Dale Chihuly's "Butterscotch Set With Teal Lip Wrap" on display at the Halley Ford Museum of Art on July 29, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

John Olbrantz remembers the awe he felt visiting legendary glass artist Dale Chihuly’s Seattle studio in the early 1980s.

“He’s like a conductor with a symphony orchestra,” said Olbrantz, the director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art.

He recalled how Tacoma native Chihuly sketched out his vision for intricate glass sculptures, then delegated blowing individual pieces of glass to other artists in the studio.

As the team worked, Olbrantz said Chihuly would monitor the mood in the room, changing the music from Beatles hits to the Rolling Stones and ordering food when he sensed the team needed a break.

“It’s almost like a dance,” Olbrantz said.

Salem residents have a few more weeks to see the results of that dance at the museum.

The Hallie Ford exhibit “Dale Chihuly: Cylinders, Macchia, and Venetians from the George R. Stroemple Collection,” curated by Olbrantz, is on display through Aug. 28. The pieces are on loan from Lake Oswego art collector Stroemple’s private collection.

The exhibit displays work from three Chihuly series, starting with his Irish cylinders, created in 1975 when Chihuly was teaching at the Rhode Island School of Design. The blown glass cylinders feature scenes from James Joyce’s “Ulysses” and other Irish settings fused on the sides.

Next are the macchia, brilliantly colored round sculptures with shapes that often draw inspiration from shells and sea life in the Pacific Northwest.

Olbrantz said Chihuly began the series after waking up one day and wanting to experiment by using all 300 glass colors in his hot shop.

“That led to this sort of orgy of color in these works,” Olbrantz said.

A final room displays Venetians, a series of bottles and vessels modeled after traditional styles from Venice glassblowers, but with colorful tendrils or floral shapes giving the pieces a more whimsical feel.

Olbrantz grew up in Bellingham, Washington and spent almost a decade as director of the Bellevue Art Museum, where he got to know Chihuly and many other Pacific Northwest artists.

He said he’s long wanted to bring the colorful glass sculptures that have made Chihuly world-famous to Salem. But the exhibit just never happened until pandemic-related exhibit cancellations had him looking for something he could plan and curate quickly.

Many exhibits are planned years in advance, but the Chihuly show came together in under nine months, Olbrantz said - lighting speed in the world of art museums. That was possible because all the pieces are from the same collection, and because of Olbrantz’s own familiarity with the work.

It’s among the most popular exhibits the museum has ever hosted.

Since opening on June 5, the exhibit has consistently drawn 100 to 150 people per day, Olbrantz said - no mean feat for the small gallery on the Willamette University campus.

“For us, it’s a blockbuster,” Olbrantz said.

Olbrantz attributed that to Chihuly’s fame and the popularity of glass art, which plays with light, shape and color in a way few other art forms do.

“People are sort of naturally attracted to glass,” Olbrantz said. “There’s a sensuality about glass that other media don’t have.”

The Hallie Ford Museum of Art, 700 State Street, is open Tuesday through Saturday from 12-5 p.m. Adult general admission tickets are $6, with discounts for seniors and educators. Teens and kids 17 and under are free. Visitors are encouraged to buy tickets online in advance for entry at a particular time.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!