Our world-renowned glassblower

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Carol Sorgen

Gianni Toso, one of the world’s pre-eminent glassblowing artists, works on one of his pieces in his Mt. Washington studio. He moved to Baltimore 20 years ago from Murano, an island near Venice known for its ancient tradition of glassmaking.
Photo by Avraham Bank

Gianni Toso’s Mount Washington home is a long way from his native Venice, Italy, but he carries with him 700 years of his family’s tradition as Murano glassmakers.

The Venetian island of Murano has specialized in fancy glassware for centuries, developing or refining many glassmaking technologies that are still used today in the crafting of pieces ranging from contemporary art glass and glass figurines, to glass chandeliers, wine stoppers and tourist souvenirs.

Toso is one of the pre-eminent glassblowing artists in the world today. His works can be found in galleries and private collections throughout the United States, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Israel and Japan.

Toso, 72, and his wife Karyn moved to Baltimore 20 years ago (first having settled in New Jersey after moving to the U.S.).

“I had first been to Baltimore in 1972 and felt comfortable here in a way I didn’t in New Jersey,” he said (perhaps in part because of Baltimore’s large Orthodox Jewish community, of which the Tosos are members).

An early start to his art

Though Toso earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in painting, glassblowing has always been in his blood. He began working in a glass factory at the age of 10 — without his parents’ permission or knowledge — earning $1 a week to keep the factory’s furnace stoked with wood. (In some ways, not much has changed; a wood-burning stove heats the studio that Toso built himself adjacent to his Northwest Baltimore home.)

Once his parents found out about his subterfuge, they allowed the young Gianni to keep working at the factory, as long as he attended school at night.

At the age of 14, Toso became a student at the prestigious Abate Zanetti fine arts academy on the island of Murano, where for seven years he followed a curriculum that included geometric design, art history and painting. The school’s philosophy was that through a well-rounded education artists can create new forms.

At the same time that he was studying at the academy, Toso learned the practical aspects of glassblowing by working in 12 different factories over the course of 14 years, making everything from chandeliers to goblets to ashtrays.

When he was 23, Toso opened his own small studio, producing lampworked souvenirs. (Lampworking is a type of glasswork where a torch or lamp is primarily used to melt the glass. Once in a molten state, the glass is formed by blowing and shaping with tools and hand movements.)

Four years later, Toso opened a studio in the Jewish ghetto of Venice, where he created a line of 12 animal figurines that he sold to souvenir shops in San Marco.

A whirlwind romance

It was also at that studio that Toso met his wife.

“She stopped in my studio looking for a kosher restaurant,” he recalled. “It was already late in the day and the restaurants would soon be closed, so I told her that if she wanted a kosher meal, she would have to eat in my home. Seven hours later, we decided to get married.”

Like a glassblower knows when the precise moment has arrived to execute a shape, said Toso, so did he know that the seemingly sudden decision to get married made sense.

“You know when the time is right (for glassblowing or marriage!)…not a minute sooner or later!” he said.

Venice brought Toso more than a wife. It was there that he began to be recognized for his art. In 1969 his massive chess set, “Jews vs. Catholics,” won first prize in an exhibit of Murano’s master glassblowers. The chess pieces depict leaders of two opposing theologies — Catholic Franciscan Priests versus Hasidic Jews — in a whimsical way.

Shortly thereafter, famed artist Salvadore Dali commissioned Toso to make a series of 12 of Dali’s surrealistic flowers in glass.

In 1972, Toso’s growing recognition earned him an invitation — as the only Venetian — to participate in the International Glass Symposium at the Museum Bellerive in Zurich, Switzerland. The symposium was led by Harvey K. Littleton, the artist responsible for helping to found what is called the studio glass movement in the United States.

Littleton developed and taught do-it-yourself techniques that liberated glassblowers from the hot, sweaty, dirty work of factory production. They made molten glass easier to work with in a studio setting, much like a potter works with wet clay.

According to Karyn Toso, her husband’s decision to attend the symposium was not easy, as Venetian glassblowing techniques traditionally were zealously protected, and Toso had to consult with his family about what he could and could not share with the other artists at the symposium.

“In the old Venetian Republic, if a glassblower left Murano and went to another country, he was killed, and the government seized all of his family’s property and possessions,” Karyn relates on Toso’s website.

Fortunately, modern sensibilities prevailed, and Toso was able to accept the invitation without fearing for his life. He spent two weeks living and working with 16 other glassblowers from around the world.

“It was a way for me to get off the small island (of Murano) and into the rest of the world,” he said.

A new way to think, work

“There, from all of the good energy and enthusiasm, particularly from the American artists, for the first time in my life I shared ideas with strangers, and with people who, like myself, did not see glass only as artisans who make craft production,” Toso added. “It was a fantastic cultural happening.”

It was at the symposium that Toso became aware that glassblowing could combine the elements of both craft and art. Craft is repetition, he explained, which would allow him to make a living, while art makes people think.

Toso soon became a leader in the Glass Studio Movement, promoting the idea of glassblowing as an art form. In 1979, Marvin Lipofsky, who had met Toso in Zurich and was at that time chairman of the Glass Department at the California College of Arts and Crafts, invited Toso to headline a glass-blowing tour of art departments in American universities, making him the first Venetian to teach Italian techniques to American students.

During that visit, Toso also became enamored with American culture and the freedom artists have here to create without having any political ties. He sold his studio in the Venetian Ghetto and began his new life in the United States.

“In America, I saw the future and continuity of my family’s tradition, and the future of the Glass Studio Movement,” he said. “I miss Italy (and he still returns to purchase his supplies on the island of Murano). But in many respects, America is the most beautiful and blessed country in the world.”

Because Jewish Orthodoxy precludes working on the Sabbath (from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown), Toso does not regularly exhibit in galleries because “meet the artist” receptions are generally held on weekends.

And though he, from time to time, serves as a guest faculty member at such institutions as the Corning Museum of Glass, he also eschews the administrative work and university politics that accompany ongoing faculty positions. “Culture should be separate from politics,” he explained.

While his Orthodoxy (which he came to as an adult in Venice) is a strong part of his life, Toso’s glassworks encompass both secular and religious themes — from collections such as “Big Sur” and “Carnevale,” to “Chuppahs” (a Jewish wedding canopy) and “Menorahs” (the candelabrum used to celebrate Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights).

Individual figures can begin at about $300, while a complex, 114-piece work that took him a year to make, recently sold for $120,000.

What takes time, Toso explained, is not necessarily the actual production, but the “harmony” he seeks in each piece.

“There has to be a dialog between figures,” he said. “When you have that, you feel the pulse and the heartbeat that the artist has created.”

While Toso says that his focus in life is his family, the Jewish community, and “paying the bills!” he is, at heart, a romantic Venetian (“not Italian!”) who sees art as the best way to connect human beings.

For Toso, his glasswork is just one aspect of his life as a “creator.” He gardens, he cooks, he makes wine (from grapes supplied by a California grower), and even still chops the wood that heats his studio, all with one goal in mind.

“I like to create positive energy in life.”

To see more of Gianni Toso’s glassworks, visit www.giannitoso.com.