Profile: Artist Transforms Part of Jerusalem into a City of Glass in Tower Exhibit

Jerusalem may be a perpetually fragile city, but in recent months, one American artist is trying to bring people together around a spectacular display of colorful glass sculpture.

Since July, Dale Chihuly, a world-renowned Seattle-based glass artist, has displayed a special exhibition at the Tower of David Museum at the Jaffa Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. In its first two months, 200,000 people have come to the Citadel to see the creations of Chihuly’s glassblowing teams, made of 10,000 pieces and 42 tons of glass, which will be on display through next spring.

Among the 15 installations on display in the courtyard of the ancient fortress are a 40-foot-high tower made of 2,000 blue and white snakelike protrusions, a triangular construction of blood-red spears and the Crystal Mountain, a huge structure made of pink candy-like extensions. “The idea hopefully is that this will bring a lot of joy to people and will make people feel good,” said Chihuly in a telephone interview with JTA. “Not all art does that.”

Indeed, Deborah Lipson, spokeswoman for the museum, says throngs of Israelis have been swept away.

“It has captured the imagination. It is largely a celebration of beauty and joy of color of a material that has never been pushed to these boundaries,” she said. “People constantly come in and just say, `wow.’”

Chihuly has fond memories of Israel from a stint on a kibbutz in 1962, but he first thought of bringing his work to Israel when Izzika Gaon, the late curator of the Israel Museum, visited him in Seattle in 1997. Gaon died later that year, and when Chihuly returned to Israel for Gaon’s memorial service, he followed up on Gaon’s recommendation to look at the Citadel site.

He was completely overwhelmed by the location. In time, Chihuly’s project became increasingly ambitious, even for a man who has strung glass over the canals of Venice and whose work is displayed in the world’s most famous museums.

“Each time I came back to Jerusalem my ideas got a little bigger,” Chihuly said.

Although Chihuly, 57, was professionally trained in glassblowing and is privy to the secrets of the Venetian masters, he no longer blows glass himself since he lost his left eye — and his depth perception — in a 1976 car accident. Instead, Chihuly directs teams of glassblowers, a method that has drawn fire from some critics but has also allowed him to create the enormous sculptures on display in Jerusalem today.

Large and small pieces alike were carefully designed to blend in with the surroundings. Phosphorous-green blades of glass on a terrace mimic patches of grass below, and cacti-like figures camouflage with their natural counterparts.

At night, it all exudes a magical glow.

In addition to the central pieces, colorful glass spheres of all sizes hide in every nook and cranny of the fortress like giant marbles. The concept was to lure people in to explore the grounds.

“A person would move around, come in and see certain pieces from a distance, and that would encourage them to go up closer,” he said. “It becomes almost like an Easter egg hunt to find what’s out there.”

The effect revitalizes an ancient archeological site where color must once have prevailed.

“The fact that the citadel is all stone and a natural color allows me to go with this supposedly fragile material against this incredibly hard surface,” Chihuly said. “The contrast of glass and stone makes for a nice background to the pieces. I mean, it really changes the way the citadel looks.”

No one would argue with that, but visitors do see different things in the creations. Some children see pasta in the squiggly glass, other see signs of Jerusalem’s religions, war and peace.

Chihuly insists he has no statement to make, aside from the Crystal Mountain, which now includes a sound system that plays prayers of the city’s three faiths to the sound of peaceful tinkling of shards of glass.

“At one point I was going to make three towers — one for Judaism, one for Christianity and one for Islam — but in the end I decided not to do that,” he said. “Obviously people are going to look at them and see things they want to see in them. I prefer that than if I told them what it is that they should be seeing.”

And perhaps, in a tense city like Jerusalem, burdened by meaning and history, a little superficial but spectacular color is not such a bad thing. As one of Chihuly’s glass blowers said: “This exhibition is probably the only thing in this city that does not have any meaning.”

As for Chihuly’s next project, his goal is nothing less than a representation of Middle East peace. He is going to gather 64 tons of ice blocks from Alaska and stack them into a 60-foot-long wall outside Jerusalem’s Old City.

Then, over the course of a week starting Oct 3, Jews and Arabs alike will watch the ice barrier melt.

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