Artist’s passion for shaping glass

In a mesmerizing display of art, science, fire and endurance, Hiram Toraason twirls a puntil rod in his 2,050-degree furnace.A bluegrass CD wails the high, lonesome sounds of Old Crow Medicine Show.

Standing center stage surrounded by two glass furnaces and two glass ovens, Toraason choreographs his movements, sensing and responding to seconds of malleable life in the orange-glowing molten glass.

He’s in his zone, acutely aware, gauging precise moments when the responsiveness of the glass and the concept of his desire fleetingly intersect in space and time.

A piece shatters. Toraason shrugs.

"There are so many components with glass. Heat and gravity are two primary factors," he said. "I take a humble approach to glass. When your medium is so immediate, 2,000 degrees and never touched by a physical hand, you use techniques to create, to convey an idea. All very fast. No other medium like it."

Toraason rolls a glowing orb over wet newspaper, influencing shape with steam and carbon. Ultimate shape is an organic derivative of forces of nature, skill and eye of the glass artist. It’s a physically demanding medium ... a young man’s game. Toraason is 29.

He relocated to Peoria in 2003, coming here from Penland, N.C., where he worked in two glass studios. He came lured by the dream of opening his own "hot shop" glass studio. After finding space in an industrial block of buildings, he built his furnaces and opened Toraason Glass Works at 208 Morton St. just west of the Illinois River and Constitution Park.

Majoring in business and marketing at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Toraason recalls being smitten with glass. He took all his electives in art.

"Southern was one of the first schools in the country with a master’s and bachelor’s in glass," he said.

His Morton Street studio is divided into three distinct spaces. Inside the front door to the right is his gallery with lighting designed to highlight the characteristics of glass with a display of his pitchers, stemware, carafes, platters, bowls, vases and vessels as well as sculptural, nonfunctional, one-of-a-kind pieces.

The heart of the space, the furnaces and ovens, are straight through in the rear. Up front is an office, a display of glass balls and room to assemble commissions. Over recent months, his first commission gradually took shape here with about 250 hand-blown glass lilies winnowed down to 120 perfect shapes, each one different, each one a frozen moment of science and art.

"A blend of form and function or form and nonfunction," he said.

"I know a man who found woodworking, the love of his life, when he was 60. That man told me, ‘I know what not to do with life at a young age.’

"Building your own glass studio is liberating and exciting. It’s the chance of a lifetime. Making a living as an artist is almost an oxymoron. Glass artists are the truck drivers of arts and crafts ... always rolling. The furnace is always on. A painter can walk away. I can’t."

There have been few changes in more than 2,000 years of glass blowing, he said, noting that pieces created in the 15th century still defy analysis, still are unique and unduplicated today.

Toraason, who attended St. Bede Academy in Peru, where he first became challenged by a good art teacher, said, "Streator and Ottawa were part of the American glass movement in the early 1900s. Ottawa has some of the best sand in the country."

His first commission came from John Valentine, owner of Panache, 4203 N. Sheridan Road. The piece is a glass and copper fountain now installed in the coffee shop and cafe. The piece includes 120 inverted lilies in blown glass hanging from copper rods.

"He’s not finished with the installation yet," Valentine said, noting that Toraason still needs to add some hammered copper sheeting to the piece. "But customers like it. The sound is very subtle. It can be adjusted based on the flow of water. Many customers find it really stunning."

Toraason said he designed the piece to capture movement and fluidity.

The piece measures 7 feet by 5 feet with a depth of 1 foot. It is made with concrete, copper, glass and wood with lighting, water and sound.

Toraason’s work has been carried at the Lakeview Museum gift shop and the Peoria Art Guild.

"We are delighted to have a hot glass studio in town," said Peg Toliver, gallery store manager at the Peoria Art Guild. "We have his blown glass vessels and his spherical ornaments, which some people call witch’s balls. His necklaces are very popular. He is always experimenting, so every few months we have new work at the Guild."

Toraason opens his studio to the public from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Sunday. There is no clear signage yet. The studio is on the north side of the street just east of Adams Street. He suggests people call ahead at 495-0919. The gallery in his studio includes dozens of functional and nonfunctional pieces. He said people especially like his signature tumblers, which he calls "Rorschach" glasses because each one is different and each person sees something different in the shapes and the fit in their hands.

"Glass is a difficult medium to take into the conceptual realm," said Michelle Traver, executive director of the Peoria Art Guild. "Hiram has invested in being here in this community. He is a sign that we are attracting a larger art community."

600450 Artist’s passion for shaping glass
Date: 11 June 2005

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