Dale Chihuly is the most successful Northwest artist in history.

The Queen of England owns his glass. So do Bill Clinton, Elton John, Mick Jagger, Bill Gates, and 225 museums in 40 states and 22 foreign countries. Galleries in 22 states and 6 foreign countries sell his work, and prices for his pieces at Foster/White Gallery in Pioneer Square run up to $100,000. His publishing company pumps out coffee-table books, postcards, prints, and a limited-edition glass series. This year he has nine solo exhibitions booked and three group shows. A personal filmmaker records his every presentable move for heavy rotation on PBS. He has been a hit since 1976, when contemporary art curator Henry Geldzahler first acquired three Chihuly glass baskets for the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

That's the same year he flew through a glass windshield on a rainy night in England. Little is known about the crash, except that it was head-on, that fellow passenger Seaver Leslie was unharmed, and that Chihuly nearly died. Glass ravaged his face and blinded his left eye. Even before the crash, Chihuly was a presence in glass circles—talking his way into becoming the first American student in closed glass factories on Murano, unburdening Anne Gould Hauberg and John Hauberg of land and money to create Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, and founding a glass department at the Rhode Island School of Design. But the accident, which left him wearing an eye patch and bearing an inspirational story, only heightened his persona. He continued to blow glass until, three years later, he dislocated his shoulder in a bodysurfing accident and made the final transformation into the entrepreneurial impresario upon whom a fortune, and the entire contemporary-glass-art market, was built.

In other words, Dale Chihuly hasn't blown glass since 1979. He isn't a glassblower. He's a guy who points at glassblowers. His studio is a factory. And unlike Andy Warhol's democratic creative zone, Chihuly's employees are dispensable artisans, while he is the indispensable artist, the author, the genius. All of this is no secret in the glass world. But even in those circles, not all artisans are created equal. In the eight years that Bryan Rubino was under contract with Chihuly Inc., Rubino became known as a star of the pipe, one of the best—a man born to blow glass.

Now, Chihuly is suing Rubino, accusing him of blowing glass—for someone else.

* * *

That someone else is Robert Kaindl, who has a few things in common with Chihuly. Like Chihuly, Kaindl hired Rubino as a "gaffer," meaning a lead glassblower hired to execute Kaindl's designs. But Chihuly has accused Kaindl and Rubino of ripping off his own designs. In a civil case in U.S. District Court, Chihuly Inc. also targets the four small galleries that were selling the glass in question. The 39-page, novella-like original complaint, filed in October by Chihuly Inc. and his vanity press, Portland Press Inc., describes Kaindl as a schemer who tried to lure several former Chihuly blowers into making knockoffs of his work using inside information. According to the complaint, the other disciples were faithful to Chihuly, but Rubino was the Judas that Kaindl was looking for.

A quick Google search reveals that Kaindl has numerous websites promoting his various interests. According to his sites, Kaindl holds the world record in long-distance golf driving "that still stands today," was the nation's youngest student pilot at age 12, and was "an NBA scrimmage player in 1981 and 1982 even though he never started playing the game until the age of 20." His art-glass sites do not call him the owner of his business, Art Glass Production, but instead the featured glassblower, describing him as a "master" who "was selected to train under and work with some of the world's most well-known glass artists due to his remarkable natural talents." Kaindl is "pushing the limits" and "furthering the development of contemporary art glass," while Art Glass Production "silently represents 100's of custom glass-art galleries throughout the World!," "annually servic(ing) 1,000's of new customers" and has been in operation "Worldwide! Since 1977."

None of this, it turns out, checks out—at least I wasn't able to corroborate any of it. According to the Washington State Department of Revenue records, Kaindl registered Art Glass Production in 2004. The National Basketball Association has no record of Kaindl, and NBA spokesman Jeff Maldonado said he had not heard of the term "scrimmage player." Phillip Schwab of Coyote Lakes Golf Course in Surprise, Arizona, where Kaindl says he set the world record, said "there is no record of him ever doing that on our course." Neither the Long Drivers of America nor the American Long Drivers Association list Kaindl as the world record holder. Chris Dancy of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association said Kaindl could have been the youngest-ever American pilot, but there's no way to know, and he certainly wouldn't be if he were a 12-year-old flying student today. Tina Oldknow, the nation's leading contemporary glass curator, said Kaindl has no reputation in glass outside the notoriety of the lawsuit.

