Who would have dreamed that one could learn so much about decorative glass in such a quiet little beach town like St. Petersburg, Florida” But then who would have dreamed that this city of just under 250,000 would be home to the world’s only permanent collection of glass artist Dale Chihuly‘s museum-quality sculptures” Besides the artistic gem that is the Chihuly Collection, the “Sunshine City” boasts two other venues well suited for glass gazing: the Museum of Fine Arts and the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, a hotel on the National Register of Historic Places. Come along with me on my latest ROAD TRIP – it just might inspire you to plan one of your own, search beyond the sand, and develop a new appreciation for the enduringly useful and beautiful material that is glass.
My educational glass tour began at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, a surprisingly laid-back location despite its prestigious pedigree and auspicious origins as a winter vacation resort for the wealthy back in 1925. How can one go wrong staying in the same hotel as many American Presidents and sports royalty like Babe Ruth”
The hotel has quite a history, but most recently it was renovated to fit the chic waterside city it now finds itself in. With boutique hotels, quaint and fabulous restaurants, and great little shops just a skip across the park, the Vinoy’s front porch carries on as a popular late-night beachside destination. The $93 million renovation preserves the property’s historic roots but bestows on the Mediterranean Revival hotel 12 tennis courts, five restaurants, modern guest rooms, a 5,000 sq ft fitness center and a private 74-slip marina. Nooks and crannies of the “library” line the hotel lobby, mixing the old with a Mid-Century Modern goes uptown vibe.
Chihuly pieces mix interestingly well with the hotel’s lounge style awash with vibrant colors and featuring a center fireplace, but the pièce de résistance is the breathtakingly fantastical Chihuly sculptural chandelier in the old Grand Ballroom titled Isla de la Luna. I caught a glimpse of it in all its shimmering white and diamond-like glory. All I can say is Whoa! It’s worth a visit, especially since I have no photo share. (As if a photo could do it justice.)
“And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire: and them that had gotten the victory over the beast, and over his image, and over his mark, and over the number of his name, stand on the sea of glass, having the harps of God,” Revelation 15:2. This passage from the American King James Version of the Bible is just one of many written works evoking images of the sea and of glass as one. I highly recommend studying the art of glass by the sea.
There is something about this place (the sea, the city, the hotel, the history…) that is inspirational and seems to be at home with the art of glass. Chihuly must have sensed it.
The creative works within The Dali Museum – also surprisingly located in St. Petersburg – set the stage. I recommend viewing the Dali galleries first as they will make the Chihuly pieces come alive. I was not allowed to take photos of the sculptures within the gallery as they are owned by private donors, but the Chihuly Collection retail store let me take photos of the pieces they had up for sale, and those are what you see here.
I love the sea creature-like shapes of many of the Chihuly pieces. They are such works of art – so delicate, so beautiful, so otherworldly – and would certainly be at home in a Dali painting. After snapping photos of the Chihuly pieces, I headed across the street to find more decorative art.
Most art museums have great works of glass, and the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg is no exception. The first glass, other than the naturally occurring volcanic obsidian glass, was probably made in Syria, Mesopotamia, or Egypt. The earliest evidence of glass was in the form of beads, and the earliest forms of glass-making inspire artists and production yet today. There may be better tools and machinery, but there are still artistic skills and scientific processes reminiscent of ancient methods. Glass was historically a luxury material, and from the prices of the Chihuly gift shop pieces, not much has changed.
The museum pieces I found at the Museum of Fine Arts were more domestic than the Chihuly pieces, but no less artistic or beautiful.
This 1920’s glass vase (above, top left) was made the same way early 1600’s Peking glass was made. At first Peking glass was made to look like porcelain, but then colored glass was used as a base and, when cooled enough, it was coated in a contrasting color. The orange glass has an outer coat that looks like porcelain. The porcelain-like glass was carved to reveal the orange glass, resulting in a highly dimensional and stunning decorative effect.
These enamel painted glass window panels (above, top right), a museum gift of Mrs. Liliana Pinza, date from the 16th, 17th, and 19th centuries and remind me of a Chihuly piece (above, bottom) – both expressive and brilliantly backlit.
The Louis Comfort Tiffany Drop Cluster Pond Lilly table lamp (above, left) makes the iridescent quality of the orange glass creatively utilitarian, while the orange Chihuly sculpture set (above, right) is pure art. Both are wonderful, and both would be at home in either a private residence or a museum.
We have been fascinated with glass and glass like materials for a long, long time. The two-handled vase (above, top right) is Roman, 1050–750 BC. The one-handled piece (above, top left) is Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD. Note the flowing glass handle of the piece on the left and the inset colors of the piece on the right.
Early Stueban glass was colored and in 1904 gold and blue Aurene was introduced. This process was inspired by ancient Roman glass. The glass has an iridescent quality. Both the Steuban gold stick vase (above, bottom right) and butterfly vase (above, bottom left) are similar to the Roman one-handled piece.
Later, Stueban introduced glass etching, and after the early 1930’s much of the Stueban glass was clear. The art of etching and engraving glass has continued and many nice pieces can be found. The Woodcock (above, left) is a 1974 piece by James Houston, and the others are later pieces.
The 1910 centerpiece shown above (top left) is silver, glass, and amethyst. Historically, jewels are often used with glass, and glass is made to look like jewels. These gorgeous windows with their “bulls eye” glass inserts and stained glass medallions (above, bottom) are certainly jewel like in their luxurious appeal. The 2007 blown glass piece with stiletto air trap inclusions and engraved lenses that sits on industrial plate glass with copper and silver (above, top right) would be the envy of many jewels.
Glass and glass mixed with other materials have been treasured and given as gifts for centuries. A pair of 1704 pier mirrors (below, left) caught my eye in the art museum. Mirror is, of course, glass backed with a shiny material, and the pier mirrors are most likely backed with silver. They were designed for Blenheim Palace, the largest private residence in the world and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill. The Palace was a gift from Queen Ann to the First Duke of Marlborough. The two monumental glass mirrors surrounded by carved and gilded wood are nothing short of spectacular.
Glass is truly an amazing material. It is so common to us now that we often overlook its potential. This 1883 oil painting (above, right) by Jacques-Émile Blanche sums it up in simple perspective, so to speak. We use glass for windows, for keeping out the weather, for holding things, for simple utilitarian objects, and for fancy utilitarian objects. When we can afford it, we dress it up with color, etchings and cutting. We value various shapes and sizes and thicknesses. We mix it with other materials for added luxury.
Glass is such a part of our everyday lives that we forget how magnificent it is. After this road trip, I’ve a newfound pleasure in the most mundane things such as drinking a glass of water, choosing a spoon for my tea or coffee, and dusting off my husband’s treasured Sherry tray. I hope that my excursion to this coastal destination known more for its seafood and sand than its art and culture will encourage you to do the same.