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Artist in Residence: Hiram Toraason

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Hiram Toraason keeps his 'endangered species' art going strong in Peoria

Hiram Toraason knew he was a pretty good artist in high school. As a student at St. Bede's in Peru, he was exposed to a variety of artistic media and learned he could do quite a bit.

"But I also knew I wasn't going to go to school for art. That wasn't something we did in my family. So I went to Southern (Illinois University) and majored in business. That's the sort of thing we do," Toraason said.

But it was at SIU that Toraason learned how to use glass as a medium for fine art and he hasn't been able to let go of it since. So now the sort of thing he does is make art from glass, going from what is accepted by friends and family to being part of an "endangered species" — and he wouldn't want it any other way.

Our "Artist in Residence" for January-February did put his business degree to use, taking the knowledge gained from those classes and opening his own business, Toraason Glass in Peoria.

It is in that workshop and studio at 506 Evans St. that Toraason and his staff create, making items from glass that range from vases to Christmas ornaments, from light fixtures to plates and platters, from glass hearts to large teeth.

Each piece is unique, from its shape to its colors to the precise detailing necessary for some of them.

From start to finish, the items are blown, shaped and finished by hand into as much as work of art as a water color portrait or bronze sculpture. "From beginning to end, these are made with these hands," Toraason said recently while showing much of his work on shelves in his studio.

He doesn't advertise widely but markets himself almost solely through his works, by word of mouth and through his "for the common good approach" to helping others, something few self-employed artists can afford to do. For example, Toraason will donate items he has made to a non-profit that then can sell or auction it to raise money. In the case of
Easter Seals, he will invite children served by that agency to his workshop so they can help make items they then can keep or sell for the organization.

Toraason gets commissioned more and more to create special, one-of-a-kind items for people, organizations or even companies. For example, he did the glass sculpture work just inside the new foyer at Methodist Medical Center, right down to the glass flowers that are part of the huge package.

Caterpillar Inc. commissioned him to create two awards. The first is an award presented to company engineers when they reach the milestone of being awarded 13 or more patents. That piece is glass shaped into the infinity symbol balancing on an axis and is made exclusively for Caterpillar. The other commissioned piece, also exclusive to Caterpillar, is named for former Caterpillar chairman Jim Owens and presented periodically to an employee for exemplary service.

"It is so unique for an artist like me to do work for a Fortune 50 company and for them to work with me. It's humbling for a guy from a small town in the Midwest," he said.
Born and reared in Peru, Toraason went to SIU and first came in contact with glass-as-art when he got a new roommate who was an experienced glass blower. So Toraason, while majoring in business, took art classes as electives and learned the craft on his own.

After leaving SIU Toraason ended up in Asheville, N.C. to continue studying the craft. Asheville, he said, "has the second largest concentration of glass artists in the country, behind only Seattle."

He worked for more than one company, learning to make ornaments — becoming a master ornament maker — and other pieces. He kept busy but he said he knew he didn't want to work for other artists his whole life.

It was in 2003 he and his wife Holly, who is from Peoria, decided to return to the Midwest to raise a family. "I decided to take a risk and open my own business. I knew I needed to be here to do that," said Toraason, now 36. He and his wife have two children. "Having a family changes everything. That was a big factor," he said.

He acquired the furnaces necessary for making glass art, including one where glass becomes molten, another kept above 1,000 degrees as the glass is shaped and colored and a third for bringing the finished product slowly to room temperature.

"You know, you leave the Midwest and go someplace else and it doesn't take long to realize you don't rhyme with a lot of people. You appreciate more where you're from, things you take for granted until you leave for a while. Things like cost of living and even values. If not for Peoria's values and mentality, I am not so sure I would have succeeded," he said.

It hasn't been easy, he added. Another key to his success was his timing; he started the business when it was a good time for artists, especially those with a specialty people wanted, such as glass art. "But don't get me wrong. This last recession? It was horrible. Glass artists are on an endangered species list," he said.

Toraason said while skill is important, luck is involved as well. "I know a lot of glass makers who I think are much more talented than I am who haven't been as lucky," he said.
Another necessity is knowledge about making glass and glass art from the scientific aspect. "Everything about it is scientific, including chemistry," he said.

It can also be dangerous, said Bart Grawey, who was assisting Toraason on the day of the interview. He was talking largely about the heat of the special ovens used to heat the glass, with temperatures topping 1,300 degrees this day as Toraason made a large plate using clear glass colored by ground glass in which he rolled a heated glass ball eventually shaped by hand into a green plate.

But Grawey was also talking about the glass dust that would be prevalent in the air if "proper studio etiquette" wasn't followed. "Vacuum the studio, don't just sweep, because that dust will just move around and still get into your lungs. And once it gets in there, it doesn't come out," he said.

Toraason said safety is one of the first items on his agenda with each job and is practiced without fail in the studio. "Safety has to be top priority. It would be too easy to get hurt in here if you aren't careful," he said.

Watching Toraason and Grawey work together was like watching ball players who just know what each is going to do next. "We get into a routine when we do this so we are able to communicate without words. We just know what the other is going to do next and we're there to assist," Grawey said. "It's the same with making sure we practice safety."

"Glass is not a medium you can do on your own," Toraason said. "Here, we are very team oriented."

Once Toraason started making the plate, the pair constantly moved from the furnace to a table where ground glass was poured to a bench where the rod on which the piece of art is taking shape is rolled back and forth, a motion that is necessary to keep the molten glass from dropping off the end of the rod to the floor.

Teamwork was necessary when Toraason needed to transfer the original piece of glass from one rod to another. He needed to use drops of water and a precise tap or two on the glass to separate it from one to allow Grawey to take it onto the other.

When completed, no words were spoken or were needed. They knew they'd done what was needed and the work continued silently until the plate was removed from the second rod and placed into the cooling oven by Grawey, by then wearing heavy elbow-length gloves and face protection.

Others who work with Toraason include Rick Melby, with whom he worked in Asheville and relocated to Peoria so they could continue working together. Another who relocated here is Geoff Dunn, whom Toraason estimates has made nearly 400,000 ornaments.

Toraason is a student of the history of glass, noting it was brought over from Europe with the Pilgrims and was the first industry in the United States. But glass as a medium for fine art is a much more recent movement, he said, and one he hopes will make a comeback and prosper.

"I think everything should be made of glass, of course. But I think glass as an art medium can continue to do very well here for a long time. Peoria has been home to many fine artists and I am humbled to think I can be considered among them."

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