Glass Magic: Chihuly at Kew Gardens

I don't need much coercing to visit Kew Gardens, so when the "Chihuly: Reflections on Nature" glass exhibit opened this past week, I actually raced to see it!

Dale Chihuly is the world's most celebrated contemporary glass artist, an American master who has been blowing glass since 1963. He creates huge and incredibly gorgeous glass installations all over the world. You've probably seen his work in swanky hotel lobbies (or in Harrods).  I've had the good fortune to see the Chihuly permanent exhibition in Seattle, Washington and also the 2008 exhibit at the San Francisco De Young Museum. 

So, the answer is yes, I was pretty excited to see his current take on mixing glass with natural surroundings. 

Chihuly's glass came to London once before, in 2005. Thirteen years ago. That exhibit was the last major Chihuly European outdoor exhibit, and it was one of the most well attended shows that Kew has ever sponsored. 

Kew Gardens is a massive 330 acre garden, but luckily for the visitor, the exhibition in contained in 12 mapped out areas surrounding the Victoria Gate entrance to Kew. 

The exhibition runs from April 13 through October 27, 2019, so if you are in the area, I highly recommend you visit. See below for ticket and travel information. 

When you enter, you will be given a brochure with numbers, so that you can be sure to see all the installations. I followed the path backwards because I was immediately drawn to the fantastic red blob that I spied in the distance. I enjoyed the tour that way, and probably missed a lot of the crowd, but in case you would like to go in order, I will list the exhibition numbers for each location.

The above installation (and lead photo) is called Summer Sun, and was created in 2010. It is located in front the Palm House, to the right of Victoria Gate. 

My favorite of all the installations is #10, a luminous white floral surprise hidden inside the Waterlily House. It's called Ethereal White Persian Pond, and was finished in 2018.

But let's back up for a second! Before I show you the rest of the exhibit, I want to give you some idea of just how difficult and time consuming it must be to create these astonishing works of art. So I've made a handy reference guide outlining each of the eleven steps it takes to create just one piece of blown glass. 
  1. First, you must purchase some glass and place it in a furnace which has been preheated to 2000 degrees F (1090 C), 
  2. Then stick a long hollow metal pipe in the furnace, and collect the glass onto the pipe.
  3. Roll the glass (and pipe) on a table (called a marver) to make a symmetrical cylinder shape.
  4. Put the glass in the crucible (back in the furnace) through a glory hole, and turn it several times
  5. Dip the glass in to crushed colored glass if you want to add color, heat it in the crucible again, then roll it on the marver again.
  6. Place the pipe on a stand for support.
  7. Blow into the pipe and roll the pipe at the same time, in 10-15 second increments, then put it back into the crucible to keep it hot. Repeat until you get the shape you wish.
  8. While holding the pipe yourself, an assistant should cut the “tied balloon” end of the glass with tweezers where it meets the pipe.
  9. You then tap the pipe one time on a wooden block to loosen the glass from the pipe. The assistant should be ready to catch the glass piece. If you tap it more than once, it can cause the glass to crack or break.
  10. Transfer the glass to an annealing oven that is preheated to 960 degrees F (516 C), and then allow the oven to cool for over 14 hours to room temperature. 
  11. Remove any sharp edges and use a grinding block to smooth rough spots
Now, repeat this process for 50-100 times for the major pieces in the exhibit!!!!!

In the recently remodeled Temperate House (#5), there are loads of pieces, including a massive showstopper of blue, which was created specifically for this London exhibit. You cant miss it, because it's suspended from the ceiling. Finished in 2019, it is called Temperate House Persians.

Near the base of the Persian floral column is another installation, Turquoise Marlins and Floats, 2015. Blue undulating bird-like columns are surrounded by reflective blue spheres.

Around the side, look carefully and you will spy an assortment of gourds in red, copper and silver with lily shoots arising from the centers.

Don't miss the stunning white Beluga Boat, 2018, a congestion of opalescent shoots set against tall green ferns.

Yellow herons and Reeds, 2019 evokes yellow birds preening and bathing in a woodland marsh.

Fiori Verde, 2016 appears to be a watery succulent in full bloom next to a pristine waterfall.

Outside the Temperate house to the East is a lovely corridor of currently blooming cherry trees, and set among them is #6, Cattails and Copper Birch Reeds, 2015, beautifully set in a field of matching tulips.

#7 Neodymium Reeds and Turquoise Marlins, 2019 with vibrant contrasting fluorescent blue and purple spires is set on both sides of the King William’s Temple entrance. 

One of my other favorite installations (#4) is at the far side of the park, near the Japanese Pagoda. This one, the very zen-like Niijima Floats is a series of glass balls set in manicured sand. 

To the left of the Victoria Gate entrance, #1, a huge seed pod is called The Sapphire Star, and was completed in 2010.

#8, Scarlet and Yellow Icicle Tower, 2013 is a stand-alone exhibit, a short walk from the back of the Palm House.

Paintbrushes, 2016, is near the Palm House, and features red and yellow shoots rising from a round bed of yellow and white spring flowers.

The last stop for me is the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art (location #2), which discusses Chihuly's story, and showcases a few of his drawings and smaller pieces. Whenever I see Chihuly bowls, I wish i had a cool $35,000 to spend on one of these glorious bowls.... or even $5,000-8,000 for the budget 6"x9" size?

Well, that's a wrap of the luminous and spectacular Chihuly: Reflections of Nature exhibit at Kew.  Maybe I'll come back again this August for the illuminated Chihuly Night exhibit! wanna come?

Couldn’t resist! 
Lime Crystal Tower, 2006, near the Shirley Sherwood Gallery (#3) 

Here is a link to my other blog about Kew Gardens,
"Winter at Kew Gardens"

More information:
Tickets: Admission to Chihuly is included with a general admission ticket. £16.50 adult price online.
Hours: 10-7, seven days a week. 

Chihuly Tours: Limit of 15 people, register at Victoria Plaza on day of entry.
April 23-August 31, every day at 12noon and 2:30pm
September 1- October 27, every day at 12 noon. 

Chihuly Nights: Adult £18, Member £12
Watch the sun set over Kew Gardens and get a chance to see Chihuly’s artistry glow under the evening sky. The work will be accompanied by music by acclaimed composer Nico Muhly, featuring wind instruments and human voice to reflect Chihuly’s use of breath. Aug 15-Oct 26 every Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7:30-10:30 (last entrance at 9)


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