By Timothy Egan
SEATTLE, May 31 — As an ever-moving maestro in the world where fine art and commerce converge, Dale Chihuly is perhaps the world's most successful glass artist.
His clients include Bill Gates and Bill Clinton, and his elaborate installations of sea gardens and flower clusters show that mere sand transformed by fire can elevate a casino ceiling to the level of gallery spectacle.
But now Mr. Chihuly is in the midst of a hard-edged legal fight in federal court here over the distinctiveness of his creations and, more fundamentally, who owns artistic expression in the glass art world.
Mr. Chihuly has sued two glass blowers, including a longtime collaborator, for copyright infringement, accusing them of imitating his signature lopsided creations, and other designs inspired by the sea.
"About 99 percent of the ocean would be wide open," Mr. Chihuly said in an interview. "Look, all I'm trying to do is to prevent somebody from copying me directly."
The glass blowers say that Mr. Chihuly is trying to control entire forms, shapes and colors and that his brand does not extend to ancient and evolving techniques derived from the natural world.
"Just because he was inspired by the sea does not mean that no one else can use the sea to make glass art," said Bryan Rubino, the former acolyte named in the suit who worked for Mr. Chihuly as a contractor or employee for 14 years. "If anything, Mother Nature should be suing Dale Chihuly."
The suit, rare in art circles, offers a sometimes unflattering glimpse at how high-powered commercial artists like Mr. Chihuly work. The two glass blowers say that he has very little to do with much of the art, and that he sometimes buys objects and puts the Chihuly name on them, a contention that Mr. Chihuly strongly denies.
He acknowledges that he has not blown glass for 27 years, dating from a surfing accident that cost him the full range of shoulder motion, an injury that struck three years after he had lost sight in his left eye in a traffic accident.
Still, Mr. Chihuly said, he works with sketches, faxes and through exhortation. Nothing with his name on it ever came from anyone but himself, he said.
Andrew Page, editor of Glass: The Urban Glass Art Quarterly, which is published in New York, said that Mr. Chihuly deserved a high place in the pantheon of glass artists, but that the suit could hurt his reputation by igniting countercharges and opening a window into how a celebrity artist works on a mass scale.
"I think Dale Chihuly is a pure original," Mr. Page said. "He has a tremendous sense of color and composition. And he has done a tremendous amount for the field. But this lawsuit may have been the worst thing he could have done."