Tacoma: Glass City, USA
Save for fire, a broken elevator or a new exercise regimen, it’s hard to imagine what would possess a person to walk down 21 flights of stairs from her hotel room. But at Tacoma’s Hotel Murano, every floor features a different glass artist. On my floor, Bruno Romanelli reigned. Photos of him making glass faces adorn the walls, and his eerie glass face “Sleep of Reason” held pride of place across from the elevator. Other floors feature the Flo Perkins’ melted bowling pin, Susan Tyler Glasgow’s glass corset and the controversial “Homage to the Implant” by Jessica Townsend. At Creative Forces Gifts & Sundries, the hotel gift shop, you can buy a tiny tube of toothpaste and locally made artwork. Guests can even arrange for a guided tour of the glass collection with the hotel’s in-house docent.
A hotel with a world-class glass art collection in Tacoma? Yup. In Tacoma, glass is king.
Tacoma’s Famous Son
Bing Cosby, Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson, my dad, and first female governor of Washington Dixy Lee Ray all hale from Tacoma. But it’s Dale Chihuly, born in Tacoma in 1941, who really put the city on the art map. Since making his first glass piece in 1963, Chihuly has become one of the world’s most prolific glass artists. Last year, I visited his Chihuly Garden and Glass in Seattle and the Chihuly Collection in Saint Petersburg, Florida. Last month I deplaned in Palm Springs and a Chihuly piece was the first thing I saw in the terminal. The boy gets around! And so do his legions of students. Since establishing the Pilchuck Glass School in 1971, untold numbers of glass artists have refined their craft in the foothills of the Cascades.
Chihuly’s work takes glass to places it’s never been. He proved glass could be blown into much larger forms that previously had been done, and put the “art” back in “glass art” by emphasizing form over function.
Bridge of Glass
Even people who don’t care about glass art can’t help seeing it in Tacoma. Driving into the city, I-5 passes right under Chihuly’s Bridge of Glass. From below drivers see the two 40-foot tall towers of lumpy turquoise Polyvitro, which looks like glass but better withstands the elements.
If you are the least bit interested in art or engineering, you should take a walk across the bridge. The art installation has three sections. In addition to the towers there’s the Seaforms Pavilion, where you walk under a ceiling of 2,364 glass vessels and other objects in various colors and sizes. Past the towers, you encounter the Venetian Wall, where 109 pieces from Chihuly’s Ikebana, Putti and Venetian series are arranged in glass cases towering over your head.
The Bridge of Glass is stunning any time of the day. But it’s carefully lit at night so that all the colors are visible in the dark. I was lucky enough to experience the Bridge of Glass during a full moon.
Chihuly Walking Tour
Chihuly aficionados can download a free walking tour app for their smartphones. The tour is a mixture of narration and the voice of Chihuly himself, talking about his inspirations and techniques. Nature influences in his work are pretty obvious, but I hadn’t realized how much local history inspired him. He talks about seeing a collection of Indian baskets at the Washington Historical Society. “It dawns on me that hey, wouldn’t it be interesting to try to make these baskets out of glass.”
The 19 stops on the walking tour include many inside the Tacoma Art Museum (which has a whole Chihuly room), the Bridge of Glass, Union Station, the University of Washington, Tacoma, and the Swiss Pub, which has a collection of his works behind the bar.
Museum of Glass
Chihuly may be Tacoma’s glass bigwig, but you can’t say he doesn’t give other artists a hand up. He co-founded the Museum of Glass, which opened in 2002. It shows two major exhibitions at a time, plus has glass artists working in a hot shop with theater seating so that visitors can learn about glassblowing.
When I visited, one of the featured exhibits was Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora C. Mace: Every Soil Bears Not Everything. These two women have collaborated since the 1970s, when they met at Pilchuck. The huge exhibit shows a variety of artistic phases they went though over the years, but mostly – except for a tree stump drawing series — focuses on living forms: birds, botanicals, humans. The other exhibit was very 2016. It focused on crowd response through social media, with the artist getting the most audience “likes” winning a prestigious residency in the hot shop. This Facebook framing was annoying – as social media so often is. But the work was beautiful, and showed a large number of pieces from the museum’s collection. Since I have a penchant for the figurative, I especially loved Michael Sherrill’s green vine snake and Erich Woll’s blue-footed boobies.
Plan Your Pilgrimage
Glass art lovers need to make a pilgrimage to Tacoma. While the grittier city is often overshadowed by nearby Seattle, it’s a real gem for a getaway. Smaller, slower, with much less expensive hotels, Tacoma has plenty of culture, art, boutique and antique shopping, and good restaurants to satisfy most souls.
And you must stay at the Hotel Murano. When I checked out, I asked the receptionist about her favorite glass artists. I told her I’d walked all the way down from the 21st floor to check out the art. She thought I’d missed noteworthy artists on the 24th and 25th floors. So even though I’d officially checked out, she lent me an elevator key and persuaded me to check out the four floors I’d missed. And I discovered a new favorite, the iceberg-inspired works of Peter Bremers on the 24th floor. Even checkout doesn’t stop the art show at the Hotel Murano.