New art movements are often received with skepticism. The burden of proof lies with the pioneers, usually the people who both believe fundamentally in its merit and have the skill and talent to make it undeniably good. But what if the works themselves, by legal definition, are contraband? The chance for evolution and acceptance is compromised to say the least.
This Is A Pipe, published by Nicholas Fahey and Brad Melshenker with profiles written by Barry Bard, tells the story of borosilicate glass pipe artistry, a movement profiled through the work of 50 exceptional glassblowers.
This new American glass art diverged from the blown glass sculpture of Dale Chihuly, who took glass to another level in the mid-1960s. Borosilicate glass-blown cannabis pipes found their inception with Bob Snodgrass in the ephemeral markets of the Grateful Dead tour lots, and thereby rode shotgun through the mayhem of the War on Drugs at its height in the '80s and '90s, and there’s no official count of how many times a resinated pipe served as probable cause for a full vehicle search. But the day of reckoning for glass came in 2003 with Operation Pipe Dreams, a massive federal raid of hundreds of businesses making and selling glass.
It appeared there would be no greater glory days for the American glass pipe scene until, somewhat unexpectedly, states started legalizing cannabis. As a result, the people who used to be criminals were growing medical cannabis with state-issued licenses, selling it and making actual legal money. These people appreciate a good pipe, and with a legitimate cannabis market emerging, glassblowers fired up their torches. Suddenly, shit just went crazy.
Spurred also by the new market for cannabis concentrates, glassblowers began pouring work into individual pieces that sold for upwards of a hundred bands. They competed, collaborated, shared techniques and generated some of the most intricate and beautiful glass art to date. The market has grown over the past decade, and what was once outlaw has transformed into a global scene of fine artists whose work is rapidly growing more sophisticated. PRØHBTD spoke with Fahey to learn more.
Your background is in the fine art gallery world, correct?
Correct. It's a family business, a photography-specific gallery [Fahey Klein]. That's important because 50 years ago, the photography market was similar to what was happening in the glass industry, where it was a group of ravenous collectors who were not really within the mainstream of art collecting. They really created a market of their own, and eventually the traditional fine art market of museums and galleries and auction houses couldn't really ignore what was happening in the world.
It's interesting that you're comparing the world of glass art to the world of photography because at one point, glass art, like photography, was a brand new craft, and it was a matter of convincing people that, aesthetically, this thing is cool and has artistic value.
It is culturally relevant. Yes.
But you also have to fight against the stigmas of this being illegal art. Is that something you've experienced?
Yes. I was actually working at head shops back in 2000, 2002 when I was in college, and that was right around [Operation] Pipe Dreams. It was that interesting time where, for me, I was coming from this fine art family, and I was looking at [glassblowing] back then as fine art. It really was an interesting time and thing to see, this kind of rebellion culture. But that's something that's intrinsically in art and that people have used for art for so long. It is this opportunity to rebel, and it is this opportunity to create objects for their community, so to speak.
Similar to how we're comparing glass to photography, I would say right in between that is street art. Twenty years ago, guys like Banksy or Shepard Fairey or RETNA basically didn't have the kind of machines that they have today. It is that communal renegade art from saying the things that need to be said in a way that you kind of have to say—and it's illegal.
It is that way of communicating in the world that brings that world to life. It shows that these people really aren't horrible criminals—they just don't agree with the rules that are applied today. Great. I don't agree with the rules of society and media, so I get a felony, and now I actually don't have a say in how to change anything.
Right, you're no longer a part of it. It's fucked up.
Yes, which is ludicrous. But art has always been involved in that. You couch that within the functional aspect of this art. In all the time you go to museum, you go to a gallery, and you and I could sit there and look at a picture on the wall, but how often do we share an experience of actually using that picture functionally? But if we are sitting around and having a sesh together, we're participating in a ceremony, and this art is functional, and it's creating this experience for us. Whereas I think that's also something incredibly powerful and interesting.
I remember interviewing a glass collector in Philly several years ago, and he said, "How many guys that own a [Claude] Monet have kissed it? Because I've kissed my pipe plenty of times."
Yes, exactly. That was so wild for me to get because I had a creative agency for cannabis, a couple of years ago, and I was meeting all of these mega growers and wax guys. It blew my mind how often I'd go to these meetings or go to parties, and they'll be like, "Oh yeah, this is my $100,000 bong."
I'll be like, "We're using it?" It took a couple of times to really realize that they want to use it.
Oh, they insist on it.
They want to share it with you. I appreciate that because so many other people would be like, "Don't touch that, don't look at that." But these guys are like, "No, I want to share this experience with you," which I think is incredibly admirable. Going back to what you were saying earlier, something for me in doing that creative agency for cannabis, my joke… I went to school up in Sonoma, and half the kids I went to school with became wine makers and the other half became weed growers.
That's that area.
