In our corner of the art world, there are few things more omnipresent than glass. We see it bombastically and ubiquitously in Chihuly’s Garden and Glass, tucked just under the eye of the Space Needle. There, bouquets of calcified blossoms spiral out of control amid marbled, diamantine tendrils of anemone-like sea creatures. Elsewhere we find profusion of baubles for ears, necks, fingers, wrists; fashion-forward one-hitters that look like lipstick tubes, bubblers sprouting haunches and limbs or wings, cavernous serving dishes with crepuscular starry nights melting into crystalline hollows, or stemware with stems tortured, twisting impossibly.
Glass has been king in the PNW for decades, thanks in large part to Dale Chihuly jumpstarting the burgeoning studio glass movement that took off in the 1970s. Up to that point, most glass produced since the dawn of the Industrial Age was produced in large factories.
It’s a glorious thing—and cliché: A spectrum of good, bad, jolie laide, ugly and fucking brilliant glass is produced in the region. But at the Pilchuck Glass School, no one is on the fence about it. Glass is all they think or care about.
“Pilchuck” means “red water” in Chinook Jargon—the defunct pidgin language developed by Indigenous tribes and traders in the PNW and used until around 1900. The name refers to the nearby, muddy Pilchuck River. Pilchuck Glass School was founded near the town of Stanwood, Wash., about 50 miles north of Seattle, in 1971 by Chihuly and philanthropists Anne Gould Hauberg and John H. Hauberg. Up to that point, the land had operated as a 15,000-acre tree farm. To this day, the nearby Pilchuck Tree Farm remains active, and the forested landscape that stretches and melts into crystal blue haze for miles in each direction is as romantic as a Bierstadt.
Inspired by the Black Mountain College, glass maverick Chihuly had been cooking up the idea of a PNW-based glass school for a while, and the Haubergs offered him their property in 1971. The initial workshop was held with a handful of students and teachers who helped build out the first glass furnaces and studio structures. After a few summers of continued classes with increased participation, the Haubergs permanently established the school as a non-profit.
Now Pilchuck hosts multiple one-, two- and three-week class sessions every summer, along with artist residencies. Classes are small, with up to a dozen students admitted to each session. (There were some 50 students when I visited.) The learning process at the school is malleable though, and frequently students dip from hot shop to cold shop to print shop, geeking out with glass artists and students from all backgrounds in a deluge of conceptual and creative cross-pollination.
Cooling off behind one of the hot shops: hundreds of pieces of glass experiments in every form imaginable, some till now only recently imagined.
Like Easter eggs nested in the woods and tucked in out-of-the-way spots around the rolling acreage, small and large glass objects have been left behind over the years to meld with the surroundings.
A few hours after I arrived on a Friday night, something went wrong. Just as the communal dinner buffet was being packed away by kitchen staff, a bell began to gong. It’s the same gong used to call students to the dining room—a spacious common area ringed with high windows that look down on the valley below. But this after-dinner bell called for an evacuation because someone sniffed propane nearby.
Propane powers furnaces all over the campus; a leak might prove disastrous. Though nothing like this has ever happened at Pilchuck before, fire trucks arrived and remained for the night. Students waited anxiously to get back to their work. And by anxious, I mean that work was the only thing anyone wanted to talk about.
That’s an example of how, after just spending a few hours at Pilchuck, everything I thought I knew about glass changed. I don’t think I understood how intensive the process of making anything glass is. Every glass object you’ve ever handled required some amount of blood, sweat or tears. Accordingly, glass artists are obsessed: obsessed in a deliciously febrile way that seems to simultaneously sap and propel them and knot their brains in closed circuits of ideas, spun out in a fitful, blazing furnace that will shatter as many pieces as it produces. While at the school, students, assistants and gaffers rise at 7 a.m. to get to work. They break for lunch and dinner—pulled by the siren song of the Lodge’s come-hither gong—then race to return to the shops to keep the fires flamed, many till 3 or 4 in the morning. Eat, breathe, drink, talk, sleep glass. Repeat.
The marathon nature of the summer sessions is understandable, even if the energy expended seems a little super-human—or nuts. Students arrive from all over the world to study here, many flying in from Scandinavian countries, where there’s a thriving glass scene with many dedicated glass artists.
Other students are multimedia practitioners here for the experimental side of glass, like Phirak Suon, a recent graduate of University of Washington who holds a bachelor’s degree in ceramics and a master’s in architecture. Currently his interest is working with 3-D printing to create lost wax-type molds that will then be cast in glass—a newer technology Pilchuck has been integrating into its programing along with more traditional fare.
“They don’t sleep, they work constantly, they’re bombarded daily with slide lectures by different artists with work from all over the world,” says Jay MacDonell, education coordinator at Pilchuck, of the school’s students. “They have breathing time when they have meals together. In a situation like that you can’t help but become tribal. People come together really quickly. They coalesce around each other and move forward in terms of what you’re able to create and do. I like to think of it as an oasis of yes in a world of no. Here we pretty much have everything. If you don’t know how to do it, someone else does.”
