Tacoma’s glass act
This trendy Pacific Northwest city is an art lover’s dream
LORI ANN REINHALL
The Norwegian American
When you think of glass art and the great cities of the world, Venice, Italy, usually comes to the top of the list with its famous Murano glass. No one seems to know exactly when the art of glassblowing got started there, but the tradition is centuries old, and tourists still flock there to admire it.
But on the other side of the earth, there is another glassblowing capital: Tacoma, Wash. A busy port on Puget Sound about 24 miles southwest of Seattle, the industrial city is also an art mecca, home to the Museum of Glass, the Hotel Murano, and the Tacoma Art Museum. Most notably, Tacoma was once home to one of the most famous glass artists in the entire world, Dale Chihuly.
But while Chihuly and glass has put Tacoma on the map in the art world, perhaps few know that he has a Scandinavian connection. Born on Sept. 20, 1941, Dale Patrick Chihuly was born in Tacoma into a solid working-class family. His father, George Chihuly, was a meatpacker and union organizer, and his mother, Viola Magnuson Chihuly, was a homemaker. His paternal grandfather was an immigrant from Slovakia, and his mother’s parents came from Sweden and Norway. Chihuly grew up in a very nurturing and loving home. His Scandinavian-American mother had legendary cooking and baking skills, and Chihuly remembers how he and his artist friends used to hang out at “Mom’s house.”
Even though his father died at an early age, Chihuly was able to attend the University of Washington in Seattle, where he studied interior design. But this was not a straight path of studies for him, and he took a break to study art in Florence, Italy. These were formative times for him as an artist. For some time, he dabbled in weaving and won acclaim for his innovative designs, which incorporated an unusual element—you guessed it—shards of glass.
He first began blowing glass in 1965 and went on to study at the University of Wisconsin in Madison and the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I. Chihuly received multiple grants and scholarships, which took him back to Europe, including Venice and Murano, as his art continued to evolve. In 1971, he founded the famous Pilchuck Glass School near Stanwood, Wash. But Chihuly has not been able to blow glass since 1976, when he lost an eye in an automobile accident while traveling in England. Since then, his assistants at his various studio locations around the Pacific Northwest execute his glass designs, as he holds his position as one of the world’s greatest glass artists.
Chihuly once said, “I want people to be overwhelmed with light and color in some way that they’ve never experienced,” and his work can perhaps best be described as a spontaneous outburst of this artistic enthusiasm. While there are years of technique and experience behind his work, he was a trailblazer, who broke with the rules of traditional glass factory production, which is about creating perfectly formed, symmetrical vessels. Chihuly’s craft is much freer in form, as the molten glass finds its own shape in play of gravity and centrifuge. Much of its beauty is found it is irregularity and asymmetry in all colors of the rainbow.
A Viking ship welcome
While Chihuly’s ties to Scandinavia through his maternal heritage may seem distant, his art has forged a new bridge to the glass world in Scandinavia, with glass art works from Sweden, Norway, and Denmark scattered in the collections throughout the city. The influences can be seen and enjoyed.
There is really only one place to stay in Tacoma, the Hotel Murano. Billed as an “art hotel,” it has the feeling of a museum, albeit a relaxed and comfortable one. Even if you never leave the hotel, you will have seen some of the best glass art on display in the Pacific Northwest.
When you enter the light-filled lobby with its sweeping atrium ceiling, the Norwegian in you will immediately feel at home, as you are greeted by three large glass Viking ships suspended from the ceiling. The ships were created by Danish artist Vibeke Skov.
Skov has said, “I find inspiration in mythology, fantasy, and dreams, and when I make bigger things like the Viking boats, I need the stories to hold it all together.” The ships depict the myths of the Viking gods, from their creation to their destruction and the birth of Christianity. They give you the sense of entering another world, as you begin to explore some of the world’s most famous glass artists.
Chihuly is also on display in the lobby area, and there is a majestic chandelier created by Massimo Micheluzzi, as well as a life-sized, floor-length gown made of cast glass created by Karen LaMonte. The pieces are examples of different schools of glassblowing, and if you are interested in learning more about them while you are there, you can schedule a docent-led tour.
