Experience the utmost in glass art

Dale Chihuly, America’s premiere glass artist who was in San Francisco leading a preview tour of his new exhibition at the de Young Museum, has a simple explanation for why his work is so popular: “People like to look at glass; it’s like you’re looking at light.”

The 11-room show, opening Saturday in a special free-admission day and running through Sept. 28, covers a range of Chihuly’s distinctive, colorful work — from large, individual pieces to installations composed of many elements that take up an entire gallery.

Chihuly himself has a difficult time deciding which artworks are his favorites. “When they turn out this good,” he said Tuesday, “it’s hard to pick one.”

Viewers who got a sneak peek at the show voted for two breathtaking “Float Boats,” each filled with more than 100 smaller, mostly rounded, pieces.

Running a close second was “Mille Fiori,” a magical 56-foot-long garden packed with vibrantly hued flower and sea-shaped forms.

The artist wouldn’t name his preference, but seemed to be leaning toward “Tabac Baskets,” a Native American-themed room filled with a huge wood table (“I loved old pieces of wood,” he said), glass baskets and dozens of vintage Pendleton blankets that inspire him.

“Five Chandeliers” brilliantly lit up one amazing room. Chihuly said he began to seriously consider chandeliers when he realized he didn’t have to worry about the height at which they’re displayed. Today, he and his team of artists create more chandeliers for people’s residences than any other type of work for private homes.

The acclaimed Tacoma, Wash.-based artist is known for elevating studio glass work in the art world; his pieces are in more than 200 museums internationally; his commissions also may be seen in luxury Las Vegas hotels.

As a young man, he thought he wanted to be an interior designer, but switched to glass after having a transformative experience working on a kibbutz in Israel and studying art back in his home state of Washington.

“I wove bits of glass into tapestries. I melted stained glass, rolled it up on the end of a pipe and blew a bubble. From that point on, I wanted to be a glass blower,” he said.

He then studied glass art at the University of Wisconsin and the Rhode Island School of Design. Later, he traveled to Italy, where he was introduced to team methods of glass blowing practiced in Venice. Employing and innovating those practices, he and his associates continue to produce creations that inspire not only collectors, but everyone.

IF YOU GO

Chihuly at the de Young

Where: De Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, except until 8:45 p.m. Friday; closed Monday; show runs through Sept. 28

Tickets: $6 to $10; plus $5 surcharge

Contact: (415) 750-3600 or www.deyoungmusuem.org

Note: Admission is free Saturday and Sunday only; special opening weekend actitivies inlcude lectures by Chihuly at 1 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday along with family activities, music and industrial arts programs presented by The Crucible.

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