Thursday, June 01, 2006

NYTimes : Glass Artists Face Off in Court

Glass Artists Face Off in Court

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

"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

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."

Sanjeev Narang


email: ask {*at*} eConsultant dot com
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