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In Plain Sight: Pipe Dreams and Kissing Glass

Saturday, December 27, 2014

 

Photo Credit: Becki Saltzman

It burns, it cuts, it breaks, and it works—some call it functional glass, some call it lampwork, others call it boro. Before I knew better I used the ‘bong’ word, but now I know enough to call it functional glass art. Whatever it’s called, it is a huge and growing business that continues to exist in the grey area of the law.

While many look for gold in the green rush that is weed, I have always been more curious about other parts of the ecosystem—sort of like the people more interested in the shovels than the gold during a similar rush for riches.

When I scored myself an elusive ticket to AGE (American Glass Expo) in Denver, I was excited about a rare opportunity for an industry outsider to get a peek inside a growing and glowing industry. What a saw and learned blew my mind. I met amazing artists and ‘green industry’ experts from around the country. Through them, and my Portland head shop owner friends Shaggy and Curly, I befriended, learned from, and laughed with Loah and her team at one of Portland’s top glass pipe companies, Liberty 503.

In Case You’re Curious: 10 Things You May Not Have Known About Functional Glass Art

What differentiates glass art from functional glass art is the presence of a “bowl and a carb,” and it is the inclusion of these two elements that gives the functional glass its nickname of Degenerate Art. The term, Degenerate Art, came from the term applied by the Nazis to all modern art that was banned as being Jewish or Communist and, therefore, un-German. Degenerate artists were subjected to sanctions. Today’s Degenerate Artists are responsible for some of the greatest innovations and collaborations in the art world and yet the functional glass art industry is still the wild west of glass art. Not for long:
 
  • Liberty 503 is housed in a large, cool studio in SE Portland. It, like most functional glass studios and distribution centers, is not open to the public nor is its address publicly highlighted on the company website. Friends Buddha Chris and Paul started Liberty 503 in the late 1990s, when like most glass pipe artists, they fell in love with the medium and the idea that they could make a living blowing glass pipes. Buddha Chris died tragically and unexpectedly in 2013. Loah and the team banded together to open the new studio later that year, as planned, and continued to expand the business in his honor. Recently they started to rent out studio space to other top-end glass pipe artists. The products they create fall clearly in the category of art. The function the art enables can possibly be seen as less-than-crisply legal--even though its function is for tobacco use only.
     
  • Liberty 503 specializes in sandblasted functional glass pipes. The process is glorious and tedious and each piece is touched, molded and loved by no fewer than four artistic hands. Paul, Chuck and other artists design and blow the glass using torches, blowing techniques and kilns. Lauren and her team painstakingly create, cut and attach intricate vinyl stickers that enable Eli to delicately sandblast each piece to clear specifications. Some collectors never smoke out of the pieces and collect them just like they would other non-functional art pieces. For others the ritual of smoking out of a piece of art transcends the product smoked and many claim to have mystic connections to the pieces.
     
  • The best way to follow and buy functional glass is to visit one of the head shops that have a glass gallery vibe like The Hot Box, Mellow Mood, or Mary Jane’s House of Glass. Ask them who to follow on Instagram because Instagram is the social media of choice for the glass pipe industry. You may be hard-pressed to see how these intricate art pieces are in any way related to pipes. The amazing functional art pieces are called, Headies, and they are increasingly being sold and collected by top art collectors. You can still grab a Heady for around $2,000, but it is not hard to spend upwards of $20,000 or more if you’re looking to get into the serious realm of collecting. If you’re interested in becoming a glass pipe artist, the three main ways are to go to school, become an apprentice, or “figure this shit out.”
     
  • Many consider Eugene’s Bob Snodgrass to be the grandfather of the glass pipe industry. He has been blowing glass for four decades and has taught and inspired thousands of functional glass artists (“lampworkers”) from around the world. He first created Mr. Happy pipes to be sold as he traveled around with the Grateful Dead in the 1990s. He accidentally invented an alchemy technique he later called, fuming, when he heated silver nitrate and gold chloride onto glass and created a pipe that changed color as the inside of the pipe lit up. I can imagine other reasons why the colors become more interesting as the pipes are used, but since these pipes are for tobacco use only, I too, attribute it to the fuming technique alone.
     
