High Art

Meet the masters of the functional glassblowing trade—by which we mean bongs

High Art
Dustin Ames

Adam Whobery is doing what he has done for the better part of a decade: concentrating deeply while staring into a flame.

Dubbed “Operation Pipe Dream,” the government’s raids sought to take down all major pipe suppliers in the country and make an example out of those who dared to sell pipes, bongs and roach clips via the Internet, a rarely enforced federal crime.

The thirtysomething craftsman, wearing a black cutoff T-shirt and a pair of custom didymium shades, is standing in an industrial roll-up he shares with other glassblowers as he quietly turns thin rods of colored borosilicate into yet another impossibly detailed, sculptural work of art, one that will most likely sell for thousands of dollars.

Unlike most of his previous pieces—which have recently included hand-held replicas of hot rods, Nike Dunks and Wolverine action figures—the delicate rodent wheel he is constructing in this Garden Grove office park will soon become part of a larger conceptual art piece titled Mind Over Matter.

Dustin Ames
On display at High Priority Glass
Sarah Bennett
On display at High Priority Glass

As with all of Whobery's work, however, it will also be functional—you will be able to smoke out of it.

"Even if I make a big artistic piece, I'll still hide a pipe in it," says Whobery, who sells his high-end functional art under the name "Hoobs." "My goal over the next few years is to develop my voice as a sculptor. I want to make things that say something . . . but the pipe community is where it all started, so you can't deny that either."

For nearly three decades, American pipers such as Whobery have been driving innovation and doing striking technical work in the field of lamp-worked glass. But the folk-art roots and illicitness of their chosen media's functionality has kept their art largely out of the public eye, as well as earning snubs from more traditional glass artists who, as with most people outside of the scene, can't look past the fact there is a bowl inside it.

When Whobery started attaching sculptural extras to his colorful glass pipes as a South Bay twentysomething in the early aughts, most smoke shops were still buying mass-produced Chinese bongs; there wasn't much room for locally made pieces with an elevated price point.

Specialty glass stores wouldn't sell them, and, of course, museums wouldn't display them. In order to make a living, many—including Whobery—turned to a national network of so-called pipers, who thrived on online sales and word-of-mouth promotion to continue growing their craft.

But as marijuana legalization becomes a reality across the country for both medical and recreational use, these artists are beginning to emerge from their underground community, encouraged by a growing number of collectors, head shops and art galleries now seeking to promote and encourage this uniquely American vocation.

"There are people who are still blind and don't accept us just on principle," says Steve Hoppenfeld, a.k.a. "Hops," who makes his high-end glass pipes in the same industrial unit as Whobery. "But we're not just stoners making whatever. We're coming with portfolios. We're coming with documentation. We're trying to take this seriously and be seen in a serious way. One day, pipers will get the credit they deserve, and it'll be like how we can all think fondly of the bootlegging era—yeah, that's how we got NASCAR. They were the bad boys, but they're not that bad."

The workspace that Whobery and Hoppenfeld share is a communal glassblowing studio affectionately called "Cobra Kai," after the antagonistic dojo in Karate Kid. It's an open warehouse space about 50 feet long, with eight lamp-equipped stations, each littered with scrap glass, graphite tools and canisters of Boromax frit powder. Every few feet, a completed product from someone's personal collection stands above the snippets, its glass lightly tinted with use.

Kilns and lathes of various sizes are organized according to workflow throughout the room, though the setup looks less like a pottery studio and more like a collective bachelor pad, as if everyone brought their own couch into the living room on move-in day.

Thor, a wiry boxer belonging to a glassblower renting a station near the back entrance, shuffles around the studio before plopping down on an open spot on the concrete floor.

Whobery, originally from Torrance, and Hoppenfeld, who cut his teeth in the Philly glass-art scene, are two of the biggest contemporary names in the functional-glass art business. And along with East Coast-bred stalwarts such as Derek "DWreck" White, Jonathon "Pakoh" Gilbert and Nate "JAG" Purcell, all have moved to Orange County in the past few years in an unexplained immigration of notable pipers.

Together, these newly local artists have been responsible for introducing into the scene now-commonplace borosilicate creations including marbles, pendants, inline percolators and sandblasted vapor rigs. Purcell was the first in the community to have his work be recognized by the studio glass-art world—although none of the curators who chose to include his pieces in the coffee-table-worthy Penland Book of Glass realized his African-inspired scenes of baskets and figures were actually usable pipes.

"I will tell you right now that 90 percent of the industry is pretty unimaginative. Most guys are just ordinary pipers," says White, who sandblasts pentagrams and naked ladies on handmade pieces in a Fountain Valley office park. "But some of us use the tools to express ourselves. That's why I embraced the taboo. If pipe-makers are going to be viewed as the scum of the earth, then that's going to be everything I'm about. Because the pipe is a social instrument, by putting religious and sexually provocative imagery, it incites conversations from the users on those topics. I like thinking that in some subtle way, with a pipe, you are influencing society's boundaries."

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