High Art

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

"The only thing that most people know about glass pipes is that it's drug paraphernalia. That's the reputation on the street," says Gilbert. "But when I only have three sentences to explain to a stranger what I do, I usually try to describe them as ornate and artistic pieces, and I'll usually bring the price tag out. 'My friend sold one last week for $10,000.' That's almost the price of a car, so then their imagination starts to visualize something amazing."

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The first piece of art Dustin Abrams ever bought was a conch shell pipe by Christina Cody. When laid flat on a table, the spiny, glass creation looked like a piece of oceanic flotsam, not out of place among sand dollars and pieces of coral on a vacation-rental coffee table. But when the Los Alamitos native took the piece back to his friends at San Diego State University and showed them its underside, everyone flipped out that this apparent paperweight was as functional as it was beautiful.

Not your typical pipe dream
Dustin Ames
Not your typical pipe dream
A display case at High Priority Glass
Dustin Ames
A display case at High Priority Glass

"No one there had ever seen anything like that before," Abrams says. "From that one, my collection has grown extensively. I can't stop."

Abrams is one of four brothers who own and operate High Priority Glass and GooseFire Gallery in Long Beach, a dual-purpose storefront. The concept is simple—have a high-end head shop attached to a functional glass-art gallery—and the execution divine.

From the street, the gallery is all that is visible; red double doors lead curiosity-seekers into a brick-walled foyer, then into a white-walled space filled with cases upon cases of contemporary artistic pipemaking. Monthly shows ensure the cases consistently rotate works by large industry names, but the house collection features one-of-a-kind vintage and recent pieces, from Kurt B's famous honey-bear bong to glass Munnys from Philly glassblower Coyle.

About 10 steps into GooseFire, High Priority Glass becomes visible. Glass counters and white-lit cabinets line the inner space's back walls. Inside are pieces of meticulous contemporary glasswork of every style and genre, from nearly every artist and brand in the game.

From sherlocks to steamrollers to hundreds of direct-injection bubblers, High Priority stocks pricey glass pieces and accessories for even the most discerning smoker. If you ever thought pipes were only sold at seedy cigarette or porn dealers that just so happen to stock some crappy Chinese glass, this is most definitely not that place.

"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," Abrams says. "If you've never seen it before, you're going to be scared for sure. If you're not involved in this, you might even be hesitant to walk into a place like this. But then you see the type of work that's in just the first few cases, and you quickly see the possibilities."

Abrams' older brother, Matt, started High Priority Glass at 2765 Broadway in 2010 with the idea of stocking all American-made products from brands such as Illadelph and Zob. After discovering the work of famous glass artists, however, the store began carrying more art-driven, headier pieces, and soon enough, a gallery was an inevitable addition. "It was kind of forced," Dustin says. "The need overweighed everything else."

GooseFire Gallery opened across the street from High Priority just six months later, and Dustin began coordinating monthly art shows featuring names such as Clinton Roman, Jason Lee and Coyle, who were tasked with filling up an entire gallery and displaying who they are, as any major artist would at a mainstream gallery. For some artists, it was their first solo gallery exhibition, earning GooseFire national recognition. And for collectors, these shows are a rare opportunity to see and purchase the glasswork in person—even if it means traveling across state lines to get there. Shows easily draw 500 to 1,000 people per opening.

Aside from Brooklyn's Easy Street Gallery, which closed to move operations online in 2011, GooseFire is the only physical gallery in the country that has dedicated itself to showcasing and elevating glass-pipe art. Its location in Long Beach, with its proximity to Orange County's glassblowing community, is pure serendipity, but its importance to the greater glass-art culture is immense.

"The thing with glass pipes is we put a lot of work into it, and the reason we call our work 'art' is not to get into some discussion about what art is or 'art vs. craft'—we're just looking for respect," says Golbert. "So to have a gallery treat your work like it was any other gallery show, it's definitely inspiring to the artist. When you give an artist an opportunity like a show, it really plays a big role in the psyche of things. . . . I would definitely say that a place like GooseFire anchors a region. They're the only ones doing what they're doing."

While stores such as Illusionz in Colorado and Big Mike's in Texas stock similar artists and are notable high-end head shops in their own right, High Priority and GooseFire have proven themselves to be a formidable double force, especially on the educational front. In a city where the constructed Arts Districts and mildly attended monthly art walks are on the other side of town, bustling GooseFire shows tend to intrigue locals. And ever since High Priority ditched its original retail unit across the street to be attached physically to GooseFire, the Abramses have been utilizing this unusual setup to spread the word about the growing art form.

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