Why does art make us happy? I asked myself that question over and over while staying at the Hotel Murano in Tacoma, Washington, where you can’t turn a corner without coming upon some startling confection of color, light, and shape. I fight a tendency towards a gloomy outlook, particularly in gray weather, which Tacoma in March has plenty of. But I found myself unaccountably smiling and even grinning every time I walked down the halls, reading the artists’ somewhat opaque quotes and peeking into the lighted exhibit cases.
Named for the Italian city famous for glass blowing, the Hotel Murano takes its role as curator seriously. Enter flanked by panels of thick, frosty marine-tinted glass, and the first thing you see is colorful floating glass boats suspended above the lobby and a giant glass sculpture that looks like the Statue of Liberty crossed with a coke bottle. Each floor features the work of a different international artist, the works explicated with the authority usually reserved for art school galleries. It was a bit like fulfilling my childhood fantasy, born of reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler when I was eight, of spending the night in the Metropolitan museum, or maybe the Guggenheim.
My floor, the 12th, featured Cobi Cockburn, a young Australian glass artist, whose works — at least those displayed here — looked like winged baskets woven from spun sugar straws. In my room were sketches and schematics for Cockburn’s designs; I stayed occupied while brushing my teeth trying to understand what she was getting at. The elevators felt like windows into worlds — I’d peek out the door at each stop and see something completely different. Even the room decor is a touch madcap; mine cheered me with cartoon-bright colors and bong-like glass lamps. I wish I could have taken the mid-century sleek chaise in eye-popping turquoise home with me.
Tacoma is recreating itself as a sort of glass art capital; the slogan that kept popping into my head as I wandered around was “All Chihuly all the time.” Originally from Tacoma, world renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly launched his revered Pilchuck Glass Studio here, calling the first meeting in his mother’s living room. (Though the studio, when it was built, was located north of Seattle.) Can the city be blamed for milking Chihuly’s native son status for all it’s worth?
I always cringe at the slightly pitiful irony of cities that pin their claim to fame to an artistic or literary icon who didn’t stick around. But Pilchuk really did change the history of glass art in the United States, as Chihuly lured Italian artisans from Murano to share their trade secrets in post-industrial Washington. And Chihuly remains stoutly loyal to Tacoma, returning for special events and contributing works to public settings; there’s even a spectacular one in the science building at the University of Puget Sound. So it’s not surprising to see Tacoma become a glass art pilgrimage of sorts.
And artists are definitely coming; Tacoma’s convention center contributes the bulk of of the hotel’s business, but I noticed that a few weeks after my stay, a guild of fiber artists was booked to hold their annual meeting at Hotel Murano, and the staff told me that arts organizations from around the country now hold their confabs here.
If I came for art immersion, I don’t think I’d be disappointed in either the hotel or the town itself. Walk a few blocks down the hill to Pacific Avenue and you come to the Glass Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Chihuly-created Bridge of Glass with its rock candy glass chunks sticking up into Tacoma’s gray skies. The courthouse, formerly a spectacular turn-of-the-century train station, houses more glass art, Chihuly and otherwise, and honestly those pieces were some of my favorites, displayed perfectly to take advantage of the light-filled dome.
I ended up spending as much time in the airy former waiting room as I did in the museums, chatting with the courthouse guard, who was clearly happy to work in such a setting, and to have a visitor to break up his routine. He directed me downstairs to the café, telling me rightly that the $7 special of the day was better than the higher-priced fare in the fancier digs across the street.
Taking my grilled chicken sandwich out onto the Bridge of Glass to eat, it occurred to me that Chihuly’s oversized flowers, spiraling sea creatures, and nesting tentacles make you feel like you stepped into a Dr. Seuss book. No wonder you can’t help smiling.