In a bitter legal battle between Dale Chihuly and two other glass artists, whom he accuses of ripping off his work, there aren't likely to be any winners.
By Lennie Bennett
Published June 11, 2006
Where's the line between imitation, that sincerest form of flattery, and plagiarism, the scourge of creativity?
Ask Dale Chihuly. Or Bryan Rubino and Robert Kaindl.
Chihuly, the world's most famous glass artist - probably one of the most famous living artists, period - is locked in a bitter legal battle with the other two men, who, until the acrimony became public, were obscure players in the glass art world.
Chihuly's celebrity has brought national coverage to the dispute - a story appeared on the front page of the New York Times on June 1 - and brought the publicity-shy artist a lot of attention, some sympathetic, some harsh.
But the tabloid angles that always seem to trail stories about famous people have obscured or distorted the core of this debate: the fundamental struggle for all artists to reconcile the paradox of inspiration and emulation.
In October, Chihuly sued Rubino and Kaindl, accusing them of copyright infringement and trademark infringement. Simply put, he thinks they're ripping off his work.
In countersuits, Kaindl and Rubino say Chihuly uses techniques and forms that have been around for centuries and can't claim to own them.
The lawsuit, however it's decided, will have no effect on plans for the Chihuly Collection, a museumlike gallery proposed as part of a new Arts Center complex in St. Petersburg, said Janet Makala, the artist's spokeswoman.
But the lawsuit leaves Chihuly vulnerable, once again, to criticism about his commercialism and his reliance on others to make his dramatic glass objects, sculptures and installations.
Those issues are red herrings. Chihuly blew glass for years until he lost an eye in a car accident in 1976 and injured his shoulder surfing three years later. He made lemonade out of those lemons, saying they allowed him to let go of the mechanics of the craft and focus on his vision.
The glass-blowing process is collaborative by nature. Those who dis him for his workshop method of creation can also dismiss artists throughout history who had slews of apprentices working on canvases and sculptures sold under the artist's name.
And so what if he's rich?
But here's where it gets a little muddy.
Rubino worked for Chihuly for about 20 years at his famous studio in Tacoma, Wash., just south of Seattle. His boss considered Rubino a superior gaffer, or glass blower.
"He was an excellent craftsman," Makala said, working on almost all of Chihuly's large signature projects. When Rubino wanted to strike out on his own, Chihuly helped him establish his own hot shop and used him as a freelancer. At some point several years ago, the business relationship ended, though no explanation has been given by either man.
"That's the big mystery," said Susan Kelleher, a reporter for the Seattle Times who has been following the story.
Rubino's own work is beautiful but not extraordinary. It does not resemble Chihuly's flamboyant style. It apparently did not sell well enough to cover his expenses.
To earn money, he once again became a gaffer for hire, this time for Robert Kaindl, another glass artist.
"He's a lot more talented than I am," Kaindl said of Rubino. "He's more of an artist person. I'm more of a marketing person," Kaindl said in a telephone interview.
Under Kaindl's direction, Rubino began blowing glass that Kaindl would sign, as Rubino had done for Chihuly, and sell at various galleries for thousands of dollars less than what a Chihuly work would fetch.
It's glass bearing more than a passing resemblance to Chihuly's Persians, those large asymmetrical shapes that blossom in riotous colors on a wall or nest together. And the Macchia bowls splashed with their distinctive lip wraps.
"If you go to Chinatown in San Francisco, there are Chihuly knockoffs everywhere you look," said Duncan McClellan, a prominent Tampa Bay area glass artist. "There are a lot of artists that emulate him."
In his counterclaim, Rubino provides a list of other artists who make vessels, chandeliers and wall hangings with stylistic details we associate with Chihuly.
"This is a case of artistic integrity," said Makala, the Chihuly spokeswoman. "The work of Rubino and Kaindl is not just close but exact."
Even more galling to Chihuly has been Kaindl's Web site, which uses many of the names Chihuly has given his series. The names, Kaindl said, are generic - baskets, floats, ikebana - and a person can't copyright those either.
Historically, plagiarism has been difficult to prove unless the work in question is so blatant in its imitation that it can't be ignored. All artists, like all people, are influenced by their experiences. Most readily admit the influence other artists have on their work.
Chihuly is "not my inspiration," said Kaindl. "A bowl is a bowl. If we spin it out, it becomes a plate. I know the processes. I see huge differences between his work and ours."
Chihuly, who has not actually blown glass for more than 20 years, has always acknowledged the collegial approach to his work. But he has insisted that he alone is responsible for the creative vision, through his drawings and paintings, and is centrally involved with the process of translating it into glass. His employees sign confidentiality agreements to help protect him against the kind of intellectual property theft of which Rubino and Kaindl stand accused.
Rubino has shot back in his countersuit that he was often the creative force, not Chihuly. That's a devastating salvo against any artist. He has included a fax from his former boss, who wrote, "Here's a little sketch but make whatever you want. We'll get everything up to Tacoma when you're done and I'll try to come down while you're blowing. Till then, Chihuly."
That note could be either proof of Chihuly's detachment from the creative process, which has been whispered about for years, or simply a shorthand message to a trusted worker who knew Chihuly's visual vocabulary so thoroughly the artist felt no need to elaborate.
Kelleher said the resolution might boil down to contract law and those written agreements.
Before it's over, it will cost them all dearly, financially and, probably worse, ethically. No one's going to win.
Creativity comes from a deep and mysterious well. It's the one thing that separates an artist from an artisan. And the artists who have it know the truth of its ownership.
If the best you have is an idea that belongs to someone else, can you claim to be an artist?
It's a question that could haunt everyone involved.Lennie Bennett can be reached at (727) 893-8293 or firstname.lastname@example.org.