Arts Tour: Seattle

May 2011 | BY | Issue 76, Summer 2011

The Chihuly “Bridge of Glass,” a pedestrian overpass that links the Museum of Glass to the Thea Foss Waterway, features work from Dale Chihuly, a Tacoma native. CREDIT: Mahesh Thapa

First time visitors to Seattle may find themselves experiencing déjà vu. The coastal city has hills like San Francisco, cobblestone streets like Boston, the international ambience of Manhattan, and craft galleries like Santa Fe.

Seattle style, however, is unique. Northwest sophistication paired with casual elegance fosters a vibrant art scene that stretches south to Tacoma, across Lake Washington to Bellevue, and beyond. Arts and crafts are as much a part of life as the morning mist rising from Puget Sound. It’s small wonder that Seattle is a perennial favorite on AmericanStyle’s list of Top 25 Arts Destinations.

For visual arts aficionados, Seattle is synonymous with glass. Glass culture got a big boost here more than 40 years ago when Dale Chihuly spearheaded the founding of the Pilchuck Glass School in nearby Stanwood. More glass artists work in the Seattle area than anyplace else in the country—making it the art glass capital of the U.S.

Among the city’s many virtuoso glass artists, Chihuly has achieved international celebrity. He pioneered the use of glass for large sculptures. He has devised new techniques. His daring public and museum installations inspire awe. Wherever you roam in the Seattle area, you’re likely to encounter the Tacoma native’s drawings and art glass.

To see the largest permanent collection of Chihuly’s work, visit the Tacoma Art Museum, less than an hour from Seattle, where he’ll celebrate his 70th birthday in September. With your cell phone, access an “Ear for Art,” the museum’s self-guided walking tour of the exhibit. The 12 stops include Chihuly’s massive “Monarch Window” at Union Station and his 500-foot pedestrian “Bridge of Glass,” an eye-popping confection of colors and shapes that takes visitors under a canopy of Chihuly Seaforms and along walls of his Venetians.

Cross the bridge to the Museum of Glass, a showcase for avant-garde objects by international artists-in-residence, including Americans Lynda Benglis, Beth Lipman and John Kiley. The “Kids Design Glass” gallery delights with children’s drawings that artists interpret in glass. The creations include everything from a pizza cat and brilliantly hued birds never found in nature to a fleet of wildly futuristic vehicles.

On your return trip, consider a detour to Bellevue, Wash. In addition to studios and galleries, the city draws more than 320,000 visitors during the last full weekend in July when the craft-centric Bellevue Arts Museum hosts the largest and most prominent arts festival in the Northwest.

Back in Seattle, be sure to visit Pioneer Square, a vibrant downtown neighborhood featuring more than 20 city blocks of historic 19th-century architecture and dozens of galleries. First Thursday, Seattle’s largest Art Walk, takes place from noon to 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month, when leading art galleries throw open their doors to introduce new exhibitions and artists. After three decades, it has become a must-attend for art-loving residents and visitors alike.

Glass enthusiasts find much to admire at Traver Gallery and Vetri. Traver, opened in 1977, is “theater for the eye,” says founder William Traver. The gallery represents many of the top artists of the region, including Preston Singletary, Hiroshi Yamano, Richard Marquis, Sonja Blomdahl and Dante Marioni. In 1998, Traver launched Vetri gallery to exhibit emerging artists.

Another Pioneer Square favorite is the 3500-square-foot Pacini Lubel Gallery, which presents a mix of cutting edge ceramics, glass and contemporary paintings by artists including Bennett Bean, Lisa Clague, Rick Schoonover and Charissa Brock.

If furniture is your passion, you won’t want to miss Northwest Fine Woodworking, an expansive 29-member artists’ cooperative at the corner of First and Jackson Streets. The gallery presents studio furniture by local and regional artisans, including third-generation cabinet maker Robert Spangler, who describes his aesthetic as “classical American” influenced by an “interest in Asian furniture.”

Some of the city’s most talented artists demonstrate their craft at the Seattle Glassblowing Studio on Fifth Avenue. The facility’s art glass gallery features jewelry, sinks, custom lighting, vessels, and Guy Paul Michelson’s glass spinners.

Pike Place Market, one of the country’s oldest farmers’ markets, is a Seattle institution and a great place to start exploring the city. Before dawn, while the fishmongers and greengrocers, bakers and flower vendors busily arrange their wares, patrons wait with steaming mugs of coffee for the galleries to open.

Lots of craftspeople do business here. Sandwiched between the Three Girls Bakery and Jack’s Fish Spot, you can see Earth Wind & Fire’s unique clothing and jewelry by local artists. Myriad stalls offer pottery, textiles, hand-tooled leather, woodcarvings and other crafts. Coffee shops, restaurants, and hotels also highlight art, including The Four Seasons Hotel, which commissioned Seattle artist Gerard Tsutakawa to make the bronze sculpture “Thunderbolt” that stands outside the hotel entrance overlooking the bay.

It’s a short walk from the market to the galleries that cluster around the Seattle Art Museum, the city’s cultural nexus. SAM, as the museum is affectionately known, exhibits not only contemporary glass but a wide range of art from different periods and cultures in its permanent collections. Its popular Olympic Sculpture Park, open and free to the public 365 days a year, is populated with massive works in bronze, granite, fiberglass and steel by 20th-century masters including Louise Bourgeois, Alexander Calder and Richard Serra.

Whether it’s your first visit to Seattle or your tenth, you’ll always find something new to see and do. It’s a city glimmering with possibilities, unique and original as the stellar art being created there.

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