Just like cannabis, glass pipes are not just for smoking anymore. This functional sculpture genre, once a vibrant but somewhat arcane subculture, has gone high-end, signature and artisanal. Far from $5 head shop or parking-lot blanket fare, these days the glass pipe world's best-known practitioners rival blue-chip art stars in both acclaim and prices.
There's no doubt the wild proliferation and growing popularity of hand-blown glass pipes and accoutrements is related to the current trend toward mainstream acceptance of cannabis use. Despite a fraught period of illegality in the late '90s (remember having to ask for a tobacco pipe or risk arrest?), the art of blown-glass pipe making has at least a 40-year history of innovative and evolution in genre-bending techniques and creativity.
And this innovation extends beyond elaborate studio strategies for handling the materials and pushing the limits of weight, size, structure and detail in the high-pressure setting of molten glass and white heat. It also creates space for individual creativity and self-expression, so that the work expresses aesthetics as diverse and eclectic as any other art form.
Business is booming, thanks to the mainstreaming of cannabis culture specifically, in tandem with the rise of maker culture, a zeitgeisty fetish for artisanal methods and the value of craftsmanship, and of course the role of Instagram and social media in giving marketplace access to indie artists.
Just as the spate of gorgeously produced coffee table books about graffiti and tattoo helped legitimize those once-outlaw art forms, This Is a Pipe: The Evolution of the Glass Pipe and Its Artists presents the stellar works and biographies of the world's greatest living pipe makers. With interviews accompanying an array of luscious hero-shot photographs, the book not only represents a proper historical record and makes a solid case for the work's artistic value but is itself as much of a collector's item as the pipes. Its 250 pages of interviews and personal narratives are contextualized within historical events, including the collateral damage the community sustained during the so-called War on Drugs.
The book's co-publisher, Nicholas Fahey, notes that the glass-pipe world is a microcosm of the overall art world scripts being flipped right now. How and why to have a gallery? Who is an artist? What is art? At the same time, these high-end pipes have become, much like art itself, must-have status symbols for collectors within the cannabis industry. “These pipes are to cannabis what Teslas are to tech,” Fahey says. “And as I know from the art gallery world, a collector is a collector. Once they find something to covet, they commit to it.”
And much like the ordinary art world, there is a sense of ritual and communion that feeds into the collecting experience. There is an aura of skill and vision, a functionality that is all about shared experiences, and a showing-off pride of ownership that comes with acquiring — and, yes, actually using — these pieces as they were intended. They are special creations of humanity, the products of a truly American art form with aspects of craft, social justice, economic policy, identity politics, counterculture, community and history. “People in this world [of collecting] are so much more sophisticated than they get credit for,” Fahey says. “We want to change that, and I'm excited to see where it goes from here.”
The book's production value is no surprise considering the involvement of Fahey, scion of legendary photography gallery Fahey/Klein, and himself an experienced hand at independent art-book publishing. In fact, this book is but the first from Fahey and his partner, Colorado concentrate pioneer Brad Melshenker of 710 Labs, on their new imprint This Is a Pipe Publishing. Based in L.A., it's the first publishing house dedicated exclusively to the art and culture of cannabis. “Our projects focus,” Fahey says, “on highlighting legacy stories with historical significance in the cannabis community,” and the plan is to eventually grow its output into an enduring cultural archive, publishing books as well as limited-edition fine art prints and other cultural-hub content.
A longtime advocate for a more elevated understanding of cannabis culture's contributions to, among other things, contemporary art, Fahey was among the first to get wind of an unusual trend. A few years ago, he started hearing about all these Venetian glassblowers, some of whose traditions date back to the 13th century, making the trip to the Pacific Northwest to learn about what these pipe blowers were up to. “I knew something exciting was happening,” he says. “And I knew it needed to be documented.” More than two years after launching the idea, the book is finally a reality.
Funnily enough, a lot of the genre's vocabulary echoes those centuries-old legacies. Millefiori, for example, is a combination of the Italian words mille (thousand) and fiori (flowers) and is just what it sounds like. Other terms, such as “cold work” and “disk flips,” are less poetic and sound more like X-Games moves, but smoke-fuming with its echoes of sfumato, as well as latticino and dichro, have more old-world flair that the visiting Venetians must have found charming.
And as to that whole Pacific Northwest thing? It turns out that the Seattle-Portland-Corvallis continuum is incredibly fertile territory for this industry. The region is home to superstars like Banjo, with his Corvallis, Oregon, roots and his output of cyborg household gods, symbolism-laden sculptures with an almost classical yet pop-infused precision. From Eugene and Bend, Oregon, comes Darby, with more than 20 years experience, famous for early work like his glass rayguns and caged floral spectaculars. Bob Snodgrass was Darby's personal inspiration, as he was to so many others, for the last 40 years. Snodgrass, the first artist featured in the book, is the widely beloved godfather of modern glass pipe-blowing, and the O.G. Oregonian who more than anyone else is the reason for the core locale of the scene.
MNP (Max Polin) has an inspirational story familiar to any young artist. One day about 20 years ago he saw something that blew his mind — his first truly impressive pipe. OK, it was at a Grateful Dead show but still, it captured his imagination and became his passion; he dedicated himself to its study with power, ambition, drive and a flair for the dramatic. You can definitely see the influence of his start as a tagger and street artist in his hyper-stylized font-based graphics and colorific pattern and gesture. He works in Seattle (where you'll also find the studio of glass-blowing god Dale Chihuly).
SNIC (Snic Barnes) also was inspired at a young age. He was at a progressive, arts-friendly high school in Philadelphia and basically built their glass shop while he was figuring out the art form. He pursued this education in college, where he picked up the technique of metallic electroplating, which would eventually become a major element of his signature style. Along the way he met a few practitioners who taught him the process, such as Nate Dizzle; then he made it his own. He achieves truly impressive sculptural detail, with delicacy and a cheeky surrealism.
Fahey points out that the predominant regionalism of the movement also resulted from a culture of crewlike brotherhoods, centered around workshops with an old-school apprenticeship/teaching-based ethos that evokes both Renaissance ateliers and the early days of street art. “In the '90s,” Fahey says, “you'd have all these artists out there on their own, in a quasi-legal situation. They began to develop their own signature styles as a way to claim artist status and make the risk worth it financially for themselves, with higher-end products. But then they had to jealously guard their trade secrets.” This competitive community, however, evolved into these crews, where once you were part of it, it was “all about sharing, support and love,” Fahey says.
Pre-roll — er, pre-order — your copy now, and follow @thisisapipebooks on Instagram for details on an L.A. book-signing later this summer.