What do the Museum of Modern Art, the Louvre and Whitman’s Cordiner Hall all have in common? As of last Friday, all three feature pieces by world-renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly.
Adorning the large vertical windows above Cordiner’s main entrance, this latest installation is called “Sunfire Persian” and is composed of 17 individual pieces of glass. The installation can be seen from the street and will be illuminated after dark for the next few weeks for the whole community to enjoy.
“Imagine turning sand, the cheapest substance in the world, into that!” said Mark Anderson ’78, local artist and president of the Walla Walla Foundry, quoting Chihuly himself. “If that’s not alchemy, what is it?”
“Sunfire Persian” is part of Chihuly’s acclaimed Persian series, which is inspired by Middle Eastern glassworks of the 12th to 14th centuries and draws inspiration from art nouveau and classical Greek, Byzantine, Islamic and Venetian styles. This is the first of two major gifts to the college from Chihuly and Anderson. The second gift, a 16-foot tall bronze Ikebana flower sculpture, will be produced by the Walla Walla Foundry in cooperation with Chihuly this spring.
In his remarks to the Whitman community members who gathered to celebrate the installation, President George Bridges thanked the artist and Anderson. He also expressed particular gratitude for the hard work of the physical plant staff and Chihuly’s installation team, as well as the Whitman Art Advisory Committee.
“Without their personal efforts to secure and place ‘Sunfire Persian,’ we would not be standing here today,” he said.
The installation compliments the already rich history of Cordiner Hall, which was constructed in 1968 in honor of Ralph J. Cordiner ’22 and remains the largest indoor performance space in Walla Walla with more than 1,380 seats. Each year, Cordiner hosts community activities, guest lecturers and even the Walla Walla Symphony Orchestra.
“We are delighted to further enrich this wonderful legacy with new artwork,” Bridges said.
Michelle Acuff, assistant professor of art, spoke about the piece in the context of a liberal arts education. She said she asked herself about the role of the liberal arts in looking at and understanding art, and provided examples of the different academic perspectives her colleagues in the chemistry, history, politics and religion departments might bring.
“On this campus the simple question ‘what is glass?’ could literally generate many hours of conversation,” she said. “I can think of no better place from which to look at, experience and interpret art than from where we stand now.”
Professor of Physics Kurt Hoffman agreed. He appreciates both the art itself and its connection to physics, explaining how his students create colored glass to study the functional aspect of the material.
“It reminds me of seashells, natural objects somehow modified in the process of making glass,” he said. “In class we look at applications as opposed to visually what gets absorbed or reflected. We engineer specific optical properties.”
Kynde Kiefel, exhibitions and collections manager for Sheehan Gallery, said “Sunfire Persian” adds a whole new artistic dimension to Cordiner and the campus as a whole.
“You can’t not look at the building now,” she said. “I do feel like it really adds a light and a blooming aspect. There’s a new growth to the building itself.”