The Corning Museum of Glass has just acquired its first contemporary glass cannabis pipe. This is a big moment for many folks in the glass world, especially for us flameworkers. The piece, “Untitled, Corning” was created by David Colton for our New Glass Now exhibition. From my perspective as the lead flameworker at the Museum, this is a wonderful addition to our collections for many reasons. It is a beautiful sculptural object. It was made by a highly respected member of the pipemaking community. And the piece perfectly embodies many of the talking points I like to share on this unique facet of the glass scene.
While we see evidence of glassmakers creating pipes for well over 100 years, a unique movement has developed within the flameworking world over the past 30 years. In the early 1980s, flameworking artist Bob Snodgrass unsuspectingly began what would become a uniquely American addition to the world of glass art. Combining his interests in glassmaking and cannabis, Snodgrass began selling his color-changing glass pipes to friends and fellow cannabis enthusiasts. Bob was a big fan of the Grateful Dead and he followed their concert tours around the country with many other Deadheads (fans). Deadheads have been a very free-spirited, entrepreneurial bunch and created their own sort of craft and food markets at concerts. This was a great environment for Snodgrass to sell his work. It also proved to be an effective way to get these new products spread across the United States. In the late ’80s, he began to teach his craft to other dedicated students in and around Eugene, OR.
Since that time, thousands of new glassmakers have been inspired to pursue the craft of flameworking pipes for cannabis use. David Colton is one of those many glassmakers who was motivated by these modest beginnings of the pipe movement, and this energy continues to play an inspirational role in his work.
Flameworking is a very accessible process for working glass. One can set up a studio with minimal investment, and if they can make some saleable product an entrepreneurially-minded person can have their own business up and running pretty quickly. This freedom to be one’s own boss in a market that was taboo proved quite attractive to many folks with such spirit, and it continues to attract many like-minded folks to the craft today. This sort of accessibility to an exciting craft and the freedom to be his own boss were also inspirations for Colton to head down this path.
Of course, cannabis was illegal across the United States when this glass pipe movement began, so these pipe crafters and artists had to keep quiet about their work. In many cases, artists would assume pseudonyms to protect their identity from the authorities who might otherwise shut down their studios or worse. Much the same as other underground art forms like graffiti, pipe artists could not afford to be too overt about their work, but nonetheless, those who appreciated the work would still find a way to acquire it at paraphernalia shops, music festivals, or through personal connections. It seems quite appropriate that Colton’s work references graffiti as an influence.
Eventually, this market would make its way onto the internet. It became possible for glassmakers to sell their work to new regions and some distributors started to move work on a larger scale. The internet was also a way for pipemakers to chart each others’ work and progress. The website glasspipes.org popped up in 2003 (no longer available) and became a central point for many flameworkers to post their work and develop a reputation in the field.
Also, in 2003, the pipemaking world suffered a severe setback when the US Justice Department launched Operation Pipe Dream. Largely because of internet sales, pipes were being sold across state lines which violated certain states’ laws as well as federal law. Several pipe artists and distributors were arrested and their shops were shut down. However, because of the resilient and rebellious spirit of the makers, the pipe movement would continue and soon come to thrive beyond what anyone could have expected.
Because of these auspicious beginnings, it has taken a number of years for the larger glass and art communities to fully embrace pipe art. However, as the artists and their work continue to mature and as cannabis prohibition continues to be dismantled the world is waking up to what Susie J. Silbert, the Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary glass, calls “one of the most important areas of glass production in the 21st Century.” The market is worth tens of millions of dollars per year, and some of these pieces have sold for over $100,000.
In addition to the unique glass work they have created, the pipemaking world has developed a powerful sense of community and an intriguing subculture of makers and collectors has formed over the years. There are now thousands, if not tens of thousands, of flameworkers in their basements, garages, sheds, and large factory-style studios pursuing their dreams of making a living on their own terms.
This once-taboo craft has now matured to the point that it has pushed its way to legitimacy in the fine art world. A few museums and galleries have now featured exhibits containing or even solely dedicated to glass pipes. Here at The Corning Museum of Glass, we are thrilled to add a new piece from this growing genre to our permanent collections in the form of David Colton’s work – the first of its kind accessioned by an art Museum.
Here I’ve covered the origin story of the pipe community. In my next blog post, I’ll speak more to the current state of this innovative movement.