Confronted with questions about his claims, Kaindl said his golf world record has been surpassed, but that he did scrimmage with pro basketballers, specifically giving pointers to former Sonics player Shawn Kemp, "and I wasn't even paid for it." He said he has been blowing glass since 1999 or 2000, studying with Rob Adamson on Whidbey Island as well as "some of the best" blowers associated with Chihuly. He said he recently pulled out of a major contract for glass for the 2008 Olympics aquatics center "because it got so expensive," and that "I've done a lot of input with the developer of the World Trade Center, and hopefully I'll have some work in there." Which developer? "Just the main developer. They're trying to make a duplicate building in Italy that represents the top of the World Trade Center. I can't necessarily tell you the developer."

* * *

Chihuly hires a team of glassmakers to craft his art. He claims to come up with all of the designs, and then to relay them to the team in drawings. But at least some of those glassmakers say it doesn't work that way at all.

"Chihuly relied on those artists he was hiring to come up with creative ideas," said one former Chihuly glassblower, who asked to remain anonymous because he had signed a confidentiality agreement with Chihuly Inc. "We go, 'What if we try it this way or that way?' and he goes, 'Great, yeah, let's do it like that.'" Another Chihuly loyalist, who made the same request for anonymity, put it more plainly: "The stuff I contributed is measurable, and it's out there. I can point to it in galleries. But I was working for hire."

Glass insiders say that at some point, Rubino became unable to resign himself to "working for hire" anymore. He struck out on his own, opening a studio in Shelton. But he didn't find a niche and didn't get serious gallery representation. William Traver, a longtime Seattle glass dealer who represents Chihuly, said Rubino "hasn't come up with any great original ideas of his own... You can see where he's coming from. He's a really sweet, kind man, but he's very frustrated... He's seen all this success of these other people in selling things he's made for them."

So why did Rubino stop working for one purported megalomaniac only to take up with a man who appears to be a fervent self-aggrandizer? Possibly just for the paycheck. Rubino's contract with Kaindl was a job like any other, a flustered Rubino told me in December when I was writing about the lawsuit for the News Tribune in Tacoma. Since then, his attorneys have advised him not to talk, so he declined to give an interview for this story.

It wouldn't be surprising if the glass Rubino made for Kaindl looked like the glass he made for Chihuly, considering he brought the same set of hands and skills to both jobs. Of several photographs of the glass in question on Kaindl's websites, one pile of purple sea forms is a dead ringer for one of Chihuly's Persians, and Kaindl was numskulled enough to use some of Chihuly's series names on his site. A few of the pieces pictured are definitely not slick enough to be Chihulys, and most simply look like the run-of-the-mill, vaguely Chihulyesque stuff that has flooded the second-tier market since Chihuly made his mark in the 1980s.

The art on Kaindl's site is "very derivative," said Andrew Page, editor of GLASS Quarterly magazine. For that reason, Karrin Klotz, a lecturer on intellectual property issues at the University of Washington and Seattle University, said she expects Chihuly Inc. to prevail. Lawyers have to establish only that Chihuly Inc. can lay claim to unusual expressions of forms, even if the forms themselves—Italianate candy bowls, seashells, plants—are standard, and then simply that Kaindl and Rubino have made glass that is "substantially similar" to what Chihuly distributes.

In January, a U.S. District Court judge in Seattle denied Kaindl and Rubino's motion to dismiss the claims against them, and scheduled a jury trial to begin October 16. If a jury hears this case, attorney Kathleen Petrich probably will tell the jurors what she told me: "Dale has many talents, but he doesn't and he hasn't blown glass for a long time. Mr. Rubino is the real deal. He's a master glassblower." Kaindl and Rubino say they will file counterclaims this month, and they plan to fight hard. "We have the law on our side, and the truth, which is pretty strong," Kaindl said. (One of the galleries, Kenneth Behm, which has locations in Southcenter Mall and Bellevue Square, filed a crossclaim against Kaindl. Neither the gallery nor its attorney responded to requests for an interview.)

