Pilchuck at 50: The glass school that changed art and artists

As artist Tommy Gregory carefully and tightly packed his new glass artwork made at Pilchuck Glass School in preparation for the trip from the Stanwood woods to Seattle, he was shocked to see his fellow artists not do the same . Instead, he saw them tossing their parts into recycling. They were masters of their craft, Gregory recalls, but they didn’t seem interested in bringing their new work home.

When Gregory asked his co-workers why they didn’t take their new artwork with them, they explained that, well, now they know how to do it, so they can redo it at home.

“It was really humbling to see people who are so good at their craft that they went out there and had the ability to try something,” said Gregory, who is senior project manager and curator at public art for the Port of Seattle. . “The preciousness of the object, as beautiful as it is, is not the main reason why people go there.”

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50 years celebration

This is the common feeling of artists who have passed through the Pilchuck campus. Pilchuck, which was founded in 1971 by Seattle glass artist Dale Chihuly and art patrons Anne Gould Hauberg and John H. Hauberg, has become a powerhouse of an art school over the past half-century whose the value cannot be reduced. to the individual works created there. The Pilchuck name permeates the art scene, both locally – you really can’t talk about places like the Tacoma Museum of Glass or Chihuly Garden and Glass without hearing the school’s name – and beyond.

“I mention Pilchuck and any major artist or art lover knows that,” Gregory said. “It kind of transcends the art world. What happened there, setting up a glass hot store in the middle of a forest, created this synergy of magic.

As the school commemorates its 50th anniversary with a homecoming event on September 18 for those who have previously participated in Pilchuck sessions, as part of a year-long celebration that began in October 2021, artists praised the school for being a rare place that allows artists from around the world to learn, network and, above all, take risks.

“There’s the Vegas saying, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’ But it’s the opposite at Pilchuck,” said executive director Christopher R. Taylor. “What happens at Pilchuck goes around the world and comes back. learned from people all over the world, and they share these techniques.

Located in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, the Pilchuck campus is surrounded by a 15,000-acre tree farm and sits on a 55-acre site of fields, forests, trails, and streams. The school offers artist residencies during the summer months and workshops throughout the year, with courses ranging from introductory to advanced, with students (all aged 18 and over) choosing a course – such as a course on mixing glass blowing and sculpting techniques or an exploration course. new frontiers in stained glass – as the focus of their session. Taylor said the goal is to provide a mix of ideas and techniques from a variety of artists and an environment that allows the artists in the course to experiment and explore together.

As Taylor pondered the history of the school, he thought of Chihuly, in 1971, climbing hills to establish the school as a tent in a field. Taylor joked that since Chihuly passed up a barn in favor of this tent, he wonders if Chihuly would pass the 60-building campus today to go deeper into the woods, find a new patch, and start fresh. .

“Looking back to Pilchuck’s early days, I don’t think any of us would have dreamed that the school would still exist 50 years later,” Chihuly said, “much less become known as one of the schools of the world’s most prominent glass-based art.

Seattle-based metal and glass artist KT Hancock said she was “hooked” after her first time at Pilchuck nearly a decade ago. Rubbing shoulders with other artists with similar interests, she said she felt a surge of energy.

“If you look at the early photographs of Pilchuck in the early 70s,” Hancock said, “it was absolutely a bunch of hippies in the woods working together to make things happen. Although the campus had changed and slightly modernized, that sense of collaboration, teamwork and glass heritage remains.

Seattle artist Minhi England compared him to a kid in summer camp. The school, she says, creates a sense of family closeness that connects the artists. Suddenly, participants find themselves with connections around the world to artists they might never have met otherwise. England, the third season runner-up of Netflix’s reality glass blowing competition series “Blown Away,” said she met the majority of her close friends through Pilchuck, including her late husband.

“There is just something so magical about experiencing the beauty and abundant imagination of the tree farm that is very difficult to replicate,” said England, who first came to Pilchuck in 2012.

The sense of purpose, playfulness and hard work between like-minded artists on campus led New York artist Hank Murta Adams to credit his experiences at Pilchuck in the mid-1990s with changing the way he taught. . During the summers of ’94 and ’95, Adams led a two-part workshop, designed by former Pilchuck art director Pike Powers, which resulted in the construction of a concrete and glass structure known as the “The Trojan Horse”, which Pilchuck marketing manager Sarah Parkinson called one of the most iconic and beloved structures on campus.

But why Adams credited Pilchuck, and more specifically Chihuly, is because of the way they hired guest artists. These artists were not just brought in as speakers, but as collaborators to share experiences and experiences. Moreover, he noted, these artists tended to be outside the world of glass, fueling a sort of cross-fertilization of backgrounds and techniques that the artists would then take with them.

“When it’s hard to follow what inspired students, you know you’re headed in the right direction,” said Adams, who himself studied as a painter before being drawn into the world of glass. , about the influence of school.

Gregory, from the Port of Seattle, considered himself more of a concept artist than a glass world artist before his Pilchuck experience, which he finally had this summer after pandemic delays. With a background in carpentry, welding, printmaking and other areas of the conceptual art world, Gregory said he’s never seen people from all walks of life come together as artists at Pilchuck. He said he felt like he was watching a seasoned jazz quartet as his fellow artists drove to the Pilchuck hot shop where the glass artworks are made.

“The way they were able to read each other’s clues about where to be in the hot shop,” Gregory said, “was like nothing I’d ever seen in the world of art, and I’ve done that all my life.”

Gregory, however, may be as perfectly placed as anyone to see Pilchuck’s local significance. Last year, as part of a collaboration between the Port of Seattle and Pilchuck, Gregory helped set up a festive art exhibit at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The vinyl display near Hall A details the school’s evolution over 50 years.

“I see why the place is so magical,” added Gregory. “I left another artist there.”

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