Blowing glass in tune with creation

March 29, 1995|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,Sun Staff Writer

Gianni Toso believes that God was the first glass blower, an idea that fascinates Mr. Toso, a master glass blower and Orthodox Jew.

"Sixty-two percent of the Earth is silica," said Mr. Toso of the compound used to make glass. "God [gathered] Adam from the Earth. How we are alive is because God blew into the pipe."

For 1,000 years, natives of the Italian island of Murano near Venice have been making the finest colored glass in the world. Mr. Toso is one of them, part of a large family of chemists, artists and craftsmen who have been working with glass for 500 years.

Mr. Toso, 53, began working in the glass factories near his home at age 10. It took him until he was 38, however, "to become a full-time Jew."

And it is his Jewishness, as much or more so than his world-renowned sculpture, that six months ago landed Gianni Toso, his wife, Karyn, and their four children in the intense Orthodox community of Northwest Baltimore. He hopes to spend the rest of his life on his big estate on Bancroft Road, turning out huge, surreal masks of glass and tiny, delicate figurines of pious Jews getting married, exulting the Torah, and carrying the fruits of harvest.

He works with a small blow torch to melt, fuse and shape colored glass rods into bodies, heads, hands and feet. Using dental picks, steel clamps, butter knives and tools favored by the average welder, he puts humans together with glass.

The small figures, some of which sport eyeglasses with lenses half the size of a shirt collar button, start at $300. Larger, complicated pieces have sold to private collectors for as much as $30,000.

And his secular work includes a glass arena for Jews and Christians to face off: a chess set that pits 16 rabbis against 16 Catholic priests.

Of Baltimore, he said: "People listen here. It's impossible to define any human being, but if I can categorize the people I've found in Baltimore -- Jewish and non-Jewish -- it would be people that care. Because they care, life is better. In New York and New Jersey, people don't have time to be human. In those places, I missed Venice. Life is more civilized in Baltimore. You are not lonely anymore."

About 17 years ago, in Venice, a city with a vanishing population of Jews, was without a rabbi. A new rabbi arrived from Morocco and was making the rounds one Sabbath when he came upon Mr. Toso, who was then loosely observant, working in his studio.

The rabbi was incensed to find a Jew desecrating the day that God has set aside for rest. Mr. Toso explained that he was doing nothing wrong, that he did no work for profit Saturday. "I use Saturday for myself," he told the rabbi, explaining the spirituality between himself and his work. "I use [the Sabbath] for my best creating."

The rabbi screamed even louder.

"I turned off my flame and said: 'Stop screaming at me and teach me why I am wrong.' "

The rabbi talked and Mr. Toso humbly listened, thinking: "If I obey all the limitations, what kind of Gianni will I become?"

He became Orthodox -- a Jew who believes his work is nothing compared with what God has done.

"When you limit, with your own free will, the creativity given to you by God, then you understand who is the Creator," he said.

In his passion, exuberance and humor, Mr. Toso is a pure reflection of his homeland. In his observance of laws given to Moses on Mount Sinai, he represents a Jew who believes the purpose of his life is fulfilling those laws. Mix it together and you have a warm, philosophical and very funny man, most likely the only Orthodox Jew from Italy in Baltimore.

Pointing to the long tassels that Orthodox men wear under their shirts -- fringe that hangs down from their waists -- he said: "I'm Italian, that's why I wear my spaghetti." Every Orthodox home has a Biblical scroll called a mezuza on the doorpost. The one leading to Mr. Toso's studio is encased in glass.

Around the studio are shelves of figures he calls "my children," work displayed in museums from Jerusalem to Japan and available at the Zyzyx! store in Pikesville. Mr. Toso will be at the store the evening of April 6 to meet people and hold court. He hopes people will pay as much attention to him as they will his work.

"Your work must have some kind of dignity, but I am the typical human creature," he said. "Because of the intensity of life, I sometimes lose contact with the Creator and that is my tragedy."

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