Arts & Culture

Wichita Art Museum to disassemble, dust Chihuly glass ceiling

Dale Chihuly’s “Persian Seaform Ceiling” — the monumental and colorful bridge of blown-glass pieces just inside the Wichita Art Museum — will be disassembled and cleaned this week for the first time since its installation.

The process is scheduled to begin Monday, when the museum is closed, and expected to take about a week. The public can watch the cleaning and reassembly during regular museum hours.

“Persian Seaform Ceiling” was installed as part of the museum’s $10.5 million expansion and renovation at the beginning of the last decade. Modeled on traditional Persian glass, it consists of more than 600 blown-glass pieces with shapes and colors inspired by jellyfish and other sea creatures (plus one Kansas sunflower) that are stacked inside clear glass panels that frame the bridge and ceiling. The whole thing weighs in at 1,500 pounds. Visitors — after climbing some stairs and taking off their shoes — also can walk across the sculpture, making it a favorite among children.

“She plays on this a lot,” Alice Leslie said of her 4-year-old daughter, Jade, who was doing just that on Tuesday afternoon. “We’ll call out, ‘Go find an orange one.’ ” Jade’s advice for how to best enjoy the artwork’s pieces of blown glass: “Stand on them!”

It was the first of its type created by Chihuly, a Seattle sculptor, and has become one of the museum’s best-known pieces. A second piece by Chihuly, “Confetti Chandelier,” hangs in the museum’s great room.

“I don’t think anybody has any idea of how thick that layer of Chihuly glass is,” museum curator Stephen Gleissner said. “It’s really like looking through the sea. That’s the beauty of it. It’s also very difficult to maintain it.”

Gleissner said the enclosure for the blown-glass pieces couldn’t be made airtight because lighting could have created dangerous heat. He first realized that the inside of the artwork needed to be cleaned several years ago.

“The question was, ‘How do we do this?’ ” he said.

Gleissner said the job consists of “two huge professional issues.” The first is removing 24 industrial glass plates that sit atop the piece. “It’s unbelievably complicated in itself. There are four layers of glass fused into 24 tiles. If they break, everything under them breaks.”

The museum has enlisted Bell Mirror and Glass of Wichita for that part of the job.

Once the pieces are removed, the cleaning itself is fairly routine. But reassembling the sculpture is another matter. The pieces are simply stacked on top of one another — “like stones in a river,” Gleissner said — with nothing but inertia holding them in place.

“The trick is how to reinstall it without creating a system of shifting whereby you create layers that break themselves,” Gleissner said. “It’s geometry. It’s engineering. It’s glass engineering.”

For that, the museum turned to Rollin Karg, a glass artist and sculptor with a gallery in Kechi. Karg, 67, says it’s the first job of this kind he’s ever attempted. He’ll oversee a crew of about eight artists from the area and two or three museum staffers.

“I’m an artist,” Karg said. “I’m not certain why I agreed to do this. They said to me, ‘Well, you guys are used to handling glass, and we’re not.’ I feel like it’s within our capabilities.”

Karg said he will mark each piece’s location as it’s removed to be cleaned and will try to put them back where they were. But he said the reassembled artwork may not be exactly the same as the original — something he said would not bother Chihuly, whom he has met.

“He likes random order,” Karg said. “He doesn’t like a factory piece where every piece looks exactly like the one before. He says, ‘I don’t want precision, I want emotion and feeling.’ ”

Gleissner agrees with Karg and said he doesn’t know how or whether the cleaning and reassembly will change how people view the piece.

“Does changing some of the positioning alter some of the colors in a way that creates a different rainbow?” he said. “Only next week will tell.”

While dust and dirt haven’t yet overwhelmed “Persian Seaform Ceiling,” Karg said people should notice a difference when he’s done.

“I think people walking in there look up and say, ‘It’s beautiful.’ I don’t know if they notice there’s dust in there. But it needs cleaning. It sure does.”

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