Waves of heat blast my face as I struggle to rotate the heavy metal rod inside the furnace, a white-hot ball of glass balanced precariously on its end, melting and morphing with each turn. Suddenly, my instructor at the Seattle Glassblowing Studio, Ronnie Phillips, grabs the rod and deftly spins it. He has just saved my lump of oozing glass, which I’m trying to fashion into a small bowl, from falling into the flames.
I had envisioned glassblowing as delicate work. Yet in this small-group glass art workshop, which I attended as part of Refract: The Seattle Glass Experience, Seattle’s annual autumn glass art festival, I learned that crafting pieces of fragile art requires hard physical labour. I’m surprised to discover, too, that the Seattle area has more than 400 artists who create glass works, from tiny earrings that twinkle in the light to massive pieces that fill rooms with their colourful designs. The Netflix series Blown Away, which has released three seasons to date, features several of these Seattle glass artists.
If you visit the Emerald City, you can see what these local artists are producing at museums, galleries, and studios around the region. And maybe you’ll even spend time in the hot shop yourself. The Seattle Glassblowing Studio, which includes both a gallery and a working glassblowing space, offers private and small-group introductory lessons year-round.
Here’s a guide to immersing yourself in Seattle’s shimmering glass art scene.
With his fanciful glass art creations, Tacoma-born Dale Chihuly put Seattle on the glass art map in the 1970s when he co-founded Pilchuck Glass School, a training ground for the region’s artists. Today, Chihuly’s works have been exhibited in more than 200 museums worldwide, while closer to home, Seattle celebrates the artist at Chihuly Garden and Glass, an exhibition space next to the Space Needle at Seattle Center.
Showing Chihuly’s work as it has evolved from the 1970s to the present, this Seattle location has several indoor galleries exhibiting his dramatic glass inventions, as well as outdoor gardens, where his glowing gold and vibrant red “plants” sparkle against the sky. Chihuly himself designed and curated the facility, which recently marked its 10th anniversary.
An immersive light, music, and glass art installation, Winter Brilliance, opened November 17 at Chihuly Garden and Glass and runs through the end of February.
To learn more about the artist’s life and work, arrange to visit The Boathouse, Chihuly’s waterfront studio. Now in his eighties, Chihuly no longer does the heavy lifting. A team of glassblowers execute his designs, working in this large warehouse-like space overlooking Lake Union. On a Boathouse tour, you can see samples of Chihuly’s work, alongside his own quirky collections, from vintage bathing suits to folk-art masks to more than 800 Indigenous-designed blankets.
Although it’s not normally open to the public, The Boathouse welcomes visitors for tours on occasional open studio days and during the Refract festival, when you can watch Chihuly’s team in the hot shop. At other times, you can book a visit by appointment.
Another Pacific Northwest glass master, Lino Tagliapietra, divides his time between Seattle and Murano, Italy, a region with a long tradition of glass art and where he was born in 1934. Tagliapietra, who began blowing glass when he was 11, first came to Seattle in 1979 to work with students at the Pilchuck school. He now exhibits his intricate glass pieces at his spacious Belltown showroom, which is open to visitors by appointment.
In downtown Seattle, Traver Gallery hosts regular exhibitions of work by local glass artists, from Dale Chihuly to younger glass creators. The gallery represents the region’s premier Indigenous glass artist as well. Though he was raised in Seattle, Preston Singletary has family roots in Sitka, Alaska, and he incorporates his Tlingit heritage into his finely crafted glass creations, from etched glass baskets to lead crystal totems. Traver Gallery will showcase Singletary’s latest work in a new show opening in April 2023.
A small exhibit space in the Pioneer Square neighborhood, Stonington Gallery also shows works by Indigenous artists from across the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. While not exclusively focused on glass art, the gallery recently featured glass artists including Preston Singletary, Dan Friday of the Lummi Nation, and Tlignit artist Raven Skyriver. Check the website for information about current and upcoming shows.
One of the best places to see glass art and glass artists at work year-round is south of Seattle in the city of Tacoma. Here, the Museum of Glass exhibits works by local and international glass artists, and you can watch regular glassblowing demonstrations in the Hot Shop theatre. The museum’s permanent collections highlight contemporary artists of the 20th and 21st centuries, while rotating exhibitions feature glass artists from around the world.
On view through June 2023, Out of the Vault: Soundtracks not only includes works from the museum’s permanent collections, but accompanying each piece, the artists have shared the music they listen to as they work. Visitors can access these playlists through QR codes in the exhibition and play them on Spotify. You may not learn to create your own sparkling works, but at least you can listen to what inspires many inventive glass artists.
Mark your calendars for Refract 2023. Next year’s glass festival will be held October 12–15, 2023.
Read more travel stories.