What's bizarre about all this is that the small-time sales of a few Chihulyesque pieces in a couple of malls pose no threat to the worldwide Chihuly empire. But by suing his former employee, Chihuly himself is drawing attention to the fact that Chihuly is, in some senses, not the real deal. Whatever he wins in copyright, he stands to lose in public image. Chihuly is providing Rubino with a platform on which to call the bluff of Chihuly's creativity.

* * *

Parsing the motivations of Chihuly or Chihuly Inc. is next to impossible. The corporation has 150 employees, according to Dun & Bradstreet, a global provider of business information that, unfortunately, doesn't have a record of Chihuly Inc.'s annual sales or net worth. No one from Chihuly Inc. would return calls for this story.

As I learned in 2002, during the construction of the Chihuly Bridge of Glass spanning I-705 in Tacoma, reporters are rarely allowed access to Chihuly, and even then are forbidden to ask him "anything financial or controversial," as his publicist instructed me. Whether his handlers are protecting Chihuly, themselves, or the business is not clear. Chihuly does most interviews via fax, but I finagled to meet him on the bridge, where he came across as innocuous to the point of vacancy. His workers were plucking glass seashells and abstracted underwater plants and creatures from piles and boxes—Chihuly Inc. has warehouses of old inventory, mostly in downtown Tacoma—to create a ceiling much like the 70-by-30-foot one they'd installed at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas in the late '90s. He gave them the direction that he didn't want the pieces to be too similar in color. The camera was rolling. They continued assembling. He went to get coffee and breakfast, with an entourage.

I'd read accounts of him behaving like a tyrant; instead, he was jovial in a distant way. The most conviction I got out of him was that his diet was carb-free. I kept thinking, This is the head of an empire, and a conceptual artist?

I use the term conceptual artist because Chihuly's implicit claim is that he doesn't have to make his art since he is clever enough to think it up. Conceptual artists dating back to Marcel Duchamp have placed emphasis on the generation of ideas rather than the production of objects, in an attempt to free art from ruling conventions of beauty—Duchamp called for an "anti-retinal" art meant to be considered rather than gawked at—or the commercial market. Nothing could be further from Chihuly's gambit. His corporation mass produces art, putting out enough glass, prints, and ketchup-bottle-squirt paintings to raise questions about whether a single person could even keep track of—let alone design, direct, assemble, and sign—each expensive, supposedly personal piece.

Nevertheless, Chihuly is hailed as a hero of glass, a man who fought for its place at the high-art table. But while he may have found his own place at that table, his popularity has not magically transformed glass into a respectable stand-alone medium, and may have even set it back. Its reputation as a lowly craft material used for utilitarian or decorative purposes by rote technicians directed by mere designers began to change in the 1960s and '70s, when the American studio-glass movement started to unite technician and designer toward forging modern artistry in the medium. Early on, Chihuly was in on this. But the post-1979 world-famous Chihuly, lacking the ability to be a technical wiz, separated the two functions again, and treated the craftsmen as medieval laborers not even deserving of name recognition. To this day, there has not been a modern master glass artist. Chihuly is a glass celebrity instead, and his lawsuit threatens to call attention to the disparity.

I was in Union Station a few years ago when a Chihuly Inc. worker dispatched to clean the Lackewanna Ikebana installation dislodged a piece of spotted orange glass, knocking it from a balcony down to the marble floor, where it smashed. People scrambled to get the pieces. On eBay, one seller has his own enterprise selling chipped little glass shells that are supposed souvenirs "gifted to me as-is inside Chihuly's boathouse" studio on the north shore of Lake Union. Do these people know he doesn't actually blow glass?