I never saw a difference in those cultures. For me, with doing this with a pipe, and I do a dinner series where we treat hash like wine, where we do a flight of hash that goes along with food. I've always been interested in raising the sophistication of cannabis because, for me, it is an incredibly sophisticated thing, just like wine or any kind of fine alcohol.
You mentioned Operation Pipe Dreams earlier. That's a period when this became so completely illegal that artists couldn't justify making a pipe that sells for more than $100 because that's the most they're going to get for it in the slapdash world of pipe making and street prices.
Yes, exactly. It's horticulture itself.
Then you have this transition where these guys go from being criminals, essentially treated like drug dealers, to being fine art gallery artists. In that transition, you see innovation in the work. You see these insane pieces, which is how we get to these $100,000 price points. How did that transition happen? It feels like something completely unique in the history of art.
It was the drive, driving people underground. Before [Operation] Pipe Dreams, you could spend three months blowing 300 kinds of spoons and spend the whole summer selling those on tour and not having to worry about it. But as soon as you have to worry about it—how am I going to make that money for selling 300 spoons, but I can't have the distribution that I used to have?
It drove these guys underground, drove that innovation and drove that culture for them to say, "Hey, well, I'm only going to make three things and sell them for this much, but I'm going to hunt down those collectors and put that together." I think a large part of that has come from the wax culture [dab rigs] and what started happening with concentrates because that's the other thing that's so interesting within these pieces. You see there was an addition from flower pipes to these wax rigs, and I think part of that was the economics of it. A lot of these wax makers were doing really, really well, and there was an economics around that when there was competition, and you could create another market for these pieces. These guys that were making 300 pieces, they are making three, so there's that rareness after these guys had developed their market.
The craft has also been facilitated by technological changes over the last few years. There was more simplicity in the early days, but industrial changes have facilitated some of the glass we see today, like the availability and selection of colored glass.
There were so many of these technological advances since that happened that opened up new colors. Many of these elements could now get brought in and really drive the market. These huge glass companies wouldn't have been able to do a new color, [like] crazy pink, if they didn't know they were going to be able to sell it. That's what I found was so interesting, that technological advancement was early on, but then once the industry got rolling, it really was the culture driving these new colors. The other interesting thing is that these guys were so open to sharing techniques and sharing these new advancements they were doing. That's one of the things that drove the innovation to the point where you now have Venetian glass blowers coming to the Pacific Northwest to learn what DMT-smoking hippies have figured out.
The technological ubiquity furthers the craft and gives the artist more tools to work with, more colors to paint with. But I've heard some complaints about the equipment and the techniques being ubiquitous now. You can order them online. You can learn how to blow glass on YouTube. Is this going to give rise to the next great artist, or is this going to dilute the craft by saying, "Well, this is now something everyone can do"?
Totally. It's a different time. Back when they were starting, it was kind of this brotherhood, where you had to know the people. You were given that kind of knowledge passed on. It's just a different time. To be honest, there's a really similar argument within photography, right? Instagram. I hear photographers complaining about Instagram the same way that the glass blowers are complaining about YouTube.
In my opinion, the cream always rises to the surface. A good glass blower, a good artist, is always going to be a good artist. The other people in that pool... I think it's going to be nothing but raising them up. It's opening the market. It's opening the communication, and now they've seen all this different glasswork. Some of it's going to be good, some of it's going to be great.
Having all that is going to make the great stuff that much greater, in my opinion. Any way that we can lower that barrier for entry is just going to increase the exposure of the art form and introduce it to all different types of people.
As glass becomes more ubiquitous—as types of rigs, features on rigs, recyclers, percs and other innovations get more widespread, and more people know—we also are going to have more knockoffs, right? Is imitation the highest form of flattery? It's weirdly a double-edged sword. How do you feel about that as the person presenting this in a gallery setting?
I think having knockoffs elevates what we're doing. It shows that handmade, that intention. I think that's the thing to get across for this. So much of art for me comes in intention. If there's an artist working on a collaboration, or working on a solo, and they know who it's coming for, that is special. That's the tension that the piece made for you. They're making your ceremonial object.
The guy who's going to buy the $25,000 rig is not the same guy who's buying the $250 rig. But the guy who's buying the $250 rig is definitely part of the culture in an interesting way. They're participating, and they're really the bottom of the pyramid that's holding up that $25,000 rig. For so many reasons, they're buying the wax that the guy's selling. They're participating in that culture, so you can't exclude those people. You can't be like, "No, you can't have that. It's not original." It's like, "Whoa, dude, chill out, come on. I thought we were all friends."
Like Marble Slinger says in the foreword, we’re all in this for the love of cannabis.
Yeah, exactly. That's why we're all here. It's like we all, and especially if you have some age, you've actively made the decision to be doing shit illegally for a really long time for no other reason than you thought, I don't agree with those rules that are applied right now, and I'm going to participate in this culture. We all have that in common. That's a really interesting thing to think about… that we're all these noble outlaws, if you will.