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
Adam Whobery, a.k.a. Hoobs
Sarah Bennett
Adam Whobery, a.k.a. Hoobs
Not your average art opening
Sarah Bennett
Not your average art opening
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

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."

*    *    *

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.

"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."

*    *    *

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.

"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.

"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?"

*    *    *

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.

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

 
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