Maybe Chihuly is defending his copyrights out of insecurity—in the hopes of receiving certificates of ownership that will describe and secure his amorphous contributions to art for posterity, and silence his many doubters. But if Chihuly Inc. is declared the rightful owner of certain designs, then Chihuly himself finally becomes obsolete. The company could continue to produce, assemble, and disseminate Chihuly glass with or without Chihuly's input for the rest of his life, and for 70 years after his death.

I did get a fax from Chihuly during my reporting on the Bridge of Glass. On it were flowery, furiously scribbled drawings similar to the ones his glassblowers adapt into glass. Some of his more modest drawings are his best creations, quietly staging the ultimately troublesome task of translating between dimensions. In Chihuly's case, they are also a reminder of his particular situation. While some artists don't deign to make their own work—Rubens had long mastered painting by the time he ran around his studio adding dabs of color and his signature to Rubenesque scenes by trained assistants—Chihuly does not have the choice. It seems unlikely that he crouches in the corner at night and cries over his lost depth perception or the once-dislocated shoulder that finally put him out of the blowing game. But isn't it unsettling on some level to be unable to make your own work? It's hard to say whether Chihuly developed his famously strict, systematic controls for the lighting, shipping, and photographing of his glass because he is controlling, or because he felt out of control. The same goes for the lawsuit.

Chihuly would have reason to doubt his distinction as an artist. His critics are legion, and there is very little writing exploring the wild range of his work's quality, or its heavy reliance on context, probably because it's almost impossible not to focus on it as the result of a particularly aggressive means of production and promotion. The problems and desires of late-20th-century and early-21st-century art and capitalism rise like polluted steam from Chihuly glass, which is made-to-order for worldwide distribution, each new series emerging like the latest season's factory model. And because he is most famous for the scale of his efforts—Chihuly Over Venice, Chihuly in the Light of Jerusalem 2000—his heaps of glass naturally raise questions about manufacturing and labor. His corporation responds in kind, obligingly providing facts and figures. How many parts are in Mille Fiori (A Thousand Flowers)? 3,072, it turns out. How heavy is the Bellagio ceiling? 40,000 pounds. Sometimes the titles themselves, such as 100,000 Pounds of Ice and Neon, do the calculations. And where obsessive production in a single artist is fascinating—see Henry Darger, the reclusive outsider artist who spent a hunched-over life quietly writing and illustrating bizarre epics 15,000 pages long—Chihuly's menageries have no single wellspring. Instead, they direct attention back to the fortress of Chihuly Inc., and the uncredited labors of people like Rubino.

Against such a backdrop, Chihuly shrinks again. Is it possible, I wonder, that Chihuly's corporate officers have pushed him into the lawsuit? That this is not a case of an artist protecting his originality at all, but rather of a corporation protecting its assets? Chihuly Inc. COO Billy O'Neill's wife, Kari, is one of the attorneys representing Chihuly Inc. She didn't respond to a request for an interview. Chihuly hasn't given interviews about the case. When I asked for his comment for the News Tribune in December, the response I received was cryptic. An e-mailed statement from his spokeswoman didn't comment on the case, but read, "I have always been a strong proponent of the educational and creative process within the glassblowing community... I believe in supporting and fostering creative learning environments for up-and-coming artisans."

Not up-and-coming "artists," but "artisans."

* * *

The latest local sighting of Chihuly was at a holiday book signing at the Tacoma Art Museum. The museum had stayed open late and bulked up its staff on word from the PR team at Chihuly Inc. that 300 to 400 people would show up. But far fewer came.

"Is this costing extra money?" Chihuly asked the museum's director, Stephanie Stebich.

"Yeah, a little bit," she admitted.

Stebich grabbed her chance that night to ask Chihuly whether the museum could display some of his Nijima Floats from the mid-'90s—large, brightly colored glass bubbles—on the museum's architectural stone sculpture made in the shape of an ocean wave. A week later, the floats went in, just like they had a year earlier in a pool outside the Museum of Glass two blocks away. I couldn't help but wonder how many people got paid to put them up.