In the heart of this historic city, where stately brick homes line treed avenues and the soft gurgle of rivers fills the air, a forest stands. It is made of glass, and its delicate, curved shapes are filled with neon, creating an ethereal, almost eerie scene.
The glass forest is part of "Chihuly at RISD," the inaugural exhibition at the new Chace Center at the Rhode Island School of Design. The center will open Saturday with a daylong schedule of events, music, crafts, and tours, including free admission to this magical world of colorful, oversized glass forms and tableaux.
The Chihuly installation will fill the largest gallery, a plum-colored, S-shaped, 4,000-square-foot space on the third floor with striking views of downtown Providence through floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, nearly 200 of Dale Chihuly's signature charcoal process drawings spread across a 50-foot-long wall will offer a peek into the mind of the artist.
The Chace Center, which the school calls "a new front door to RISD," is a bold and stunningly executed addition to the college's Museum of Art. The challenge for José Rafael Moneo, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect and Harvard faculty member, was to design a modern structure on a site bordered on three sides by historical buildings. The resulting 43,000-square-foot structure, clad in glass and brick, not only welcomes visitors to the college, but also opens invitingly onto Market Square and downtown.
One of the world's preeminent glass artists, Chihuly earned a master's degree in fine arts at RISD in 1968 from the ceramics department and helped build a glass department there.
"I spent such a long time at RISD, including a lot of time in the museum, and I still know a lot of people in Providence," Chihuly said. "All that made me want to return and do something there."
A companion exhibit to the Chihuly installation, "Studio Glass in Rhode Island: The Chihuly Years," will feature works by nine groundbreaking artists who were students of Chihuly when he taught at RISD.
Also on view are "Building Books: The Art of David Macaulay," which aims to illuminate the artist's creative process through examples of original art from his books, and "After You're Gone," an installation by Beth Lipman, a glass artist.
The Chace Center not only doubles the exhibition space at the RISD Museum, it also creates a crossroads where academic, museum, and public activities come together. A new auditorium on the first floor, done in spare, light wood, will be used for talks by artists and curators, poetry readings, film screenings, and music and dance performances. RISD/Works, the school's shop/gallery/showroom with all wares designed or created by RISD alumni or faculty, has relocated from the Merchant's Bank Building on the other side of Market Square to the Chace Center lobby and added a small cafe.
The second floor houses student galleries, which will give the public more chances to see work created by the college's up-and-coming artists and designers.
On the third floor a glass bridge links the Chace Center to the museum complex, offering a light-washed view of downtown Providence on the way.
The opening celebration begins at 10 a.m. with the music of the Hot Tamale Brass Band. At the hospitality tent on Market Square, visitors can pick up timed tickets for the main Chihuly exhibit. Two drop-in workshops will be offered. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the tent, participants in a Faux-huly Workshop can paint a window ornament. In the build-a-book workshop from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Radeke Building of the museum visitors can craft a tome to take home.
Music will fill the main gallery of the Radeke Building throughout the day. Intermezzo performs chamber music for flute, violin, and cello from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; Pandora Mandolin Ensemble will play from 1 to 2:30 p.m.; and the flamenco and jazz guitar music of Stringsong will fill the air from 3 to 4:30 p.m. Route .44 will present a live concert of its mix of rock, punk, blues, and gypsy sounds from 5 to 8:30 p.m. on the Chace Center Plaza. Complimentary hors d'oeuvres and a cash bar will be offered from 5 to 8 p.m. in a tapas lounge on Market Square, also a prime viewing spot for WaterFire.
Especially for families, the Inflatable Theatre will perform mime, juggling, and acrobatic acts at noon, 1:30, and 3 p.m. in the RISD Auditorium. Admission is free, but tickets, available at the hospitality tent, are required.
A variety of 15-minute tours of the museum's collections will be offered on the hour and half-hour from noon to 4 p.m. The holdings include French and American Impressionist paintings, works on paper, costumes and textiles, sculpture, furniture, and decorative arts.
After graduating from RISD and spending time in Venice on a Fulbright Fellowship at the Venini glass factory in Murano, Chihuly stayed on in Providence, where the studio glass movement was beginning to take hold through the program he had helped establish at the school. In 1971, he co-founded the Pilchuck Glass School outside Seattle and continued to teach at RISD sporadically until the late 1980s.
Chihuly has created many well-known series of tabletop-size works that are technically brilliant, richly colored, and voluptuously shaped and grouped, among them the Cylinders, Baskets, Macchia, Seaforms, Persians, and Venetians. But he is also celebrated for large-scale architectural installations, including "Chihuly Over Venice," "Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem," and "Chihuly at the V&A," at London's Victoria and Albert Museum. His work is included in more than 200 museum collections worldwide and has been exhibited at countless national and international venues. His best known public installation in New England may be the explosive, curlicued sculpture in the lobby of the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. And visitors to the Bellagio Resort in Las Vegas are dazzled by his richly hued glass flower ceiling.
This weekend will be a homecoming of sorts for Chihuly, who said he hasn't been back to Providence since the mid-1990s. So what's on his agenda? He'll visit the East Side, which he called "one of the most extraordinary residential districts in the country," and dine out on Federal Hill. He'll stop by the Providence Athenaeum, where he used to love to hunker down with a good book. And he might return to Adler's Hardware, "another great Providence institution," where he and his colleagues used to shop for sculpture supplies.
Ellen Albanese can be reached at email@example.com.