Splash of Glass in the Garden

Sculptures abound at the Atlanta Botanical Garden’s Chihuly exhibit

By Hank Sforzini
Photographs by Scott Mitchell Leen

Perform an internet search for Dale Chihuly, the internationally acclaimed artist who boasts 12 honorary doctorates and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and you’ll be met by an image of the wild-haired glassblower sporting a rakish eye patch from an injury sustained during a visit to England in 1976. An automobile collision launched him through a car windshield and caused deep cuts to his face and the loss of sight in his left eye — an ironic twist of fate for an artist whose delicate, kaleidoscopic glass works have been included in more than 200 museum collections worldwide.

For his latest show, “Chihuly in the Garden,” he returns for an encore exhibition at the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Chihuly marked the garden’s first step in the major art exhibition world with its showcase in 2004. When Mary Pat Matheson began her tenure as garden president and CEO, she knew he wanted to install exhibits in cities with major botanical gardens. Matheson envisioned a Chihuly exhibit coming to life in Atlanta’s garden, and she focused her efforts on bringing the renowned artist to her city. Unbeknownst to her, Chihuly already had identified the garden as a possible locale.

“It was beautiful serendipity,” according to Matheson.

As it turned out, a member of Chihuly’s design group — he uses directed teams to create his works — was working with a commercial client to create a major piece for an Atlanta building. During this time, team Chihuly scouted the location and decided they were going to approach the Atlanta Botanical Garden about doing an exhibition.

Attendance at the 2004 Chihuly exhibit eclipsed 375,000 visitors, and two installations from that show were acquired by the garden as permanent installations. “Blue and White,” a one-of-a-kind sculpture interpreting shapes and colors of water, ice and sky, is a happy assemblage of twisting, brightly colored glass that sparkles in Levy Parterre Fountain — a perfect spot according to Matheson because of the many celebrations hosted in that area of the garden. The second, Nepenthes Chandelier, was inspired by the garden’s carnivorous pitcher plant collection and was created specifically for that exhibit.

Artist Dale Chihuly

Since 2004, the garden has not only doubled in size, but the artist’s garden series depth of work, color creativity and form have grown tremendously. The current exhibit, which includes 19 alluring sculptural installations and six Chihuly Drawings, stretches across the garden’s 30-acre expanse. Matheson believes between his growth as an artist and theirs as a botanical garden, it’s made for a more complex, diverse and beautiful exhibition.

Chihuly’s Garden Cycle, a series of exhibitions within botanical settings, began in 2001 at the Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago. Other major exhibition venues include the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London, in 2005; the de Young Museum in San Francisco, in 2008; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2011; and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, in 2013. “Chihuly Garden and Glass,” a long-term exhibition, opened at Seattle Center in 2012.

“Chihuly in the Garden,” the glassblower’s 15th botanical exhibition, is one of his most ambitious outdoor displays yet. Every Chihuly exhibit is designed to be site-specific, and roughly a fourth — five installations total — were created uniquely for the Atlanta Botanical Garden. In addition to the daytime hours, “Chihuly Nights” offers extended evening hours granting visitors a contrasting, yet spectacular experience for viewing the sculptures with dramatic lighting, set against Atlanta’s impressive skyline.

Dale Chihuly directs the creation of a blown-glass piece. (Photo credit: Russell Johnson)
Chihuly’s artworks returned to the Atlanta Botanical Garden for an encore exhibition.

“Atlantans have been begging for 12 years for a revival of this showing of Dale’s exquisite work, and we are ecstatic to finally welcome Chihuly back,” said Matheson. The exhibit is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of visitors from throughout the Southeast.

While each of the 19 installations is beautiful, there are undoubtedly highpoints of the exhibit.

Elevated above the Water Mirror in the Glade Garden is the anchor of the exhibit, “Saffron Tower.” The 30-foot-tall tower’s 366 hand-formed neon tubes, produced from more than a half-mile of tubing, provides a beacon that casts a dazzling reflection in the water and shines brilliantly in the woodland garden after nightfall. The installation can be seen as you approach it on the Kendeda Canopy Walk, a 600-foot skywalk suspended 45 feet in the air through the treetops of the Storza Woods. Matheson believes Chihuly would say it’s positioned in the best location it’s ever been: “He was very excited about it. He really loved it.”

Another stunning display is “Fiori Boat and Niijima Floats,” a piece that bears out Chihuly’s famous saying, “I’ve never met a color I didn’t like.” A multitude of shapes and color pour over the sides of a wooden boat, flanked by many-hued floating orbs. Additionally, the installation shares space with a 25-foot-tall permanent, powerful plant sculpture, the Earth Goddess. According to Matheson, Chihuly believes the two works are simpatico and says it makes for a very special installation.

Other highlights include “Indigo Blue Icicle Tower,” comprised of 315 icicles in brilliant shades of blue, which beckons visitors from the nearby visitors center; “Sol del Citrón,” the heaviest installation at almost 6,000 pounds, consists of 1,316 hand-blown green and yellow horns and green hornets and demonstrates how Chihuly masses color together with many pieces in a single installation; and “Sapphire Star,” an installation comprised of 723 blue to clear spires that glisten by day and shine brightly at night.

Just as unique as his installations is the fact Chihuly returned to Atlanta, since he rarely revisits the same garden twice. Matheson began calling his office in 2008. “I knew it would take a few years, but I didn’t think it would take eight,” she said, laughing. But perhaps there’s a bit of serendipity at play once again. After all, this year marks the garden’s ruby anniversary.

Said Matheson: “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate our 40th anniversary than by having Dale Chihuly return.”

“Sol de Citron”

Chihuly in the Garden is presented at the Atlanta Botanical Garden through October 30, 2016.


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