Standing in his glassblowing studio at the Jackson County Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, Torii is a renowned name within his craft — an artisan skill that requires the utmost focus, discipline and respect. He works in a world where a split-second decision can be the difference between shattered glass and a work of art.
“It’s about timing, and if the timing is off the glass will scream at you, and you have to correct it,” he said. “From the bottom of my heart, I love this material. Every day I expand my experience. You find something new every day — it’s an endless journey.”
When it all clicked
Originally from Osaka, Japan, Torii came to the United States to be part of an artist commune. From there, he enrolled in Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus. He began studying business, but that all changed one day when he wandered into the fine arts department and signed up for a glassblowing class.
“I took the class and fell in love with it. It was just so different, almost like I was in a different world,” the 46-year-old said. “I’d never met these kinds of materials before. It’s liquid when it’s warm and then becomes a solid when you lose heat. That transition of the material was so fascinating.”
Following graduation in 1997, Torii became an apprentice under glass master Richard Jolley for the next five years in Knoxville. After he completed his apprenticeship, the artist headed back to Georgia, where he managed glass studios and continued to hone his skills.
“Being in those studios has given me the opportunity to learn more about glass, build equipment, and teach classes and workshops,” Torii said. “It’s about creating my art and expanding my knowledge.”
When Torii heard about the Green Energy Park in Dillsboro, he and his wife, artist Corina Pia, decided to relocate to Western North Carolina in 2011. The park is lauded for its sustainability, where the studios, forge and furnaces are fueled by methane from a nearby closed landfill.
“Compared with normal setups of using city gas, natural gas, propane or electricity, using methane cuts down on the cost, where you’re still able to have the quality you need, but it’s sustainable,” he said. “I see [methane] as the future, as a way of creating art. Here, I can create pieces as small and as large as I want to.”
And besides the park, Torii loves being surrounded by the natural beauty of Southern Appalachia — both Osaka, as well as his wife’s home of Corina, Germany, are in mountainous regions.
“When we came here, we fell in love with this area,” he said.
Heating up passion
Watching Torii at work at the park, one observes the precision and focus he places on his carefully planned step-by-step process. What was initially a molten blob of glass has been transformed into a piece of art, which that day was small, intricate designs of a dragon. The blob is twisted, trimmed, heated up and cooled down until the ideal shape is attained.
“It’s dancing with the glass. I know the material, and I know what I want to make,” he said. “But, I don’t want to make the same thing. So, I add different gestures in each piece, like tilting the head or an open wing or putting the tail in different locations. It’s about having a slightly different emotional content to each piece made — that’s the beauty of it.”
For the molten glass, the furnace reaches temperatures of around 2,050 degrees. Within the other furnace, where Torii shapes and maneuvers the glass, temperatures can hover above 2,300 degrees. The glowing opening in the second furnace is known as the “glory hole,” where success and failure are determined with the slightest of movements.
“You have a limited time to create certain things,” he said. “You get in and out of the furnace, do twists and patterns. You have to know every step before you start. When I start shaping, I try to transfer my energy into the piece.”
After years of learning from glass masters, Torii also hosts his own classes and workshops at the park, many of which are offered through nearby Western Carolina University. The glassblower enjoys being able to share his passion and wisdom with the next generation of glass artisans.
“I see in their eyes what I had in mine 20 years ago, and I really want to cultivate that in the younger generation. Whoever wants to deal with the glass, I just want to teach them as much as I can,” Torii said. “I sometimes go and learn from different masters. You can always learn something new. It’s a trade. It’s about passing on these skills. And with teaching, I learn something, too.”
The artist looks at his career as a lifelong journey, one that he hopes will inspire and connect others through art and creativity.
“Even though it may just be a drinking cup or paper weight or sculpture piece, they have a reason why they love a piece,” Torii said. “It’s about that one second in there where they saw beauty in a piece. That’s the most important part — that’s why I keep creating.”