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Artist Dale Chihuly Stretches Boundaries of Glass Blowing
Dale Chihuly talks about his glass work. AP Photo/Stew Milne.

By: Verna Gates

ST. PETERSBURG, FL (REUTERS).- Artist Dale Chihuly has stretched the craft of glass blowing to breaking point and started an artistic revolution that has extended into sculpture and environmental art.

Instead of a small shop with a single artist creating private objects, Chihuly hired teams of craftsmen working together on complex, large-scale pieces made for public viewing. Tradition, symmetry and conformity also buckled in the heat of the ovens.

"I pushed the edge of thinness and collapsibility to make new forms," he explained in an interview.

Chihuly, whose work is exhibited in more than 200 museums around the globe, recently joined an elite group -- single artists with a permanent collection dedicated to their work.

The Morean Arts Center in St. Petersburg, Florida dedicated 7,600 square feet to display thousands of pieces of glass, many of them made especially for the collection. Architect Albert Alfonso designed the space, and is credited with keeping the project alive, despite the recession, thanks to his friendship with Chihuly.

"Albert transformed the space into a work of art. It complements my work," said Chihuly.

The exhibition space includes natural materials such as wood, metal, stone and glass. Venetian plaster gives a nod to Chihuly's fondness of Italy and the Venetian glass blowers who inspired him as a student.

The chandelier room is shaped like a classic Art Deco vase, anchored with a blue and a ruby red chandelier designed for the collection.

"This is the first time that the architecture of a space responds to his work," Alfonso, of Alfonso Architects said. "Dale's never really had that."

Chihuly said all of it was a challenge.

"A lot of work went into aesthetics and materials," he said.

An entire wall of the exhibit is devoted to Chihuly's sketches etched into tiles.

Injured years ago in an auto accident, Chihuly only has vision in one eye. That, coupled with a shoulder injury, forced him to leave the physical work to others.

While they shape the hot glass, he sketches new designs and admits to a sense of relief trading his pipe for pen. The teamwork makes his seemingly endless flow of ideas emerge rapid fire from the ovens.

"I just like to work," he said.

The first table in the new gallery exhibits pieces from his basket series. Inspired by a collection of old Native American baskets in a history museum, the series was his first major innovation. The almost paper thin glass abandoned symmetry to allow gravity to take its course. The pieces incorporated fused drawings into the glass.

The artist's favorite pieces include the boat -- a wooden shape filled with massive Niijima Floats. These large spheres were inspired by Japanese fishing floats found along the shores of Puget Sound, a Chihuly childhood romping ground.

He also favors the Mille Fiore, an exotic garden of delights, exhibited for the first time on an oval platform. The vision of a glass Eden fills a gallery room with vividly colored leaves, reeds, shrubs and graceful swan-like figures. Neon tumbleweeds spark blue nearby and a Persian glass ceiling leads you in.

Although Chihuly experiments with neon, light and wooden boats, he remains true to his roots.

"I love glass," he explained.

Adjoining the Chihuly Collection is a glass blowing hot shop with artists, classes and seating for spectators. Nearby is the soon-to-open Salvador Dali Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts.

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