Glass roots

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Louise Cross delights in an unusual installation in Kew Gardens

Lying in wait for young plant explorers at Kew Gardens is a colossal organic form, but it is not plant or animal. A solitary being, confident, yet fragile, it is more than four metres high and four metres wide and weighs 4,600 lbs, dwarfing the plants that surround it. A curling mass of intertwining colours and forms; red, yellow and orange are shot with the occasional burst of blue and green.

Named "The Sun" this extraordinary creation is made up of 1,000 pieces, took four days to "grow" and reflects the vibrant colours and monumental scale of artist Dale Chihuly's work. Taking the natural elements of earth, fire and air, Chihuly's vision has created life, energy and movement through swirling, bold shapes and striking colours that overwhelm the senses and bring delight to the observer. Within some of the most famous gardens and glasshouses in the world, 25 installations in Chihuly's "Garden of Glass" now gleam and glister.

From a young age Chihuly was fascinated by glass and its properties: "To think that this molten blob of glass is made only of silica or sand, the most common material in the world, that can be transformed from a solid to a liquid to a solid from just fire. For me it's the most mysterious and magical of all the inventions or materials that mankind has invented or discovered." "The Sun" emphasises the characteristics of solid but transparent glass, its capacity as a material to transmit and reflect light and colour. It also showcases how Chihuly's skill and enthusiasm has elevated glassblowing from a craft to an art form. Not only is Dale Chihuly considered by many to be the world's leading figure in contemporary glass, but his fascination with the properties and potential of materials extends his repertoire to include works in neon, ice and polyvitro, a type of plastic. Now Chihuly invites you to explore the glasshouses, ponds and gardens at Kew; looking up into the canopy of lush forest, gazing through the undergrowth into hidden pools and lying among plants of the desert; new surprises are found around every corner, planted in amongst the leaves and flowers of some of the world's most beautiful and unique plants. To Chihuly, the excitement and wonder of his installations lie in the fact that "I love to juxtapose the man-made and the natural to make people wonder and ask, 'are they man-made or did they come from nature?' That's a very important part of my work."

Some pieces, like "The Sun", are daring, audacious and difficult to miss, while many blend into the landscape so well that they appear to be camouflaged. Wherever they are placed, in glasshouses or gardens, the installations demand close observation and exploration, and the plants invite you to look at them in a new light and be inspired. There are pebbles, balloon-shapes, upright fronds like cacti, blocks like melting ice, dreamlike flower shapes and bulbous, multi-coloured gourds. They can be found in pools, under leaves, entwined in branches and floating in the air. Some even spill out of a boat on Kew's lake.

Trained in America and Venice in traditional glass-blowing techniques, Chihuly has challenged those rules, experimenting and innovating with the process to come up with his own unique and unforgettable style that is bigger, brighter and bolder than anything ever before. He combines conventional tools with the use of centrifugal force and gravity, allowing molten glass to bend naturally into a myriad abstract organic shapes.

Following an accident in which he lost the sight in one eye, Chihuly operates with a team of glassblowers from his studio in America. Up to 10 glassblowers may be working together on a project or components of an installation, while Chihuly continues to direct, teach and inspire his team. Less well known, but equally fascinating, are Chihuly's drawings and prints, a few of which are also on display at Kew. Drawing is a key part of Chihuly's artistic exploration, enabling him to communicate ideas, shapes and forms, which are then translated by his team into three-dimensional works. As an artist, Chihuly has exhibited his work all over the world from Venice to Jerusalem, Iceland to Japan and from museums and galleries to deserts, lakes, rivers and gardens.

Even if they have been "switched off" in science lessons, pupils visiting Kew can still be inspired to explore physics, maths and chemical processes through creative displays such as "Chihuly at Kew". Integrating art and science is key to developing not only observational skills and aesthetic appreciation but also in helping children understand how science underpins many daily activities including the creation of artistic works. The physics of light and colour, the characteristics of materials and the technology of design, form and function all combine to provide an exciting resource to both explore and wonder at. In the UK, threats to the sciences underpinning biodiversity conservation have been linked to a decline in plant sciences in secondary schools. Through innovative and attention-grabbing exhibitions such as this, students are invited to investigate organic forms, the place of art in the botanical sciences and to see plant science in a new and fascinating way.

Louise Cross is education officer at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Noa-5 lGardens of Glass: Chihuly at Kew is sponsored by GSK and runs until January 15. Entrance to the exhibition is free for prebooked schoool visits but there is a charge for booked activities with the Kew Schools Education Team. For information on the exhibition:

The artist's own website: www.

Dale Chihuly b 1941

At first an architecture student, in 1965 Chihuly was one of the first to enrol on the University of Wisconsin's hot glass programme, gaining a sculpture degree. From 1971-87 he was artistic director at the Pitchwick School in Washington, which he co-founded. Since then his fame has spread, with major installations in Venice and Israel and work shown in more than 200 museums worldwide.

Lesson ideas

Art and design


As part of Unit 1C, look at unusual patterns and shapes in Chihuly's sculptures and in plants. Create a collage based on inspiration or found objects from the plants, colours, sights and sounds of a garden.

Scienceart and design


Consider how plants are adapted to different environments (eg deserts and rainforests) through shape, form and colour; discuss the importance of photosynthesis in these environments. Make close observational drawings of plant adaptations and use sun-sensitive paper to record plant forms (eg leaves) using the Sun's energy. Use these records later to abstract ideas for a larger piece of 2D or 3D work.


Explore how Chihuly masses glass into large installations. Photograph installations or massings of plant forms and consider whether they are art.

What might biodiversity mean in the context of art and science? Create a work of art based on biodiversity and conservation.

Science and citizenship


Research the different properties of glass and plastic; find out about recycling. The Glassforever Roadshow will visit your school free, see:

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