On a sweltering summer day in Venice, the temperature in Yasuhiko Tsuchida’s glass-making atelier feels at least 10 degrees hotter than it is outside. Men roast their faces against groaning furnaces, shirts drenched with sweat, pulling clumps of luminous molten glass from the fire as the glass artist directs the works.
Facing a canal on Murano Island — home to Venice’s storied glass-making culture — the space has seen masters of glass come and go for hundreds of years. Today, Tsuchida — the only Japanese to run a Murano glass studio — carries on an ancient tradition creating contemporary artworks that shimmer with the magic of Venetian glass while giving off what he calls “a fragrance of Japan.”
From the scorching crucible emerge works of subtle beauty and refinement, and Tsuchida’s re-imagining of a 1,200-year-old Venetian heritage has led many to call him a “poet of glass.” Since Tsuchida moved to Venice 25 years ago, he has gone from being an artist asking friends to buy pieces to an internationally recognized master winning prizes and exhibiting in prestigious galleries around the world. In 2015, he rendered Japanese calligrapher Sisyu’s work in glass at the Milan Expo’s Japan Pavilion, and last year produced work for a Japanese exhibit at the Venice Biennale of Architecture.
It’s a glamorous life steeped in Venetian mystique. But Tsuchida’s story as an artist begins as a young boy in the hinterlands of Okayama Prefecture. Born in Osaka, Tsuchida lost his mother at an early age to cancer and went to live with family in the small Okayama town of Takahashi — a place where “there were only farmers and rice paddies.” His mind became filled with dreams of becoming an artist. But Takahashi was not the kind of place where anybody was around to give him advice on how to become one. The dreams grew bigger, fueled by what he looks back upon as a kind of naive fantasy based on popular culture. “In my childish thoughts,” he says, “my idea of being an artist was vagabonding around Europe. I believed that urban legend about the artist in Europe who dies young and whose works sell only after he’s gone.”
Innocence was a catalyst for future success. At age 19, Tsuchida moved to Paris and began living the wanderer’s life he dreamed about amid the rice paddies of Okayama. There was also a dose of realism in his plan, although it followed perhaps an unusual logic. Tsuchida left Japan armed not with an art degree, but with a chef’s degree from Osaka’s renowned Tsuji Culinary Institute. The decision led not only to a lifelong passion for cooking (he still makes sushi and fine cuisine for his Italian wife and their 12-year-old daughter), but laid many of the seeds of his artistic career — although he was not thinking of that at the time he enrolled in Tsuji.
“I simply realized, it’s all very well to wander Europe being an artist, but how am I going to eat?” he recalls. “So again in my childish mind, I thought if I work in a restaurant they’ll always feed you — at least I won’t starve. I formed this plan to eat makanai (staff grub) while pursuing art.”
For the next four years, Tsuchida used Paris as a base from which to travel and paint, not only around Europe but as faraway as Sydney, while supporting himself as a chef. His adventure brought him to Venice, where he was introduced to Arrigo Cipriani, owner of the legendary restaurant and watering hole Harry’s Bar. He was invited to work there. Cipriani wanted to recruit Tsuchida to work at his Harry’s branch in Tokyo, but just then Japan’s bubble economy was collapsing and the restaurant in Shirokanedai went under.
Tsuchida stayed in Venice. After shifts at Harry’s he went home to paint, and gradually was holding small exhibitions around northern Italy. The proportion of restaurant work to art began to shift decisively toward art. He also felt himself pulled into the world of Venetian glass: “When I first came to Venice, my aspiration was to be an artist, but I had no real intention to follow the path of glass,” he says. “If you stay long enough in Venice, you will fall under the spell of glass.”
It was at Harry’s that Tsuchida met his future wife, Annarita. She was the only child of the founder of a leading Murano glass workshop and gallery. Franco Schiavon brought Tsuchida into the family fold, becoming for the young artist something like a shishō (master) in the ancient art of glass, while also giving Tsuchida the freedom to forge his own creative vision. That approach, too, is part of Venetian glass tradition, for if Murano glass-making has managed to maintain an unbroken line since the Middle Ages, through war and pestilence, it’s largely due to an ability to reinvent itself for each new age. “There is always something in Murano glass that is born and dies,” says Tsuchida. “There is forever something new in Venetian glass.”
Tsuchida’s apprenticeship in glass-making sounds like a mixture of Japanese-style repetition and frenetic experimentation: “I just started making glass in big quantities,” Tsuchida says. “Of course, art is about quality over quantity, but in the beginning it was just making, making, making. Above all else, it was churning out as much as I could — and among those pieces, by chance, there would be a good one. From there, I began to find my direction.”
Tsuchida says his ambiguous situation as an outsider in Venice and a member of the Schiavon inner circle — he uses the term “chūto-hampa,” or half-baked — was a source of liberation rather than confusion in his early years on Murano. He had a path into Venice’s famously closed society, but with fewer of the social constraints incumbent upon a native. This was key to his development as a Murano glass artist. “Had I been born Schiavon’s eldest son, I would never have been able to go from workshop to workshop, being invited warmly — “Come-in! Come-in!” — to study the craft,” he says, for a blood-tie would have triggered rivalries. Born to a Murano glassmaker, he explains, “you don’t just drop in on the other workshops. You can’t even stop and look into their show windows.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “had I not married, I would have been just another outsider. So that middle spot — being in the Schiavon family but not directly bearing the name — and being a person who studied, trained very hard, to be where he is helped greatly. My halfway situation was actually very important for making a life on Murano.”
Now that Tsuchida has reached the top of Murano’s world of glass — creating large-scale works for events such as the Venice Biennale of Architecture — he is returning to the more intimate pieces he created for friends when his work wasn’t selling.
“I long for this idea of making something for somebody, this person-to-person connection,” he says. “I am moving to works you can fit into your two hands.”
And along with books (“my only hobby is reading”), he finds inspiration deeper in his past — in the smells and sounds of his Okayama childhood, when he nurtured wild dreams of becoming an artist.
“Much of my work springs from memories of the smell after the yūdachi (evening rain shower),” he says, “or of the murmur of a stream.”
Name: Yasuhiko Tsuchida
Profession: Glass artist
Key moments in career:
1988 — Leaves Japan for Paris
1992 — Moves to Venice. Works at “Harry’s Bar” while pursuing art
1996 — Becomes art director at Schiavon Glass Co.
2015 — Portrays calligrapher Sisyu’s work in glass at Expo Milano
Life philosophy: “Zahenshiyu” (artist Kitaoji Rosanjin’s words, which mean, “Surround yourself with exceptional people and exceptional things”)