In my first blog about the acquisition of David Colton’s 2019 Rakow Commission piece “Corning: Untitled“, I touched on some of the genesis story of the glass pipe movement that has been torching across the United States and around the world for about 30 years. But there is a lot more to the story of this passionate community of borosilicate flameworkers, and it’s well worth documenting their development and innovation. That’s why, as the lead flameworker for The Corning Museum of Glass, I go out of my way to follow, participate with, and advocate for this movement.
The glass pipe community has helped to move flameworking forward at a greatly accelerated pace recently, and the fine art glass scene is finally paying proper attention. During the movement’s inception, there were some rebellious spirits around Eugene, OR, in the early 1990s who started the exploration with minimal formal training. Now, there are thousands of borosilicate flameworkers melting happily with their torches in their garages, basements, sheds, and even factory-style group studios all around the world. With this growth in craftspeople, we have also seen enormous growth in ancillary markets. Dozens of glass studios now feature pipe-making classes. Suppliers of colored borosilicate glasses have grown their palettes exponentially over the past 20 years to serve this market. A number of tool producers specific to flameworking have grown to serve the equipment needs of the artists.
The pipe artists themselves continue to raise the bar of what can be done on a torch in complexity, design, function, and aesthetic. They apply these new colored glasses and tools in innovative new ways that require a deep understanding of the material. In order to stay in touch with where flameworking is going these days, I have tried to attend pipe-related events each year for the past several years. I learn a lot technically at these events. They help me to identify good candidates from the community to come to teach at The Studio of The Corning Museum of Glass and demonstrate as Guest Artists for our visitors and special programs.
I continue to be impressed by more than just the glass at these events. The spirit of community amongst this facet of crafters is palpable at each event. I would like to highlight a few specific events I attended in the past few years to illustrate this spirit. I hope to attend more events in the future as there are many great ones these days.
The undeniable center for the origins of the contemporary pipe community is in Eugene, OR. Hundreds of flameworking careers have benefitted from the artists who have shared their knowledge and experience there. To celebrate this great community, local flameworkers started an event known as The Degenerate Flame Off. The DFO began as a timed competition. A group of notable artists in the community were invited to work on designs over the course of several hours, and the pieces were judged by field experts and the audience in attendance. The event evolved to a point where some up-and-coming artists were being invited to compete. Winning the event was a huge opportunity to launch a newer artist’s brand and career.
In June 2019, the DFO held its ninth event. The main competition was held in Portland, OR, as a collaborative event in which some of the most respected artists in the field worked in pairs to create incredible new works. I was amazed by the level of work that was created at this event. Another thing that became obvious throughout the event was that the participants were far less interested in competing against one another as they were to simply push the envelope of what they could create. Artists were more than willing to share ideas and techniques with each other and the event attendees who numbered more than 2600. Many attendees also brought their own works to show off and potentially sell. The sense of celebration for where this movement had gotten to and the sense of support amongst the community members was overwhelming.
In July 2019, I attended an event in Detroit called The Michigan Glass Project. This event also highlighted the sense of positivity and collaboration within the pipe community and emphasized the willingness of this movement to help support arts in their home communities. More than 50 artists come together from across the country for a three-day weekend event at an old industrial building in which flameworking collaboration is the centerpiece. However, this festival-like atmosphere also includes some furnace glassblowing, painting, and live music. The artists collaborate on new works throughout the weekend, and all the work is sold through a silent auction and live auction at the event as well as auctions via social media after the event. All the proceeds are donated to another not-for-profit organization, Art Road Detroit. They then pour the money into developing art programs in Detroit public schools. This year, The Project raised 130k for Art Road to share with hundreds of fortunate students across the city.
In January 2020, I attended my first wholesale trade show for the glass pipe industry. Such trade shows have existed for more than 20 years in different forms. Many folks in the industry suggested I attend the Glass Vegas show as it would allow me the opportunity to see the greatest variety of the most highly-respected artists in the field. I was invited to be a judge of a competition held at the event known as The World Series of Glass, and I set up a small pop up exhibit about the history of flameworking on behalf of The Corning Museum of Glass. Again, I was amazed at the quality of work on display as well as the sense of community amongst the artists themselves and with their customers and collectors. Despite the fact that they were all theoretically competing for the same customers, it seemed as though everyone was cheering for each other to do well. Many artists made tens of thousands of dollars with their inventory. Some artists were afforded the opportunity to demonstrate their techniques live in front of audiences of collectors and fellow artists.
At the moment, it seems as though this facet of the glass world is destined to continue growing and expanding into new realms. For many years already, we have seen pipe-makers and their collectors expanding their interests into the creation and collection of pendants, murrine, marbles, and drinkware. Collectors who had been more prone to collecting fine art are now noticing and collecting more of this work as well. It seems the whole glass world can gain strength as this impassioned community that was once not so well noticed continues to gain its proper due and as the pipe-makers and their collectors become more engaged with the fine art world. It will be exciting to see where all this energy leads us.