High Art

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

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“People who come in off the street thinking we’re just a gallery have a hard time with it. They walk through Goosefire and see we’re a pipe shop, and they do a double-take, which is expected.”

If Whobery is the calm, meticulous one of the local glassblower bunch, then White is the Bret Michaels of pipers. Bearded like Brent Hinds from Mastodon and with a friendliness that's as aggressive as it is passionate, White has been through the past 15 years of the culture's uncertainty and lived to reap the small-business benefits of it.

"I was really driven to work not for someone else," White says of why he first started creating pipes in the late '90s. "I enjoyed smoking weed, and it was all about the lifestyle."

Back then, there were already legions of guys creating smokeable basics out of borosilicate glass—a type of hard (not soda-lime) glass originally designed for laboratory equipment. Used to make beakers and test tubes, boro was easily adopted by pipers for its ability to both withstand higher temperatures and be blown to within millimeters of precision, allowing creative glassworkers to experiment with new designs and shapes.

But the art and culture of glass pipes was still young when White began, going back only a decade or so to the Eugene, Oregon-parked trailer of a hippie named Bob Snodgrass, revered as the godfather of artistic hard glass.

Blowing glass pipes for his friends and fellow potheads in the '80s, Snodgrass was the first to discover the technique of fuming, inadvertently creating the "color-changing" pipe, now a staple for any respectable head shop. With growing demand for these new smoking apparatuses, Snodgrass also became the first glassblower to take his products on the road, hawking "Snoddies" at Grateful Dead concerts and building the pipe scene's first guerrilla sales network.

When not touring with the Dead, Snodgrass was in Eugene, teaching apprentices the gospel of smokeable glasswork. Other glassblowers began building upon Snodgrass' discoveries, working with even more textures and color patterns, designing intricate, so-called "heady" smoking devices that looked less and less like the standard handpipe and inventing new ways of getting smoke to lungs, such as the bubbler and the multichambered bong.

Soon, communities of boro blowers were popping up all over the country, each with its own talent pool, personality and techniques. Names such as Darby Holm, Clinton Roman and Dellene Peralta began to emerge, though reaching a wider market to sell to remained elusive.

"Before the Internet, I'd have to go to a Phish concert or a parking lot of a festival," says Aaron "Marble Slinger" Golbert, an East Coast glass-pipe artist and director of Degenerate Art, the 2012 seminal documentary on the community. "I would sit on streets with them or take gun cases full of pipes to bars. Head shops weren't investing the kind of money we wanted. It was a different world—more wild West. We had no idea how many others were doing this."

At the turn of the millennium, the Internet became the new parking lot, and pipers turned to its limitless shelf space and exponential outreach abilities to showcase and sell their increasingly artistic goods. The success of individual glassblowers, however, gave way to companies that turned out production-grade pipes for a market that seemed to have no boundaries, and by the early 2000s, the billion-dollar-a-year drug-paraphernalia industry had landed itself on the Drug Enforcement Agency's radar.

Early on the morning of Feb. 24, 2003, federal agents knocked on front doors around the country, dragging more than 55 glass-pipe manufacturers and website owners out of their beds and into jail. 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. Major companies were immediately dissolved including Jerome Baker Glass, 101 North Glass and Chong Glass Works/Nice Dreams, the company started by Tommy Chong's son, which infamously landed the Up In Smoke star in jail for nine months.

It also scared the shit out of glass artists who had just begun to find a way to showcase their wares to a larger audience.

Although pushed back underground and away from the sales engine of the Internet, pipe-making didn't disappear as an art form as much as it became reborn as an even more community-oriented craft. Artists took on hip-hop-style nicknames as they experimented further. In an attempt to avoid meddling in online sales, many artists uploaded photos of their work to web galleries, including www.glasspipes.org, where fans and other glassblowers could network and give feedback to one another.

"That's where we became aware of the rest of us in the country. It was glasspipes.org that was really unifying," says White, who picked up the moniker DWreck around this time. "This is pre-Myspace, pre-Facebook."

Today, as public support leans more and more in favor of marijuana legalization and President Barack Obama said last year the federal government has "bigger fish to fry" than marijuana users, Operation Pipe Dream's effects live on through the negative public perceptions of smokeable glass art. Even though there is a large and growing community of glass pipe collectors who now pay top-dollar for one-offs from major industry names, the culture continues to live just under the surface of mainstream acceptance, trapped by legal issues of functionality and archaic ideas of what a pipe can be.

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2 comments
na12345
na12345

The cover piece is a collaboration made by glass artists Ben Burton (Burtoni) and Mike Nelson (BMF/NELSON GLASS).

 
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