Who is really making 'Chihuly art'?

Finished Dale Chihuly paintings in his studio complex, which holds some of his collections, in Seattle.
Finished Dale Chihuly paintings in his studio complex, which holds some of his collections, in Seattle.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SEATTLE (NYTimes) - More than 40 years later, Jeffrey Beers still vividly remembers what it felt like to have Dale Chihuly call up to convene a pre-dawn glassblowing session. You felt flattered and inspired, he said, jazzed by Chihuly's caffeinated freight train of energy and the idea of making art with him while most of the world slept in.

"'We're starting at 5. I'll have Egg McMuffins for everybody,'" Beers said, describing a typical Chihuly invitation and the instant creation of a team of art student acolytes. "There would be eight or 10 of us, ready to go," added Beers, now 60 and an architect in New York.

Chihuly was never the lonely artist toiling in his garret. Making art in a crowd, with a crowd, was the Chihuly way, according to people who have known and worked with him over the decades. The pattern only deepened with time and success, as he gained global recognition for the prolific output of expressive glass works, sculptures and paintings that bear his name and can sell into the millions of dollars.

"The more I worked, the more I sold work, the more people I could hire," Chihuly said in an interview in his 34,000 sq ft studio complex in Seattle, near where he was born and raised.

But now, at 75, with mental health issues and old physical injuries that have forced a retreat from hands-on work, Chihuly is facing a hard-edge court battle - and a potential cloud over his life and art - around the question of what those teams do. A former contractor has sued him and his wife, Leslie, who is the president and chief executive of Chihuly Studio, seeking compensation for millions of dollars of paintings that the contractor says he created or inspired, but for which he said he was never properly credited or compensated.

These are painful days for Dale Chihuly, as he winds down a long career facing a challenge that stabs at the heart of any artist: his originality.

He emblazoned his signature on the world by working and rethinking the vocabulary of glass as art. Physical challenges and scars compounded the difficulty of that path. He lost vision in an eye in a 1976 car crash that also permanently injured an ankle and a foot. A shoulder injury from a bodysurfing accident made glass blowing, with its heavy weights of pipes and glass, impossible to do. He suffers from bipolar disorder, marked by sweeping swings of elation and depression. And with greater dependence on others, he said, has come greater vulnerability to claims that his work is not his own.

"Yeah, I would say it probably made it easier to attack me," he said. "I absolutely need my teams."

The Chihulys, in their own countersuit in United States District Court in Seattle, have dismissed the claim by the former vendor, Michael Moi, as an act of greed and jealousy. They said that Chihuly's vision still defines and shapes all art that leaves his studio.

"He was a handyman," Chihuly said of Moi's role in the company, which employs about 100 people in several locations in the Seattle area.

Moi's lawsuit says that exploitation and uncredited work were built into the Chihuly team system, and that the mental swings of working under a bipolar artist - manic bouts of energy followed by crashes of depression and paranoia - were part of the unpredictable dynamic of how and when work got done, and who did it. Moi, through his lawyer, declined a request for an interview.

"Up-and-down manic cycles were a constant," the suit says.

Certainly, workshops for art, overseen by an artist with a famous name, are nothing new. Painters from Peter Paul Rubens to Rembrandt created elaborate systems of production, as have modern artists like Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol, who famously declared his art to be a factory-produced commodity.

And legal experts said that claims of inadequate credit by an underling generally have faced a tough road because courts require proof that the person who filed for a work's copyright, Chihuly in this case, intended to share credit of authorship.

"I think no one would have even assumed that Chihuly did all his own work, first of all, because there's too much of it," said Christine Steiner, a lawyer in Los Angeles who represents galleries, artists and museums, but does no work for Chihuly.

Another artist who has known Chihuly for many years said he believes Chihuly is still making "Chihuly art", even if others are constructing and finishing it.

"As long as Dale can put it down on paper, right to the very end I think he'll be able to keep going," said Benjamin Moore, a glass artist in Seattle. But Moore said he has also been saddened by the attacks on his friend, and the decline in Chihuly's vitality over the last decade.

"He was such a whirlwind of energy and excitement and enthusiasm, he was like a magnet, drawing the most talented young people around him just to be in his presence to learn," Moore said. "But he's a shell of the man that he was - it breaks my heart."

In the lawsuit, where pretrial motions are underway, Moi said the level of Chihuly's disabilities were never disclosed to art buyers or the public and that Chihuly Studio often intimated that Chihuly's paintings were entirely by his own hand. Other legal cases in recent years involving Chihuly and his former employees - him suing them or vice versa - were settled out of court, but those disputes could be dredged up again in depositions or testimony as the case goes forward.

"For years Leslie Chihuly and Chihuly Studio have undertaken efforts to hide Dale's struggles with mental health and his inability to work on a daily basis, not to protect him, but to ensure that the cash cow known as 'Chihuly' continued to moo," Moi's suit says.

There's no question Chihuly has become an institution and created a bridge between decorative and fine arts that some art scholars have compared to Louis Comfort Tiffany. Chihuly Studio creates some 30 site-specific pieces a year, ranging in price from US$200,000 (S$272,600) to millions of dollars, and has done commissions for collectors like Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. Chihuly's show at the New York Botanical Garden, through Oct 29, has drawn more than 484,000 visitors since April, making it one of most attended exhibitions in the garden's history.

At Chihuly Studio on a recent afternoon, workers were assembling a huge glass chandelier for a university, tinkering with a sculpture scheduled for installation in Union Square Park in New York, and painting flower images on glass in three big warehouse-like buildings in Seattle's Ballard neighbourhood.

Seattle became an art-glass capital largely because of Chihuly, through the Pilchuck Glass School, a nonprofit academy north of the city that he helped found in 1971, and the two museums built around his work or glass art in general. Chihuly Garden and Glass, which opened in Seattle in 2012 next to the Space Needle, is the city's top-ranked tourist attraction on TripAdvisor, and has become a cash cow of its own. Admission costs US$29, and the gift shops sells everything from Chihuly umbrellas (US$36), to blankets (US$500), to numbered prints of Chihuly paintings (about US$3,000).

"Second on my list of things to see, after the Space Needle," said Alison Yeardley, a fourth-grade teacher from Boston, who was spending three days of her vacation in Seattle and had just left the Chihuly Garden and Museum on a recent morning.

Chihuly said that in looking back over the long arc of his career, he can pretty much pinpoint where his mental state was, in the cycles of up or down. In the mid 1990s, for example, he remembers working for weeks with little sleep on a project to build and hang chandeliers over the canals of Venice. But then a couple of months later, working at Waterford Crystal in Ireland, he said, the cycle turned. "I was depressed, but yet I had my team with me and I could continue to work," he said.

"I like my work when I'm up," he added. "Van Gogh, you know, he worked when he was depressed as well as when he was up, and I've never been able to figure it out."