Through the Cooking Glass

At 50 Pilchuck Glass School Is Still Hot

The catalyst for Seattle’s luminous art form remains malleable.

By Stefan Milne June 15, 2021

Glass artist Preston Singletary brings the heat in his Eastlake studio. Photograph by Mac Holt

In 2015, Kiesha Bolton was an artist still finding her form. She’d gotten a photography degree in Ohio, but the medium didn’t suit her. On a whim, she’d taken a glassblowing elective. She liked this material, its versatility, its refractions. That led her to a class at New York’s Corning Museum of Glass, where she worked on a prismatic sculpture. The class was only a week, though, and she couldn’t finish the piece. She was still a glass art neophyte, but kept hearing a refrain everywhere: “Pilchuck, Pilchuck, you gotta go to Pilchuck.”

Pilchuck Glass School turns 50 this summer (though because of the pandemic, it’s deferred celebrations to next year, hosting only a few artists in residence). It sits on a tree farm in Stanwood, an hour north of Seattle, and looks more like a summer camp than a world-renowned institution. The 54-acre campus is nestled into coniferous forest and boasts cabins and dorms and large open-air structures like those you grill under at a park. These house the hot shops where furnaces heat glass until it takes on the consistency of honey.

Kiesha Bolton’s As Above So Below.

Bolton arrived in 2015 as a kitchen assistant. She got a small stipend, but mostly the freedom to immerse herself in glass art—the demos, the studios—after kitchen shifts. And an immersion Pilchuck is. “Honestly, it was overwhelming,” Bolton says. “You’ve got all these adults on this secluded hill in the forest. And everyone’s so talented.” The school is so intense, people talk of it as a time warp. “You can learn more here in a day than you could in a month in your college,” says executive director Christopher R. Taylor. Bolton brought along her unfinished sculpture, and in her off-hours she worked on it. When she finished, another student offered to buy the piece. Bolton had only been studying glass for a year and a half. “That just gave me that extra little boost.” 

She has since returned almost yearly, as an assistant, as a coordinator. If not for the pandemic, she would have taught her first class this summer. Perhaps because so many Pilchuck experiences are epiphanic, the word “magical” comes up a lot. But part of the school’s power, it seems, is that even at 50 it keeps changing—and keeps conferring its energies on Seattle. 

The Pilchuck hot shop as a tent in 1972.

The Pilchuck hot shop today.

In part due to Netflix’s series Blown Away—sort of Top Chef for art—glass is having a bit of a national moment. But here, its moment is perpetual. Indeed, the city has become such a nexus that people who try to articulate its significance fall into SAT-like comparisons. Seattle and glass are like New York and fashion, Pittsburgh and steel, Milwaukee and beer—or, as it happens, Seattle and coffee.

In some cosmic parallel Starbucks and glass art landed almost simultaneously, in mid-1971. Both are Italian imports that here swelled into American spectacles—31-ounce lattes, Chihuly chandeliers that look like some psilocybin octopus orgy. Both define the city. Today, Seattle Center’s Chihuly Garden and Glass sits at the foot of the Space Needle, a luminous node in the city’s iconography. (A Starbucks, fittingly, sits about 50 feet away.) But the museum is just one of the material’s most visible manifestations. As is Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, and the 100 or so glass studios in the Seattle area, a higher concentration than in Murano, Italy, the medium’s holy land. The catalyst, the reason Seattle is  the capital of glass, sits on that tree farm in Stanwood.

In 1971, with American glass art still in its infancy, Dale Chihuly, a young artist born in Tacoma, got a $2,000 grant to host a summer workshop. A couple of patrons, John and Anne Gould Hauberg, offered space on their rural property. So that June, Chihuly and a clutch of teachers and students jury-rigged a hot shop and some tarp tents. It was a hippie riff on art school, in bucolic seclusion. The next year, the famed food writer Ruth Reichl showed up. She’d later write that Pilchuck was “the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. And the most primitive I’d ever lived in.” People erected cabins from scraps. Someone built a tree house from windows he foraged at the dump, “a crystal palace in the sky” (it still stands). Chihuly poured molten glass onto a table and Reichl cooked pancakes on it.

The school has since established itself—a board of directors, a proper campus and kitchen. But it’s kept its early energy, “providing an escape from society to pursue art in a pure environment,” says artistic director Benjamin Wright. It’s also remained magnetic, pulling in the best glassmakers from all over the world, who often stick around. In 1979, Lino Tagliapietra, a Murano legend, came and taught often guarded old-world techniques. He now runs a Belltown gallery. This Italian connection is one of the things that early on distinguished Pilchuck’s influence, Wright says. Though a classical touch no longer defines local aesthetics, Pilchuck has aided in another convergence of innovation and tradition.

Preston Singletary at work.

Image: Mac Holt

In 1984, early in his career, Preston Singletary was working for Glass Eye Studio, a production shop that still sells gleaming trinkets in Pike Place Market. Then, just beginning to learn more specific glass art techniques, he and a friend headed to Pilchuck. “It just opened my eyes to a whole new thing,” he says. Glass could be art, could be expressive. He kept coming back, as an assistant, then an instructor.

In 2001, for Pilchuck’s 30th anniversary, Singletary, whose heritage is Tlingit, helped plan and worked on a totem pole honoring the school’s founders. Four Native carvers made it from a single tree, and Singletary added a glass topper with traditional designs. That moment was, he says, “like a rite of passage…. A turning point in my career.” He’d grown up in Seattle, far from his tribe’s lands in Alaska. Working with other Native artists “validated me in a sense.” That same year, he joined Pilchuck’s board of directors. He started thinking of himself as an emissary between the glass art world and Indigenous cultures.

Dan Friday, a Lummi artist who works in Seattle, followed a similar path: a job at Glass Eye Studio, a visit to Pilchuck that “blew my mind.” Under the influence of his aunt, a basket-maker, he would start creating glass baskets, totems, ravens—pieces with a foot in tradition and another in contemporary art. This summer, he is one of Pilchuck’s artists in residence, and in 2018 he and his sister, with the school, started an outreach program for Native youth.

A neon glass workshop at Pilchuck.

Outreach is something Pilchuck has committed to increasing. Glass art overall, says Benjamin Wright, “is not a very diverse field, and I think Pilchuck bears some of the responsibility for that historically.” Kiesha Bolton, who’s Black, told me while she’s never felt “out of place or marginalized, per se,” it’s also “very, very seldom that there’s another Black person there.” Part of the problem is that the school’s recruitment has largely been passive. Classes sell out easily, which helps keep the hot shop the province of people who know. But the school is working toward change. This year, it has created more scholarships for BIPOC artists and made positions that were previously volunteer—like that kitchen work Bolton did in her first year—paid.

One of the things that’s drawn Dan Friday to glass is its resilience. Yes, it shatters if you drop it. But you can also see a 4,000-year-old piece of Egyptian glass art, he says, “and it looks like it was made yesterday.” Pilchuck, it seems, has resisted this quality of its material. At 50, instead of a fragile artifact, it’s changing. It can still, like a lob of glass going in and out of the furnace, be reshaped.

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