Life in a glass house: Zane Mills Recalls his time working with the famed Dale Chihuly

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Christian Barlow, Reporter

Art teacher Zane Mills sparked a passion for art as a toddler while drawing Batman with his mom in the kitchen. Mills says he had enjoyed drawing throughout his time in school and would participate in drawing contests and competitions, but had never thought of it as more than a hobby. That passion would go much further than he had ever expected.

Mill’s passion for art has been life-long, but his expertise was gained first in college, and then in an internship with the world-renowned artist Dale Chihuly.

Mills said  working one-on-one with Chihuly was unlike anything he had done in the art industry before.

“[Chihuly’s studio is] a really funky place, and I say that in the most genuine way,” Mills said. “He’s a businessman, but he’s also an artist. So it’s really interesting to see his business style. It’s all homegrown; he has no formal training. He learned the industry through his own way, through hard work and learning.”

Mills also found himself learning the industry in his own way as a project coordinator leading the private construction interests of Chihuly, essentially building glass artwork for billionaires. His days were spent collaborating with a structural engineer, experimenting with lighting, and overseeing the process from concept to final design.

“My job was essentially to pull it all together,” Mills said. Even if it was just a little wall piece I did for someone, it was just a blast to work on.”

Mills said that working in such a position with Chihuly gave him the chance to work closely with some of the most unexpected buyers.

“I got exposed to all kinds of crazy things,” Mills said. “I had the fortune of crossing paths with some very, very famous people. Robin Williams visited the studio once. I got to go and have dinner at one point with the guy who owned the Word Trade Center before the attack. Paul Allen… some pretty crazy experiences everywhere I turned.”

Mills got to know Chihuly and the bizzare quirks of his personality.

“Not only an artist, he was an avid collecter of the most random things,” Mills said, “He had a whole warehouse full of accordions, there must have been thousands of them.”

Chihuly’s eccentric behavior also carried over into how he managed his projects. 

“All the different departments that Dale led were constantly  fighting with each other,” Mills said, “but Dale is the kind of person who really thrived on that chaos. Many occasions he would go off of his bipolar medication and go into these weird creative fits. I would wake up sometimes to a hundred voicemails from him that he sent me in the middle of the night.”

Despite the madness of it all, Mills said he looks back on that  time fondly.

“I worked for Dale for five years. I moved to teaching because it was time to move on and do what I really enjoyed, which is working directly with my hands and other artists. But I will never forget the insanity that I experienced living in Dale’s world.”