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At Arboretum, Art Hosts Bring Chihuly into Focus
by Stephen Becker 15 Aug 2012

When guests visit the brightly colored Dale Chihuly glass sculptures now dotting the Dallas Arboretum, they come into contact with another part of the exhibition. We spoke to some of the volunteers who brave the summer heat to look after the art.

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Photo: Bill Hurst

When guests visit the brightly colored Dale Chihuly glass sculptures now dotting the Dallas Arboretum, they come into contact with another part of the exhibition. We spoke to some of the volunteers who brave the summer heat to look after the art.

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When Tomi FitzGerald isn’t teaching guests at the Dallas Arboretum, she’s busy learning as much as she can about the place. Like how the water in a reflecting pool in the Woman’s Garden gets its dark color.

FITZGERALD: “I think the really neat thing about this is that the water is dyed black. And it’s died black so that you can see that great reflection …”

FitzGerald is one of 170 Chihuly Art Hosts. They’re volunteers who look after the delicate glass sculptures and educate visitors about how they are made, what happens when they break and any number of other questions. Each Monday, the retired Frisco resident drives 57 miles round trip for her shift.

FITZGERALD: “When I first did it, I think most of my friends thought I’d lost my mind because I was going to be standing outside in the Texas heat for four hours.”

The Chihuly Art Hosts typically work two or four hour shifts once a week. There are more than 20 sculpture locations in the Arboretum. And the exhibition has extended hours, so that’s a lot of slots to cover. Plus, summer attendance is up nearly 80 percent over last year – so there are plenty of visitors checking out the Chihuly.

Julie Zvara is the Arboretum’s Director of Volunteers.

ZVARA: “We were very anxious about whether or not we could really pull this off. … Once we started reaching out to people, people were very excited. I think just hearing the word ‘Chihuly,’ they wanted to come and be a part of it.”

Zvara says the volunteers range in age from 15-80-plus, with a fairly even male to female ratio. Retired people typically work the day shifts while others with day jobs fill the night and weekend slots. Regardless of when they work, they can count on one thing: heat.

Arboretum staff checks on the volunteers every hour or so. They bring bottled water and popsicles around to try and keep everyone cool. Frozen towels, umbrellas and fans are also part of the arsenal.

Each morning, a volunteer coordinator assigns stations to the art hosts. If you’re lucky, you might end up in Mimi’s Garden, where abundant shade provides relief from the sun.

A recent Tuesday afternoon was Elaine Boerger’s lucky day.

BOERGER: “Could I take your picture in front of the belugas? I would love to do that, great! Alright, everybody ready … 1, 2, 3 … OK, take a look at that ….”

Boerger has been a Dallas Arboretum Member for 20 years. And she’s been a Dale Chihuly fanatic for just as long. She’s traveled to San Francisco, Las Vegas and even the Bahamas to see his work.

BOERGER: “When I heard he was coming, it was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is a perfect storm in the garden and with Chihuly. The minute I heard he was coming to town, I called the volunteer office and said, ‘I want to be involved.’”

Julie Zvara, oversees the Arboretum volunteers.

ZVARA: “They are here because they have a passion for Dale Chihuly and his art. They have a passion for the Dallas Arboretum. And they really have a passion for people. And I think if you were to try to find that in let’s say paid, hourly personnel, I don’t think it would have the same effect.”

The volunteers say that one of the benefits of spending so much time in the gardens is witnessing how they change from day to day. How the sculptures look in different light.

When Boerger isn’t taking pictures for visitors, she’s snapping them herself.

BOERGER: “First time I was assigned there, I took a picture of it and texted my friend and said, ‘I get to sit here for four hours and look at this. I am in heaven!’ …  It was like, ‘Pinch me. Take me now, I’m done.”

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  • Suzanne Calvin

    If anybody ever epitomized “love of art for its own sake” it’s the volunteers in this article. Bravi! You do the Arboretum proud!

  • Suzanne Calvin

    If anybody ever epitomized “love of art for its own sake” it’s the volunteers in this article. Bravi! You do the Arboretum proud!

  • Maggie Kat

    Dyed not died….

  • Maggie Kat

    Dyed not died….