  • Although Eugene, Oregon is considered the “undisputed capital of glassblowing” by High Times magazine, Portland is the undisputed creator and provider of borosilicate glass. The three main borosilicate glass suppliers are Trautman Art Glass (TAG), Glass Alchemy, and Northstar.  The innovation and coloring techniques are amazing. Borosilicate and soft glass are the two types of glass used in glass art. Traditional glass artists like Dale Chihuly favor soft glass and have been more dismissive of borosilicate glass as an art medium. Until recently borosilicate glass was primarily used for medical instruments, Pyrex dishes and other cooking implements, electronics and lighting. Borosilicate is more resistant to heat and is, therefore, more conducive to smoking. The majority of recent innovation in glass art has arguably come out of the borosilicate industry, in general, and functional glass art in specific. Museums, galleries, soft glass artists, and serious collectors are only now finally starting to take note.
     
  • There are said to be over 50,000 functional glass blowers and yet the functional glass industry extends even farther from the product that inspired it. There are torch, kiln, accessory, and tool companies that cater to and are designed for the functional glass artist industry. It is projected to be a multi-billion dollar industry. There are schools that teach functional glass blowing techniques such as Eugene’s Cornerstone Glass and Seattle’s Boro School. Wearing protective glasses is critical if you visit because staring into the flames of the torch, while mesmerizing, can also be extremely dangerous to eyeballs. I have visited both and they are fascinating, but my eyesight wasn’t so great to begin with.
     
  • Flame Offs are glass blowing competitions that rival any rock concert. One of the biggest Flame Offs in the world takes place in Eugene, Oregon each summer. It’s called the Degenerate Flame Off or DFO. Glass blowers, head shop owners and curiosity-seekers (like me) come from around the world to network and watch the top celebrity functional glass artists compete in a timed challenge to create the most elaborate, beautiful and functional heady piece. Music blares, fire burns, sweat drips, glass breaks, tears shed, and crowds gather to party, admire and cheer. It’s a sub-culture of never-before-seen objects. Flame Offs are like nothing I had ever experienced with DJs, light shows and oozing glass. I keep fantasizing about becoming the Don King of the glass pipe industry, but with flat hair.
     
  • The early morning of February 23, 2003, lives in infamy among every piper I spoke with. That was when a team comprised of DEA agents, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, US Marshalls, Secret Service and the Postal Service, led by Attorney General John Ashcroft, surprise-raided hundreds of pipe manufacturers, smoke shops, businesses and homes with guns and swat gear, under what was called, Operation Pipe Dreams. Pipe artists, manufacturers and distributors were charged with trafficking illegal drug paraphernalia. Because the businesses had not considered what they were doing to be illegal, it was easy for agents to seize accounts and millions of dollars of inventory, and to shutter lucrative tax-abiding and employee-hiring businesses. Ashcroft claimed that these industry folk supported terrorism. Tommy Chong (of Cheech and Chong and Up In Smoke fame and infamy) was sentenced to 9 months in a federal prison. Many of the glass blowers I spoke with still have a severe paranoia over the fact that since Federal laws have not changed since Operation Pipe Dreams, this could happen to them again at any time.
     
  • Among so many of the pipers I met there seems to be a struggle between the desire to safely and authentically remain in the protective womb of a semi-secret sub-culture and the desire to be accepted into the legitimate and more widely-respected art world. From all of the pipes inspired by Sesame Street, Disney, Star Wars, Pokémon, and a variety of other shows and comic books, it is clear that the trademark infringement attorneys have not caught up with the functional glass industry. Many pipers have expanded beyond making pipes, to making and selling astonishingly beautiful marbles that sell for hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars. They also create and sell millefiori, glass rods where the multi-colored patterns are only viewable from the cut end of the rod. These pieces are sold as accessories to the functional glass art and as separate collectibles.
     
  • Glass pipe artists seem to understand the new state laws around marijuana more clearly than they understand how those laws will effect the paraphernalia industry in general, and their industry in specific. Their paranoia is evidenced by how surprisingly hard it is to find functional glass studios and functional glass artists. Most go by pseudonyms like Buck, Snic, Banjo, Elbo, Darby, Laceface, and Merc. These pipers have rock star followings and have branded and collectible non-pipe merchandise like shirts, hats and pins. The magazine, Hot Breath, is dedicated to the functional glass industry and alternative smoke culture. Check it out and it will completely change how you look at a bong. Perhaps it will entice you to consider buying one…for your art collection, of course.
     

A graduate degree in behavioral science, three generations of Portland blood in her veins, 20 years as a real-estate broker, and a lifetime of delving into other people’s business has caused Becki Saltzman’s severe curiosity disorder. She is the author of Arousing the Buy Curious: Real Estate Pillow Talk for Patrons and Professionals and The Living Curiously Method (launching in 2015) and founder of Oomau Media. She looks forward to expanding membership in the Tribe of the Curious.

 

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