The world-renowned glass artist discusses his fascinating medium — and surfing.
Though he has dabbled in business management, art education and pro surfing, Jean-Pierre Canlis is considered one of the most prolific glass artists working today. An alumnus of the famed Pilchuck Glass School and a former protégé of legendary glass artist Dale Chihuly, the Hawaii native is best known for incorporating elements of nature and nautical themes into his work.
Canlis has been a Seattleite off and on since 1996. In 2005, the artist and his wife, Leigh, settled permanently in the Northwest and purchased a private studio and gallery in Lower Queen Anne.
Which came first—your love of nature or your love of art?
Well, I think I was born with both but I noticed my love of nature first. I was completely surrounded by it my entire childhood. Every day revolved around where we would go play in the ocean and the weather was ultimately the one who decided that for us (me and my friends). It was when I looked away that I found art.
How did growing up in Hawaii shape your artistic style?
It made me a very simple person. Hawaii shaped me as a person, and my art is an expression of who I am.
You first encountered glassblowing as a teenager. Did you immediately fall in love with this medium, or did it take some time to warm up to?
[I fell in love] instantly. All the students around me were discouraged by how foreign the material was, all I could think about was how inviting it was.
At the time, did you know that you wanted to pursue glassblowing professionally?
I was so young that I wasn’t really looking for a career. My father is very artistic…I was informed by my parents and [the school program supervisor] that this was something I could pursue as a career.
How does one ‘study’ glass art on an academic level?
It entails getting to know the material and exploring your ideas through the material. On a more technical level, it entails learning how to make a number of different forms that act as building blocks for forming glass objects.
In 1993, you met legendary glass artist (and Tacoma native) Dale Chihuly. Soon afterward, you began an 8-year stint as a member of the Dale Chihuly Glassblowing Team. What did you learn from this modern master?
A number of things: the importance of not cutting corners when you’re making art, teamwork, and what it’s like to work with a lot of glass 5-7 days a week and the physical demands of it.
What are the physical demands?
When you’re making large pieces, it’s hot, heavy, laborious work. It’s time-sensitive, and in a work setting you can’t stop. To learn how to make those decisions on the go—how to have the mind of a glassmaker – is something you need to know before you take the first step, and there are hundreds of steps.
What inspired your move to Seattle?
I moved here in ’96, and between then and now I’ve been gone for five years. That was working strictly for Chihuly and starting my business, doing very basic small sales of my work. In 2005, Leigh and I were running Canlis Glass and we decided it was the best business decision for us. Seattle is the capital of glass, so it was the obvious [choice].
On average, how long does it take you to produce a single piece of glass art?
One of my individual pieces takes maybe 80 hours, or approximately a week. Larger scale installations take, on average, three months. But the first installation I worked on took two years, so it’s a big range. The process never gets quicker. It’s a very time-consuming material.
The art world can be frustrating. Do you ever want to give it all up and return to competitive surfing?
No. Not because of my lack of love for surfing, but I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I can make art for a living.
Your daughter, Anais [Ah-nay], turned two this year. Have you decided on a glassblowing-appropriate age for her yet?
She already works in the shop. Just don’t tell mom.
Canlis Gallery is open to the public Wednesday through Friday from 12 to 6 p.m., and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. (and by appointment). The artist’s work can also be viewed all over town, including Boka Kitchen + Bar, Hotel 1000, Turgeon-Raine Jewelers and the Alexis Hotel.
Canlis Gallery | 3131 Western Ave (Suite #329), Seattle | (206) 282-4428