They are all sketches of bowls (all of his drawings are either studies for glass works or drawings of the same subjects that show up in his glass). These bowl drawings feature large, looping pencil lines that are impressive in their energy, texture and smoothness. They appear to have been drawn lightning fast yet with absolute control. 

Tacomans will recognize many sketches done in preparation for the window displays at Union Station and for the Bridge of Glass, many with notes to himself and/or his assistants. There is one entire room plastered floor to ceiling with faxes to his assistants with notes, instructions and drawings, offering a fascinating look into the workings of his mind. There are also a couple of walls filled with biographical statements, Chihuly quotes and photographs of the artist at work.

As you walk through the galleries, the scale and audaciousness increases, as does the brilliance of his colors, culminating in a suite of seven floor-to-ceiling drawings on light boxes on a slightly curved wall. This wall is a knockout. Perhaps too much of a knockout. Perhaps too showy. As I contemplate these and some of the other larger works, I wonder whether, if I were subjected to constant exposure to these if I would soon tire of them. There is a sameness and a formulaic quality that I suspect would wear thin over time, which brings me back to the combined delicacy and strength of his charcoal and pencil drawings, which may be the real knockout  work in this show.

"CHIHULY DRAWINGS," Wednesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday, noon to 5 p.m., through June 30, Museum of Glass, 1801 Dock St. Tacoma, admission $5-$15, free to members, free Third Thursday, 866.468.7386,

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