Glass Artists Face Off in Court
1.06.2006 NEW YORK.
By TIMOTHY EGAN
SEATTLE, May 31 — As an ever-moving maestro in the world where fine art and commerce converge, Dale Chihuly is perhaps the world's most successful glass artist.
His clients include Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, and his elaborate installations of sea gardens and flower clusters show that mere sand transformed by fire can elevate a casino ceiling to the level of gallery spectacle.
But now Mr. Chihuly is in the midst of a hard-edged legal fight in federal court here over the distinctiveness of his creations and, more fundamentally, who owns artistic expression in the glass art world.
Mr. Chihuly has sued two glass blowers, including a longtime collaborator, for copyright infringement, accusing them of imitating his signature lopsided creations, and other designs inspired by the sea.
"About 99 percent of the ocean would be wide open," Mr. Chihuly said in an interview. "Look, all I'm trying to do is to prevent somebody from copying me directly."
The glass blowers say that Mr. Chihuly is trying to control entire forms, shapes and colors and that his brand does not extend to ancient and evolving techniques derived from the natural world.
"Just because he was inspired by the sea does not mean that no one else can use the sea to make glass art," said Bryan Rubino, the former acolyte named in the suit who worked for Mr. Chihuly as a contractor or employee for 14 years. "If anything, Mother Nature should be suing Dale Chihuly."
The suit, rare in art circles, offers a sometimes unflattering glimpse at how high-powered commercial artists like Mr. Chihuly work. The two glass blowers say that he has very little to do with much of the art, and that he sometimes buys objects and puts the Chihuly name on them, a contention that Mr. Chihuly strongly denies.
He acknowledges that he has not blown glass for 27 years, dating from a surfing accident that cost him the full range of shoulder motion, an injury that struck three years after he had lost sight in his left eye in a traffic accident.
Still, Mr. Chihuly said, he works with sketches, faxes and through exhortation. Nothing with his name on it ever came from anyone but himself, he said.
Andrew Page, editor of Glass: The Urban Glass Art Quarterly, which is published in New York, said that Mr. Chihuly deserved a high place in the pantheon of glass artists, but that the suit could hurt his reputation by igniting countercharges and opening a window into how a celebrity artist works on a mass scale.
"I think Dale Chihuly is a pure original," Mr. Page said. "He has a tremendous sense of color and composition. And he has done a tremendous amount for the field. But this lawsuit may have been the worst thing he could have done."
A butcher's son from hardscrabble Tacoma, Mr. Chihuly, 64, operates out of a cavernous boathouse on Lake Union with a split-tree table inside that seats 200 and a lap pool with a riotous sprouting of glass objects beneath a clear floor.
The artist has 93 employees, part of a veritable fine art factory called Chihuly Inc. When celebrities like Robin Williams or Colin L. Powell visit Seattle, the boathouse is often the sole stop they want to make.
Mr. Chihuly said he had no choice but to use the courts to try to eliminate "knockoffs" by people trying to profit from his empire.
"This lawsuit is not about money," he said, puttering around the boathouse in paint-splattered shoes with a lawyer and publicity agent in tow. "It's about what is fair. There are a million forms you can make that don't look like mine."
In a 2003 copyright case involving glass art, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled against an artist who said another artist had used his design of jellyfish encased in glass. The two designs looked similar, but the court said no one could copyright nature.
"These ideas, first expressed by nature, are the common heritage of humankind, and no artist may use copyright laws to prevent others from depicting them," the court said. But the judges added that any artist might "protect the original expression he or she contributes to these ideas."
Mr. Chihuly said it was his original expression in deliberately off-centered bowls, baskets and vases, as well as sea forms and flowers that made his designs unique. His elaborate installations, often filmed and sold as DVD's, include "Chihuly Over Venice," a 40,000-pound ceiling installed in the lobby of the Bellagio casino hotel in Las Vegas, and a 48-foot-tall design at the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem.
Karrin Klotz, a copyright lawyer and lecturer at the University of Washington School of Business, said there was precedent for Mr. Chihuly's claim, that Picasso was able to copyright a mere few lines on a pad because they were so distinct.
"I think his works are distinctive enough to be protected," Ms. Klotz said of Mr. Chihuly. "He is depicting things like flowers and sea forms that may be derived from nature, but the way he shapes them can be protected."
In court filings and at preliminary hearings where boxes of Mr. Chihuly's delicate multidimensional glass objects were presented as exhibits next to the work of Mr. Rubino, and the other artist named in the suit, Robert Kaindl, the similarities in the works are striking.
The case may turn on factors like whether a "lip wrap," a colored trim line around the edge of a design, or a certain ripple is the exclusive domain of Chihuly Inc.
Lip wraps and ripples, the glass blowers say in their counterclaim, "have been around for centuries" and are standard design elements.
Lawyers for Mr. Chihuly agreed that glass art was 5,000 years old, but said he created his own look and revolutionized the glass art world.
"Mr. Chihuly made an abrupt departure from the notion of centered works, making instead glass sculptures that appear to be collapsing, frozen in time," the lawyers wrote in a complaint in the fall.
One question unanswered by the suit is why Mr. Rubino and Mr. Chihuly would turn on each other so bitterly. By all accounts, they worked closely for nearly 20 years on Mr. Chihuly's biggest projects, a relationship not unlike partnerships through the ages between masters and the craftsmen who carry out their work.
In court filings, lawyers for the glass artists wrote that Mr. Chihuly would "often ask Mr. Rubino to come up with something for Dale Chihuly to review and purchase for Chihuly Inc."
"Chihuly is not the source of inspiration for a substantial number of glass artwork carrying the Chihuly mark," they wrote.
In an interview, Mr. Rubino said he did not understand why Mr. Chihuly went after him and said the suit could ruin him. He said it could prevent him from making the most basic of glass objects that are lopsided by gravity when pulled from an oven.
"I'm a technician," Mr. Rubino said. "I can make anything out of glass, and I can spin it any way."
For his part, Mr. Chihuly called Mr. Rubino a "gaffer," a term for a glassblower who labors around a furnace at the instruction of an artist. Asked to assess Mr. Rubino, Mr. Chihuly said, "He was an excellent craftsman" with little vision of his own.
"You think I would ever let Rubino decide what something looks like?" Mr. Chihuly asked.
Mr. Rubino's lawyer, Scott Wakefield, said Mr. Chihuly was in essence seeking a monopoly over a huge field of art.
"If the first guy who painted Madonna and Child had tried to copyright it," Mr. Wakefield said, "half of the Louvre would be empty."