On every guestroom floor, you’ll discover a glass sculpture with an illuminated panel highlighting the artist who brought the work to life. One of my favorites is found on the 24th floor, “Iceberg,” by Dutch artist Peter Bremers. The artist draws his inspiration from the natural world. In his own words, his art comes from “the savage energy of the oceans and of the delight at the sight of yet another majestic sunrise over a flawless snow-covered landscape.” It feels very Nordic.
You can also fill your senses at the Hotel Murano with local and international cuisine prepared with herbs from a rooftop garden and the best of regional wines. The hotel has a lively scene in the lobby bar to enjoy in the evenings, and during the days, quiet spaces to work and relax in. For those looking for a deep level of relaxation, the adjoining Savi Day Spa offers a full menu of treatments.
Bridge to the glass kingdom
The Museum of Glass, opened in 2002 along the historic Thea Foss Waterway, is only a short walk from the hotel by way of the Dale Chihuly Glass Bridge. Built through the philanthropic efforts of the Chihuly family, the 500-foot pedestrian bridge holds three massive Chihuly glass installations. Overlooking the water below, it feels a bit like a great coral reef above the water in the sky. The bridge is open to the public 24 hours a day seven days a week and is worth visiting at different times of the day, as the glass captures the changing quality of natural light. The bridge takes you into the world of Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.
Once inside, you will find permanent displays of Chihuly and other glass art greats, many who studied under him. Over the years, there have been many artist exchanges with the Nordic countries, and glass artists come from all over the world, to learn and to teach their craft.
At the museum’s Hot Shop, housed in its coned-shaped studio building, a Tacoma skyline landmark, you can watch contemporary glass history in the making. The Hot Shop team works together with visiting artists to demonstrate how works of art are created from molten glass to deepen your understanding of what you see in the collections.
The museum holds frequent artist talks and events, and you can sign up for tours and workshops. A popular program is “Kids Design Glass.” Children 12 and younger from anywhere in the world can work with an adult to fill out the application form, create their own unique design, and submit a photo via email. Winning designs are then crafted into reality by the museum’s Hot Shop team.
Tacoma Art Museum
And if you haven’t seen enough glass art at the Hotel Murano and the Museum of Glass, the Tacoma Art Museum is only seven minutes away by foot, with its own impressive collection. Here you will find works by Sweden’s revered Ulrica Hydman Vallien and Bertil Vallien and other highly esteemed contemporary glass artists, including many pieces by Chihuly.
While there, you will also want to explore the paintings and other media on display in their Legacy collections and Art of the Pacific Northwest and Greater Western Region collection. The museum maintains a comprehensive database of their entire collection online, worth checking out in advance of your visit or for educational purposes.
Make you own
Full of inspiration from your Tacoma glass tour, you may be ready to try your hand at glassblowing. The perfect opportunity awaits you at Tacoma Glassblowing Studio, also within walking distance from the hotel.
In a welcoming and laid-back atmosphere, you can create your own glass masterpiece in a closely supervised one-on-one hands-on session. You are able to pick and apply the colors and then blow and shape a unique work of art. During the pandemic, sessions are available by appointment on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays and take about one hour. Items may be shipped home for out-of-town guests.
Emerald City finale
Finally, you may want to head 32 miles north to Seattle, the Emerald City, where Chihuly now lives and works. Here along the shore of Lake Union, he established his boathouse studio in 1989, and in 2012, he opened the Chihuly Garden and Glass, a permanent exhibition opened at the Seattle Center. Located at the foot of the iconic Space Needle, it has become one of Washington’s top tourist attractions, helping Seattle lay claim as the new epicenter of glass art. Its centerpiece is the Glasshouse, a 40-foot tall, glass and steel structure. With 4,500 square feet of light-filled space, it houses a magnificent display of the colorful large-scale creations that have made Chihuly famous, a perfect coda to your Pacific Northwest glass extravaganza.
• Hotel Murano:
• Museum of Glass: museumofglass.org
• Tacoma Art Museum:
• Chihuly Garden and Glass:
This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.