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  • Writer's pictureJeff Graham

Chihuly in the Desert: Art + Architecture + Nature

Joint Exhibit Provides a New Take on Spring in the Desert

Published by Jeff Graham, ASLA

Following the near-record monsoon season in 2021, the Sonoran Desert’s abundance of spring color is in overdrive. Fluorescent yellow blossoms form brilliant clouds that gather over green Palo Verde trunks and Ocotillos cheer with their optimistic orange tops, while the Hesperaloes, Opuntias, Russelias and Aloes show off in varying shades of cream, soft pink, hot pink, yellow, and coral. While our visual senses are being delighted, hummingbirds buzz and chirp, taking full advantage of the bountiful spring blossoms, and mockingbirds sing and call overhead. The sweetness of creosote gently wafts through the air after even the most brief of rain showers.

The promise of spring in the desert is given a boldfaced exclamation mark with Chihuly in the Desert , a first-ever joint exhibit by Dale Chihuly, open through June 19 at Phoenix’s Desert Botanical Garden and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West.

At the DBG and Taliesin West, previously exhibited pieces join new works that give focus and context to the uniquely captivating Sonoran Desert.

The DBG populates all five of its thematic loop trails with sculpture, and near the beginning of the experience stands Opal and Amber Tower (2018). Relating to scale of the nearby Papagos buttes, its comparatively simple hues of white and amber call attention to the clouds and the dramatic changes of desert light.

Opal and Amber Tower

The Desert Discovery Loop Trail serves as the Garden’s main walkway, and Chihuly and the Garden make use of its popularity by siting Lime and Lava Red Tower (2021) at the edge of a large courtyard near a cluster of Palo Verde trees. Comprised of nearly 600 pieces of glass, it stands nearly sixteen feet tall. Its festively colored arms reach out for the spring light, like the Palo Verdes’ brilliantly blossomed branches behind. If standing in front of Botticelli’s Primavera isn’t in the cards this season, watching the yellow blossoms fall around Lime and Lava Red Tower serves as a worthwhile substitute in celebrating spring.

Lime and Lava Red Tower

Following nature’s cues on color pairings, Chihuly locates his violet Neodymium Reeds (2021) amidst calming grey-green Agaves while yellow Palo Verdes form the background. The verticality of the sculpture and adjacent clusters of Pachycereus cacti create a single expression. Saguaros, reflected in the Contemplation Garden’s fountains, juxtapose the slender sculptures with their heft. Chihuly’s sculpture calls attention to the Mexican fenceposts’ optimism and resiliency as they reach for the sunlight.

Neodymium Reeds, as viewed from the Fine Family Contemplation Garden

Red Reeds (2017) conjures up images of the local agricultural community with their resemblance to a stand of leaning fenceposts awaiting final placement. This piece provides the Garden’s most eye-catching, bold color combination. Positioned behind a dark green thicket of shrubs, the bright red sculpture’s pointed tips join the Saguaros as they direct focus toward the pock-marked, faded rust-red buttes in the background.

Red Reeds

Taliesin West served as Frank Lloyd Wright’s winter home and studio, and is now a National Historic Landmark and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Some of the world’s greatest photographers have given us beautiful images that communicate Wright’s success in developing relationships between the built structure and the natural site. Experiencing this relationship and observing Wright’s work in the context of Chihuly’s exhibit is a unique opportunity. Self-guided visits and guided tours provide access to the famed main garden, studio, Wright’s office, and salon.

The Red Reeds at the Desert Botanical Garden make an encore at Taliesin West, with a twist: here, as part of Red Reeds and Niijima Floats (2021), they stand erect, rising from the main garden’s fountain. Accompanied by colored globes – among the largest glass spheres in the world, up to forty inches in diameter and sixty pounds – this iteration of reeds is comprised of tightly formed verticals that contrast the horizontality of Wright’s architecture. Their smooth texture and tubular shape counter the texture and shapes of the boulders and stones utilized in his desert masonry. The siting of the reeds here and at the DBG draws a direct line between Taliesin West’s rust-red color and the similarly colored Papagos just beyond the Garden.

Red Reeds and Niijima Floats

The free flowing, serpentine Fire Amber Herons (2021) rises from a fountain in a narrow courtyard. Its intimacy provides a counterpoint to the expansiveness of the desert that inspired Wright’s design. Specks, striations, and warm colors harmonize with the rough textures and colors of local stone visible in the desert masonry and board-formed concrete.

Fire Amber Herons

Wright and Chihuly are both known for methodologies that employ close observations of nature in their works. When Wright designed Taliesin West, he created low-slung buildings that hugged the foothills and responded to the desert’s big valley and even bigger sky. Chihuly’s pieces develop unique spatial relationships to their sites and context. Chihuly in the Desert provides a special opportunity to see the desert reflected in the eyes of two masters of their craft – and to witness a dialogue between the two.

If you've already seen the exhibit or once you have, please share your experience with me at .



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