Chihuly visits Biltmore

by Jason Frye
photography by Nick King

It’s not often that one experiences sudden enlightenment. It is typically achieved after years of meditation and reflection, and the moment of it arrives unexpectedly. Chinese poet Wumen Huikai describes it as “a thunderclap under the clear blue sky.” The art currently sprinkled on the grounds at the Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina, however, may cause a shift in the way we see things. Throughout the first floor and woven into the gardens of America’s largest home, renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly has placed a visual thunderclap.

Chihuly’s work, delicate glass that pushes the medium’s architectural boundaries, stands in stark contrast against the stoic beauty of the Biltmore. The home, built in the 1890s by George Vanderbilt, is all stone and clean lines—the garden, the crisp arrow of paths, and the tips of leaves and blooms. His glass creations trade crisp lines for fluid curves, brilliant color for the white of limestone, and smooth glass for the organic velvet of leaves and blooms.

As you drive in, Sole d’Oro welcomes you to the estate’s front lawn. A 14-foot sphere, the sun shape glows with translucent, amber, and gold horns. In the Italian Garden, boats are filled with nature-inspired forms like reeds, onions, and cattails. The indoor Winter Garden has been transformed into Laguna Torcello II, complete with flowers and eelgrass of vibrant blues and greens. Each piece creates a shocking juxtaposition, a successful one at that, keeping with the grandeur of the historic house.

“[Frederick Law] Olmsted viewed the landscape here as art, and we know George [Vanderbilt] was a patron of the arts, so this installation, modern as it is, makes sense,” said Parker Andes, Biltmore’s director of horticulture. “We needed to answer a few questions,” says Andes. “This would be the art exhibition in our gardens. Would George and Edith [Vanderbilt] have supported work like this? What would they do with it? How would they display it?” He says they eventually decided that they would support and welcome an artist like Chihuly. “We still questioned how to showcase the work without taking away from it or the estate,” says Andes.

“With the Biltmore, we have the art connection—the family members have been and still are incredible collectors—and we even have the glass connection with our pieces from John La Farge and Tiffany & Co. Considering that the Vanderbilts loved beauty found in art and architecture, the stunning architectural pieces from Chihuly felt like a natural fit,” says Travis Tatham, director of entertainment and event programming. “But we still wanted to tie our collective desire for this installation with something from our archives.” They settled on a garden party with Chinese lanterns hanging from the trees: a beautiful, temporary display that mirrored the organic forms of the landscape.

“Dale [Chihuly] was excited to partner with Biltmore, so it was just a matter of timing. Getting to the point where we were working in earnest with [Chihuly] and his team took a while. Years, actually,” Tatham says. Andes and Biltmore’s horticulture team began the infrastructure work a year before the May 2018 opening. To prepare, the horticulture team visited Atlanta to examine another Chihuly installation. They took notes on the look and feel throughout the day, in order to see what plants helped highlight the glass. Andes says he felt confident in his team’s ability to create a stunning and functional installation. “When I overheard conversations like ‘Is this plant too architectural?’ and ‘Is this too colorful?’ I said to myself, ‘they’ve got it!’”

While walking the gardens with Chihuly’s team, the complexities of the installation appeared. Some of Chihuly’s pieces are simply settled into the landscape. Others require small foundations and modifications, such as specialty containers and heavy structural support. “The issue wasn’t just with the supports and foundations, but the gardens themselves. These are historic gardens, and we didn’t have electric lines and cables for the necessary cameras. We needed to install and conceal them, conceal the foundation and support, while ensuring all of these factors complimented the pieces,” says Andes.

His team delivered, disguising the supports and foundations, hiding the wiring, and planting beds full of flowers and foliage that accentuated the sculptural glass. In the Walled Garden, maroon and green plantings hide the base but also enhance the color of Electric Yellow and Deep Coral Tower. Begonias, red with yellow anthers, echo the colors in the individual tower horns.

It’s like this throughout the gardens—the plants enhance the glass, while the glass forms seem to make each plant’s colors more vivid. There are places where it feels as if the plants and glass radiate light, and that feeling grows as day turns toward the golden hour of twilight, and then to night, when the glass towers, chandeliers, reeds and balls shine from concealed lights.

This exhibition offers a rare glimpse of the estate, as both the home’s first floor and gardens are open into the evening for Chihuly Nights at Biltmore, a ticketed event. Tatham and Andes say that Chihuly Nights is the best way to experience the pieces. “Daytime is gorgeous, but as you near twilight, the glass seems to glow. They gleam and some look as if they’re on fire. Then as it starts to get truly dark, the lights come onand each piece takes on a new life,” Tatham says.

Andes agrees: “At dusk, the sky still has some blue, but the shadows are gone, and the pieces look otherworldly. Under the lights, some pieces appear to float. It’s absolutely amazing.” 

Chihuly at Biltmore runs now through October 7. Tickets are available online at www.biltmore.com or at the Biltmore.