Art Guide

The Magic of Pilchuck

Its Influence on the Seattle Art Scene Is Here to Stay

By Matthew Kangas

KangasAs Pilchuck, the world's most famous glass school, gears up for the 30th summer session, it is worth looking backwards (and forward) briefly to set into context the single most important phenomenon in the Seattle art market over the past two decades: Pilchuck glass art.

Founded in 1971 by artist Dale Chihuly and arts patrons John Hauberg and Anne Gould Hauberg on a 40-acre tract in Stanwood, Washington, the Pilchuck Glass School is now a stable creative institution to be reckoned with. Boasting an annual budget of $1.6 million and an endowment of $1.9 million, the international summer school plays host to students from 28 countries; a visiting artist faculty; a prestigious artist-in-residence program; and an emerging-artists-in-residence program.

Visitors to Seattle frequently plan on trekking up to the campus 50 miles north of the city only to find out that visitors are welcome only two days a year, at the annual Open House on August 6 ($15), and at the Pilchuck Members Day ($50 -$100) on June 25. The rest of the time, students, faculty, staff, and visiting artists must be left alone to create art in a sublime, natural setting.

Pilchuck’s first 25 years are chronicled in a well written and beautifully illustrated 1996 book, Pilchuck: A Glass School, by Tina Oldknow (University of Washington Press, $59.99). Oldknow touches on how the presence of so many glass artists affected Seattle’s art scene but an entire book could be written on that topic alone. Beginning with small group exhibitions at Foster/White and William Traver galleries, local, national, and international artists associated with Pilchuck displayed their work for critics, curators, collectors and a fascinated public. Nearly 30 years later, Don Foster and Bill Traver have been joined by Elliott Brown Gallery, Bryan Ohno Gallery, Phoenix Rising Gallery, Gallery Mack, Art By Fire, Glasshouse Studio, Glass Eye Gallery and Friesen Gallery in Seattle; Riley Hawk Gallery in Kirkland; and Elements Gallery in Bellevue.

Bear Totem, Preston Singletary, blown glass vessel sandblasted with Alaskan native imagery. Represented by William Traver Gallery

Marge Levy in the Pilchuck hot shop with Amelio Santini and students

Scarlet Hive, by Jean Salatino, scarlet blown glass with laathe-sculpted surface, 1999.

Three generations of glass artists, going on four, have passed through Seattle, now the ne plus ultra exhibition site for glass artists all over the world. Not just the exposure to collectors (Seattle is actually the fourth largest glass art market in the U.S. after New York, Chicago, and Miami) but the exposure to respected fellow artists and important critics living in Seattle is what makes showing in a Seattle area gallery so desirable. Since 1971, 65 private "hot shops" (where glass is made) have opened for business in the Puget Sound area.

Just as Japanese, British and German artists were drawn to Cincinnati's bustling art ceramics industry 100 years ago, so today artists from Asia, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, and western and central Europe gravitate to Seattle, often after fruitful and stimulating sessions at Pilchuck. One such couple, Stanislav Libensky and Jaroslava Brychtova, from Zelezny Brod, Czech Republic, are frequently honored artists in residence at Pilchuck and the eponymous creators of an award presented at an annual gala benefit at Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery (held this year on June 10, $150 per person). Drawing on a $50,000 endowment, this year's recipient, Dan Dailey of Kensington, New Hampshire, will select a scholarship student; receive two cases of wine; receive an editioned sculpture by the Libenskys; and become the subject of a videotape about his work. Past recipients are Ginny Ruffner, Chihuly, William Morris and Lino Tagliapietra.

Pilchuck has been beneficial, not only for Northwest glass artists, many of whom now exhibit all over the nation and beyond, but also for artists outside the Northwest. Big-name New York-based artists are also invited as Artists in Residence. For many, it has meant a new creative lease on life, coming at times in their careers when they could use a little jump-starting. Sadly, many of them play down their debt to glass once they leave with recharged batteries, new ideas, and literally tons of new work with which they fill New York galleries and museums.

Besides the late Christopher Wilmarth, contemporary artists of the stature of Kiki Smith, Lynda Benglis, John Torreano, Judy Pfaff, and Ann Hamilton have been followed by younger artists open to experimental craft materials like glass, including Nicholas Africano, Joyce C. Scott, Willie Cole, Maya Lin, Tony Oursler, Jana Sterbak and Buzz Spector. Thus, it is a little known fact that, besides Pilchuck influencing Northwest art in substantial ways, its facilities and programs have influenced contemporary American art as a whole.

With Marjorie Levy as Executive Director since 1991, and Pike Powers as Artistic Program Director since 1994, the school has grown into an established, if non-degree granting, educational facility, all building on the groundwork laid by their predecessor Alice Rooney between 1980 and 1990. All three women, along with co-founder Ann Gould Hauberg, have overseen and guaranteed that basics like food, water, utilities and lodging are secured and paid for, along with much else.

"Pilchuck is no longer a family," Levy adds, "but a community, a place for the storing of skills, the exchanging and supporting of creative ideas. And with so many international artists coming here, it’s a worldwide community, a very loose-knit tribe, something very humane and timely."

Levy has also shepherded the Emerging Artists in Residence program (E.A.I.R.), now celebrating its tenth year, and the topic of a forthcoming Tacoma Art Museum exhibit (October 7, 2000 - January 1, 2001), with a Riley Hawk exhibit this August of 1999 participants.

Noted younger artists who have settled in Seattle after participating in the E.A.I.R. program include Carl Hasse, Sarah Chase, Alison Chism, Masami Koda, Patricia Davidson, Pam Gazale, Katrina Hude, Lisa Zerkowitz and Karin Richardson. They readily found representation with dealers like Traver, Vetri International, Bryan Ohno and others. As a group, they are among the most important contemporary artists to arrive in Seattle for some time.

The 22nd Annual Pilchuck Glass School auction will be held October 13 at the Westin Hotel in Seattle (tickets $150). This is another gathering of the tribe Levy alluded to, actually a weekend-long event with an optional four-day planned tour of galleries, museums, and private collectors' homes ($1000 for the weekend). Frequently raising over one-half million dollars and assisted by 130 volunteers in the Seattle area, the auction symbolizes the extraordinarily enthusiastic coming together of artists, collectors, curators, critics and interested parties that has come to mean the magic of Pilchuck. From the decorative to the conceptual, the architectural to the sculptural, Pilchuck’s impact on the Seattle art scene is here to stay.

MATTHEW KANGAS, Seattle art critic and curator, writes for the Seattle Times, Art in America, Sculpture and many other publications.

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