May 21 – October 2, 2011

Dale Chihuly’s Northwest honors the importance of Tacoma and this region on his art and career. The exhibition combines the intimate setting of Chihuly’s Northwest Room at The Boathouse in Seattle and the historic characteristics of his Tacoma warehouses. For the exhibition, a tightly focused selection of Chihuly’s art from 1978 to 2010 is presented with items from his personal collections that underscore the lasting influence of this region on his art: wool trade blankets, historic photogravures from Edward S. Curtis’s North American Indian portfolio, and Willits canoes. Importantly, the exhibition features a large grouping of the Northwest Native American baskets from the Washington State History Museum that changed the course of the artist’s career.

Throughout his career, Chihuly has remained close to Tacoma and the Northwest. Important milestones from Chihuly’s career have occurred in Tacoma, and he remains steadfast in his support of the visual arts in the city. Among his many contributions, he helped found the Hilltop Artists program, contributed to the centenary of the W. W. Seymour Botanical Conservatory, and gifted the Chihuly Bridge of Glass to the city. Dale Chihuly’s Northwest commemorates the deep relationships that inform the artist’s career and honors the people and places that propelled his creativity. Because of his dedication and generosity to his hometown, Tacoma and the Northwest have become a much richer place to live and experience art.

Chihuly attended the College of Puget Sound in 1959 and transferred to the University of Washington in Seattle the following year to study interior design. For one of his assignments, he incorporated colorful fused glass rectangles into his hand-woven window covers. This led the artist to experiment with glass in all its forms, including his first attempts to blow a glass bubble using a piece of pipe and Milton glass in his small kiln.

Chihuly’s Inspirations

Influence of Wool Trade Blankets

Chihuly’s mastery of weaving and his love of Native American textiles played a fundamental role in developing his art. His early Navajo Blanket Cylinders series was inspired by traditional Navajo weaving. Beginning in the late 1960s, Chihuly collected wool trade blankets, produced primarily by the Pendleton Mill for trade with Native American tribes. In 1974–75, inspired by these blankets, Chihuly, along with Kate Elliott, Flora C. Mace, and Joey Kirkpatrick, perfected the technique of drawing with glass threads. His later Cylinders and Soft Cylinders greatly expanded this vocabulary of brilliantly colored imagery from glass threads and translated the folds and drapes of the blankets into glass forms.

Trade blankets were some of the earliest goods exchanged by European traders with Native Americans. By the mid-nineteenth century, an entire industry developed to produce wool blankets that incorporated traditional Native American designs. Two of the most successful producers were the Oregon City Mills and the Pendleton Woolen Mills.

Native American Baskets

n 1977, Chihuly first saw the collection of Northwest Native American baskets in the storage areas of the Washington State History Museum. He recalled the possibilities this collection generated for his glass baskets: “A few years later, when Jamie [Carpenter], Italo [Scanga] and I were visiting the Washington State Historical Museum, I looked at baskets and thought I would try to make them in glass. I wanted mine to be misshapen and wrinkled like some of the older baskets I had seen in storage there.” The Baskets quickly became one of Chihuly’s signature forms, and he received national critical acclaim for his daring manipulation of the thinness, scale, and color of glass.

All of the baskets in Dale Chihuly’s Northwest are generously lent from the collection of the Washington State History Museum. The baskets were created by Native American weavers from tribes across the Pacific Northwest, including the Salish tribes of Puget Sound, the Plateau Cultures, and the Chinook of the Columbia River regions. Most of the baskets were created through one of two techniques: twining or coiling.

Puget Sound and the Northwest Rain

Another major environmental influence on the artist has been the abundance of water in the region. Chihuly once remarked, “One of the great attractions of being in the Northwest is the rain. I find the rain very creative. Water is the one thing that I can assure you is a major influence on my work and my life and everything I do… If I don’t feel good or I don’t feel creative, if I can get near the water something will start to happen.” In Dale Chihuly’s Northwest, the importance of water is represented by the Willits canoes. These sleek canoes were manufactured by The Willits Brothers on Day Island near Tacoma in the early twentieth century. Additionally, Ma Chihuly’s Floats, named in memory of his mother Viola and installed in the museum’s central courtyard, demonstrates Chihuly’s brilliant use of water as a theme.

The North American Portfolio

Edward S. Curtis established a photographic studio in Seattle in 1892. He earned nationwide attention for his photographs of Native Americans and landscapes of the Pacific Northwest. In 1906, Curtis began his work on a 20-volume set of Native Americans thanks to a $75,000 grant from financier and railroad magnate J. P. Morgan. The first volume of the series was published in 1907 with a forward by Theodore Roosevelt. The final volume was completed in 1930. Curtis sold about 220 complete sets, each selling for $3,000.

The North American Portfolio is comprised of 2,228 photogravures with narrative text by Curtis that documents 80 tribes spanning the Great Plains, Great Basin, Plateau Region, Southwest, California, Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.

Willits Canoes

Earl and Floyd Willits spent their working lifetime, 1914-1964, building the finest quality canoes at their shop on Day Island in Tacoma. They created an efficient, ingenious shop where the two of them built 17-foot, double plank canoes from western red cedar, muslin saturated with waterproof glue, and nearly 7,000 copper clench nails. Turning out nearly 20 canoes a year, the brothers emphasized quality and design rather than volume. Only 790 Willits Canoes were ever created. A favorite of Puget Sound summer campers at one point there was a four-year waiting list to receive a canoe.

Works by Dale Chihuly

Pilchuck Stumps

The Northwest environment serves as a lifelong source of inspiration for Chihuly. In 1971, Chihuly co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School on a tree farm north of Seattle. With the success of Pilchuck, Chihuly established Seattle as the center of the emerging studio glass movement. He affirmed that the spirit of this region played a fundamental role, “This stuff [glass technique] they learned from Venice—we were trying to break it… But at Pilchuck they tried to start afresh. Brand new. It was very primitive… Rough. Very American, very Northwestern. I thought it was very, very original.” In the exhibition, the rarely exhibited, cast glass Pilchuck Stumps recall the radical experimentation of Chihuly and his colleagues at Pilchuck Glass School.


Since 1974, Chihuly has used his Cylinders to present glass-thread drawings on vessels inspired by Native American textiles. Colorful threads are carefully laid out in intricate designs and fused onto the vessel during the early stages of the glassblowing process. This is known as the “glass pick-up drawing” technique, which Chihuly developed working collaboratively with artists Kate Elliott, Joey Kirkpatrick, and Flora C. Mace.


With this series, Chihuly liberated the glassblowing process from the restrictions of symmetry, allowing glass to respond naturally to gravity. He began to replicate the wavering woven forms of traditional Northwest Coast Native American baskets after having seen the collection at the Washington State History Museum in 1977. Inspired by the stacked and collapsing baskets, Chihuly began to group his Baskets together in sets. Originally, Basketswere earth-toned and red. He later experimented with more exuberant color compositions. A contrasting color is used as a lip wrap to delineate the sinuous line of the opening of the vessel–a formal device he has continued to use in nearly all of his subsequent series.

Soft Cylinders

Chihuly once reflected, “I think it is possible to say that in both series, the Navajo Blanket Cylinders and the Baskets, the pieces were wearing their drawings just as the Indians were wearing their blankets.” The Soft Cylinders combine the fluidity of the forms from the Baskets series with the drawing of the Cylinder series. For the Soft Cylinders, Chihuly expanded both aspects, making increasingly elaborate drawings on spectacular forms shaped by gravity and chance during the glassblowing process.