Place 14 of 52: Seattle, City of Glass

Posted May 25, 2018 2:24 p.m. EDT

On a rainy Tuesday — his glassblowing day — Preston Singletary fired up the ovens of his studio near downtown Seattle, and over the course of two hours, turned a molten blob into a raven.

Two assistants worked wordlessly beside him, manning blowtorches and helping shape the hot glass with an array of tools. I sat on a bench, feeling like the 2,200-degree heat might melt my face off. The final result would come after many more hours of cooling and sandblasting: a noble bird covered in designs based on Singletary’s Tlingit tribal culture.

Seattle-area native Dale Chihuly, who still lives in the city, may be the only glass artist most people know by name, but Singletary is a significant force in the field. Recently, he sold out a series of three 7-foot-tall cast glass “Family Story” totem poles (a different, far more laborious technique) for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. And his was the third glass studio I’d seen in Seattle in three days. I didn’t intend for glass to be such a theme throughout my visit to the city, but it was clear as, well, glass.

“For me, glass was basically a day job back in the day to support my music habit,” said Singletary, who also plays bass in a band, Khu.éex, that overlays traditional Tlingit vocals with experimental rock, with the aim of language preservation. He has also consulted with elders and historical drawings for his designs, and has worked with master Tlingit woodworkers.

This October, Singletary will debut an immersive exhibition of glass sculpture, video and sound at the Museum of Glass in nearby Tacoma. (It will also travel to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.) He’s been working on the concept, which is based on the Tlingit tale of Raven and the Box of Daylight, for four years.

He sees glass as a way of preserving his culture while also moving it forward. “The materials we use are becoming increasingly rare — cedar trees for dug out canoes and totem poles,” he said. “So new materials need to be employed to keep the stories and symbolism alive.”

I’ve known about Seattle’s culture of glass since I was a kid. My mother, Lucy Lyon, is a self-taught cast-glass figurative sculptor. Recently I asked her why she’s devoted her adult life, and my entire lifetime, to working with glass. She told me she tried other materials, like bronze and clay, and just couldn’t get inspired. “For me, a glass figure captures the light,” she said, “and holds it like a soul.”

In Seattle, I found myself equally captivated. Here are other ways to experience the city’s glass scene.


Beneath Seattle’s famed Space Needle, a Medusa’s head of hundreds of yellow, orange and red snakelike tendrils of blown glass sits atop a mound of Black Mondo grass from Japan. Together, they look like a Koosh ball perched on a shag rug — or maybe a curly-spiked sea anemone stuck to the head of someone with a terrible haircut.

That pairing is just a taste of the explosion of glass-amid-foliage on display at Chihuly Garden and Glass, a long-term exhibition celebrating Chihuly’s career that opened in 2012 and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions (admission, $26). The visual smorgasbord stretches over 1.5 acres, from galleries through a magnificent glass house with an 100-foot glass sculpture hanging from its ceiling, and into the outdoors, where, during my visit, a blue glass sphere was hiding in a bed of white and orange daffodils. Every hour, local artists give glassblowing demos out of hot shop an Airstream trailer.

Fans will notice echoes from Chihuly’s mad-scientist experiments of planting glass spears in Jerusalem’s Citadel, or floating glass balls down Venice’s canals. But this feels more personal than his other installations. Chihuly co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School an hour north of the city in Stanwood, Washington, where generations of artists have since gotten their training. And while recent years have brought a decline in health for the 76-year-old, along with challenges to his legacy, it’s under his influence that Seattle has become the epicenter of where the vast majority of significant, museum-quality glass art is being made.

Changes are overhead, as well: The Space Needle is refurbishing its observation decks, with new glass and glass benches on the upper level (already open) and the world’s first and only rotating glass floor to open later this year on the lower level — all the better to see the colorful squiggles of glass below.


A 35-minute drive south to Tacoma’s Museum of Glass, where Singletary will have his exhibition, is critical to understanding the scope of the material in contemporary art. The highlight of my visit was a retrospective on the Japanese ceramist Akio Takamori, who in his later years created rough-hewed, blown-glass heads that looked as if they’d been sculpted from clay. There’s also a hot shop where visitors can view live demos, and an adorable program in which children draw designs that the museum’s artists bring to life. (My favorite was a hamburger cowboy by a 7-year-old.)

Chihluy’s work is everywhere here, too; he’s from Tacoma and inspired the museum. A fountain filled with his undulating clear-glass shapes overlooks the waterfront just outside the museum’s front door. On the monumental Chihuly Glass Bridge, people can walk through a corridor of his glass. His sculptures even hang from the ceiling of the downtown train station.


The most arresting glass structure in the city, though, may well be the Amazon Spheres (technically titled Amazon’s The Spheres), three conjoined, bulbous conservatories filled with more than 40,000 plants from nearly 700 different species, that opened this January as part of the online behemoth’s downtown Seattle headquarters. Made up of 2,643 triangles and rhomboids, the Spheres’ reflective surface, which reflects off the surfaces of adjacent Amazon skyscrapers, has become an instantly recognizable part of Seattle’s architectural landscape. It’s also just a monumental feat of vision and money and will.

The idea of the Spheres, Ron Gagliardo, head horticulturalist, told me on a tour, was to create a kind of break room for Amazon employees to reconnect with nature in an urban jungle. “They can relax and refresh, maybe meet a colleague for lunch or coffee,” he said, “but in a place where they can feel differently and work differently and think differently.” When I visited, dozens of employees were taking meetings or typing away on laptops beneath tropical fauna.

Two Saturdays a month, with registration, members of the public can see the four-story plant wall, as well as Rubi, the ficus tree (49 years old and 49 feet tall) that had to be lowered in through the top of one of the spheres last June — a lady plant literally breaking a glass ceiling.


Early in my trip, friends took me to the Georgetown Art Attack, a night of open studios in a hip part of South Seattle that happens the second Saturday of every month. Our destination: the Rainier Glass Studio, which offered up free beers and a chance to watch three sets of glass blowers working simultaneously.

I gravitated toward Ryan Blythe, who had a coterie of assistants swirling around him, anticipating his every move. He’d been blowing glass for 26 years, he said, and was working powder into his glass to create stripes on what would become the tail of a squirrel-shaped bong. (A practical use for all this glass production in a city where recreational marijuana has been legalized; see also Uncle Ike’s Glass and Goods, next to the city’s controversial No. 1 dispensary, Uncle Ike’s.)

We were hungry and Blythe had a ways to go, so we set off for the nearby Star Brass Works, a beautiful dive bar around the corner with a terrific $5 burger. When we went back to the studio, though, Blythe was gone and a young woman in roller skates named Mary Quinn was sweeping up.

Alas, the glass had cooled too quickly and the “badass squirrel bong,” she said, had shattered. “I’m not that sad. You learn a lot of stuff every time you mess something up.”