SEATTLE — 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 Mr. 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,’” Mr. 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 Mr. Beers, now 60 and an architect in New York.
Mr. 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,” Mr. Chihuly said in an interview in his 34,000-square-foot studio complex here 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, Mr. 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. Mr. Chihuly 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.