High Art

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

"We thought it'd be more intriguing to say it's functional," says Dustin. "Then people have to ask, 'What's it used for?' Well . . . what would you like to use it for?"

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The line stretched down Broadway, through the Long Beach darkness for a full city block, ending in front of a car full of young guys drinking cans of Coke with all the doors open. The car's license plate was from Washington.

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

"Oh, my god, that's DWreck!" one of the guys squealed to his buddies as White walked toward Temple Avenue. He stopped to say hi to another bearded man. "And there's Joe Peters!" Everyone scrambled for a look.

More than 1,500 people from around the world assembled at GooseFire Gallery that September night for Peters' first solo gallery show, which featured 10 pedestaled cases filled with multi-eyed aliens, ornate oceanic scenes and dozens of creations done in the artist's latest honey-inflected style.

The most breathtaking pieces barely looked functional, mantle-worthy sculptures covered with mini glass bees and delicate honeycombs, oozing with amber boro resembling sap from a tree. By the end of the night, most of the show—including multiple $1,800 pendants, $250 dabbers and $3,000 concentrate vapor rigs—was sold out.

Peters' "Side Show" is already, by far, the most attended exhibition GooseFire has seen in the two and a half years it has been open, and it may well have been the best-attended opening at a private gallery in Long Beach history.

The turnout was more than just a testament to the current popularity of artistic glass pipes in general—it was also an indication of the scene's next level, what happens when a subculture encourages the more traditional artists not just to pay attention, but also to join in.

Peters isn't a pipe-maker by trade—he's a mainstream glass artist, hurt by the sagging economy, who for the past few years has been using his skills to make a living in the high-end pipe world. As with former Glass Art Society president Robert Mickelsen, who now makes pricey pipes under the name RAM, Peters is a slice of studio art in a sea of self-taught glassblowers.

"Joe Peters is a milestone," says White. "When I got into this, even then, I was like, 'Where are the real glassblowers, and why aren't they doing this?' Of course, it was because it's so taboo, but Joe Peters all these years later is doing what I thought the original glassblowers could be doing the whole time. He brought the traditional glassblowing aesthetic and made it functional."

The pieces Peters made for his GooseFire show were so extremely technical and so far into another echelon from glass pipes being made today that White compared it to when rock & roll was guys playing Rickenbockers in suits and ties, then—BAM!—Led Zeppelin.

This kind of integration of some members of the mainstream glass-art community has convinced many pipers their work will soon be getting larger recognition from the art world—specifically, the country's two major glass museums. "I see the pipes as part of a culture, rather than as art, per se. . . . Most pipe-makers do not have an art background; they are trained in glassmaking—and specifically in flameworking—but not studio art," says Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at the Corning Museum of Glass in New York. "However, I think the pipes relate to a larger culture of 'fantasy,' and in this milieu, I think the pipe-makers would thrive."

Though Oldknow says pipes are something her museum should collect and she is open to discussing potential donations, two curators from the Museum of Glass in Tacoma are the only ones with major institutional ties who have actually made the jump to putting together an exhibit. Last month, the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle opened "Ceci N'Est Pas Une Pipe," the first large-scale show curated by people outside of the glass-pipe culture. The group show focused on "flameworked borosilicate glass associated with the emergence of cannabis legalization," including pipes, bubblers, tubes, vaporizers, jars, marbles, scientific glass, and other functional and non-functional fine art inspired by the movement.

Still, many ask, if you want acceptance from the mainstream art world, why make it a pipe? Without a bowl in it, many of the sculptural pieces from Whobery, Hoppenfeld, Gilbert, White and more would easily stand up against other contemporary glass.

"I think it's a thing that brings all of us together—the pipe," says Hoppenfeld. "The pipe connects it to the subculture that it came from. It's the linking force for everything that we're about. We're bringing it just as hard as whatever you would consider art. We might have to hide the bowl and cover it up for now, but we're getting it in there—you'll see."

"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 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."

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