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Mental Illness, Creativity, and Our Business

Changing the conversation around mental illness in the business world.

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I met my husband, artist Dale Chihuly, in 1992 and soon began working with him on Chihuly Over Venice, a monumental exhibition which led to international renown. Today, Dale continues to drive the studio’s creative center while I serve as President & CEO.

What people may not know is that running deep in the DNA of our company is something which plagues our country and the world more than ever: mental illness. Even before the pandemic, the United States was showing a historic rise in mental health and addiction, particularly among young people. As the self-proclaimed “therapy generation,” millennials have experienced depression, anxiety, learning issues and other disorders at increasing rates in recent years. This past June the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported some of the highest rates of mental illness.

We have come a long way in learning to speak about mental health. However, the topic continues to be controversial and taboo in the professional world. Many fear that knowledge of mental illness will prevent professional success, promotions, etc.

Dale and I are committed to changing the conversation. As Chihuly Studio’s founder and artistic visionary, we do not conceal Dale’s bipolar disorder. As the company’s CEO, I don’t pretend his ups and downs don’t exist. We have unique strategies in place that allow our business to thrive, and by sharing them, we hope to create a better world where people with mental illness are fully accepted and supported to inspire, lead, and make important contributions to their professions and to their communities.

Kick Shame to the Curb

Admitting you are struggling and sharing that information with others is a vulnerable and difficult act. In our society, it is also unfairly burdened with shame due to a persistent stigma surrounding mental illness. Creating a life which works with, not against, your disorder does not require you to completely expose your inner world, but it does require a willingness to communicate about your condition on any given day. This can feel scary, but remember: You are not alone in your situation and you are not responsible for other people’s misconceptions about mental health. The more we are honest about our challenges the more we normalize the conversation, particularly in the workplace, where stigma can be stronger than in our personal lives.

For Dale and me, open and transparent  communication with our team and each other is key. This knowledge, even when uncomfortable to share, leads to a greater understanding between Dale and our employees, allowing us to adjust strategies to work together effectively. Advocating for yourself in the workplace opens the door to conversations about gaining the resources you need to be well and work well. Hiding such a large part of your life from view is emotionally draining, but health and healing can begin with being forthright and not fearing judgement or negative consequences

Structure is Your Friend

The notion that structure supports, rather than stifles creativity is hard learned in an artistic environment. When I began working at Chihuly Studio, we resembled a start-up culture with a sprawling team of individuals who came directly to Dale with any problem, big or small, at any time of day. While our accomplishments were nothing short of remarkable, our efficiency — and more importantly, Dale’s wellness — suffered from a flat, amorphous company model. It was not until we assigned clear roles, responsibilities, and new workflows that the weight of every decision did not fall on his shoulders alone, or mine as CEO. 

Dale’s bipolar disorder causes him to experience intervals of high energy and creativity, followed by low periods of depression, on a cycle which can last unpredictable lengths of time. This is where our business structure and strategies shine. When Dale is on an up-swing of vitality and excitement, the Studio springs into action, taking his lead in the hotshop blowing glass and bringing his ideas to life. This was certainly the case with Chihuly Merletto, our most recent collection of works featuring a modern spin on an ancient glass-blowing technique. Between his peaks in mood, however, Dale continues to gather inspiration on his own, often creating conceptual sketches in private. In response, the nature of our company’s activity shifts, but doesn’t stop. The rest of our trusted team moves forward with confidence in Dale’s clearly defined project plans and ensures the wheels keep turning on the bus.

Create Space Between You and Your Business

Knowing when to turn off your professional side, step away from the business, and practice self-care is not only essential to mental wellbeing, it transforms you into a more productive and present leader in the office, or in our case, the Studio. As ambitious personalities, Dale and I find it tempting to overcommit ourselves to the work we love, but setting healthy boundaries gives us space to breathe and maintain a lifestyle that promotes wellness. Self-care is not self-indulgence. Whether you are a caretaker of a loved one, suffering from mental illness yourself, or simply juggling the demands of making your business dreams come true, you cannot operate from a state of depletion. Move yourself up on your own priority list and give the other aspects of your life the space they deserve.

To slow down and tune into our mental states, Dale and our team turn to the intersection of art and nature. Throughout Dale’s career, gardens have held a special significance to Chihuly Studio. From finding respite in his mother’s garden as a child, to launching career-defining exhibitions at botanical gardens around the world — most recently at Cheekwood Estate & Gardens in Nashville — Dale finds peace and healing among the green outdoors. Wherever your place of comfort lies, we hope you find it.

Together we can avoid viewing mental illness as an obstacle and instead embrace it as part of our lives and businesses. Dale’s experiences have shaped him into the person he is today, and in turn have shaped the path of Chihuly Studio, defining our success and spreading inspiration and comfort to the world through art. By getting creative with our business strategies and holding fast to our non-negotiables, we have created a company like no other. I hope our story proves there is no one way to run a business or be an entrepreneur. Mental illness is not always easy, but it does not have to be feared.

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