Elbo Glass is world famous: Collectors, stoners and celebrities alike scramble for his bubblers, or water pipes, priced at $10,000 each and oftentimes double or triple that. His most popular pieces are cartoonish dinosaurs with an incredible amount of delicate detail and pops of color. According to many glass artists I spoke to, his work heralds a Renaissance of low-brow aesthetic in pipes inspired by the ’70s.
At the time of my visit, Elbo is a guest instructor for a pipe workshop—the first class of its kind at the school. Students are understandably thrilled to study under him. The shop is cacophonous with a steady muddle of laughter, chatter, the clatter of metal-on-metal and the roar of small open flames. As he pauses for a moment to examine some of their work, Elbo explains that the origin of his iconic, translucent T-Rex is, in fact, a romantic one, based on the story of a girl.
“I’d been working in glass for 10 years,” he says. “I went to art school but that system failed me and I had to figure out my own way. When I started making pipes my girlfriend at the time broke up with me because she said I was too focused on that. I started making this dinosaur design she had made for me. I made it into a pipe, and an image of it randomly got featured in Time Magazine in an article about teen drug use and weed and shit. Even though it wasn’t credited, people found out who I was and started hitting me up. All along I was just trying to get to this girl.”
Ultimately it wasn’t enough to keep her around, but among enthusiasts the legacy of the object is now the stuff of legend.
Among the phenomena that glass artists nerd out on in 2016: the chemicals and materials being developed, notably in New Zealand at the moment, with phosphorescent qualities that shift colors—in this case from green to hot pink depending on the light source. Regionally, Portland-based companies North Star and Glass Alchemy are working to develop these new types of glass.
As popular as glass is in the PNW, for most artists it takes some sacrifice and a lot of dedication to make the practice sustainable.
“Glass is a semi-dying, semi-existing material in the sense that in the 1800s there was nothing that could compare to a glass blower,” says one of the staff on that fateful evening that forced everyone to socialize around their cabins and—of course—talk about glass. “Now you have every kind of industry over-toppled by everything, from the manufactured bottle to the underpaid workers in countries that can’t afford to provide a living wage to workers that make an Ikea vase that sells for $15. It would take someone here $80 to make.”
The buildings at Pilchuck were designed by local architect Thomas L. Bosworth, who worked on the campus from its first year until 1986. The central hot shop is the hub of much activity and classes. Located at the site of the original hot shop built by Chihuly and his students in ’71, Bosworth designed the permanent shop to resemble a traditional lean-to with its impressive slanted roof. With such signature accents repeated in buildings across the campus, Bosworth’s design creates a contiguous architectural thread that runs throughout the site, equally bare-bones, rustic and created for functionality, with wide-open breathable spaces.
One of the secrets tucked away on the Pilchuck acreage is located up a winding grass trail that leads up into the woods.
There’s a rule at the school that no permanent structures be left behind, otherwise over the decades the campus would become a messy metropolis of piled-up glass objects and half-finished projects. This one however—in a very Pilchuck way—manages to skirt the rule and remain by both the spirit and the letter of the law. Held together by wire, the tiny rotunda is technically temporal, constructed in ’94 by a student who took a glass casting class, her first time engaging with glass. She made numerous objects and then dragged them into the woods with a bag of concrete where she laid a glass-speckled foundation. Over the next few years, students continued to build upon the structure, adding objects and pieces of cast-off art. The resulting building, now dubbed the Trojan Horse, is like an advent calendar of secret doors, windows, panels embedded with cast glass and other art objects that can be opened or rearranged.
“It’s one of the strengths of the school and why we don’t have any visitors on campus,” says MacDonell, who guided us up through the woods to the Trojan Horse. “We create this situation to allow these kinds of events to happen. An idea that seems completely crazy: We want to provide a situation where people can be working at 11:30 at night and make these breakthroughs, both emotional and creative.”
The treehouse designed and built by Seattle artist Buster Simpson in 1972 is still occupied each summer by one member of the staff. A makeshift kitchenette and picnic table underneath is cluttered with glass art left by artists over the years.
Erected in a meadow not far from the complex of rustic buildings that make up the hub of the campus is a totem pole designed as homage to Anne Gould Hauberg, John H. Hauberg and Chihuly. Their faces are carved into the pole; one of Chihuly’s eyes is embedded with glass. At night, the glass parts are illuminated by LEDs. The pole glows from within.
“For me one of the most interesting parts is the artist in residency programs,” says MacDonell. “I really like it when people come and have no idea what this is. It’s like, Ok, we melt silica and it turns into glass and they’re like sure….whatever you say! Some will come with a plan all mapped out, then they’ll scrap the plan four days in and totally change course.”
Though MacDonell speaks of the artist residency program—which invites only a handful of established artists to work, play and experiment at the school each summer—once enveloped in the culture of Pilchuck, you get the feeling that this is par for the course for students, teachers, gaffers, assistants, staff…for everyone. Pilchuck is a playground like no other.