By Elliot Alpern, Senior Arts Editor
Published April 3, 2012
Matthew Ronayne steps into his garage to begin production on his latest work. He begins like any other artist: He collects his tools, gathers his pigments and turns up the radio for some added focus. At this point, however, he deviates from where a painter might make the first stroke, or where a sculptor would make the first strike, and instead ignites a torch — one that will heat his particular canvas up to a red-hot 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ronayne is a glass blower, a member of the small community of artisans that serves as the foundation for Ann Arbor’s glass-pipe market.
Over the next half hour, he will shape a glass tube about the width of a clementine into a single glass pipe. The process has many steps: The glass must be heated until glowing, at which point it’s pulled until the desired width of the pipe stem (the body of the pipe) is achieved. One end, which will act as the “bowl,” is sealed off, heated again and blown into until a bubble forms. A cone-shaped indentation is then pressed into the bubble. After just a few more adjustments, a functional pipe is born.
The end result will become one of the hundreds, if not thousands, of glass pipes that will fill the shelves of local shops in preparation for this weekend’s Hash Bash.
“This industry ... it’s only been around for 10 to 15 years, in terms of the real artistic pieces,” said Patti King, operations manager at 42 Degrees, a shop located in downtown Ann Arbor that specializes in glass smoking devices.
“It keeps growing and growing every year ... because the artists keep getting more elaborate and better at what they do,” King added.
For Ronayne, who blows glass pipes full-time as a means to support his wife and three kids, this constant change in artistic form is especially true.
“It’s all evolution, from day one, to the piece I made six months ago, (which) leads me to that piece I’m going to make tonight or tomorrow,” Ronayne said. “You always got to challenge yourself to push it.”
The evolving techniques can be manifested in changes in features (such as bumps or ridges), designs (such as a skull or a flower within the glass itself) or the shape of the piece. This perpetual pursuit of innovative development is facilitated by Ann Arbor’s small, tight-knit group of glass artists.
“It’s a small world, the glass-blowing community,” said Paul Plant, who blows glass with fellow artisan Steve Hoffman in a studio just outside of downtown Ann Arbor.
“Most Michigan glass blowers know each other,” Plant added.
Still, at a basic level, the glass-pipe industry is just like any other. Glass blowers must work tirelessly to turn their artistry into a profit. An individual blower can make as many as 100 pipes in a week, a testament to Michigan’s high demand for glass smoking devices.
Ronayne has been crafting glass pipes for about 16 years, but he still strives to maintain his passion in the artwork, despite the pressures of glass blowing as a career.
“You get lost in glass blowing; it’s still a backyard art in a way,” Ronayne said. “You’re not going to go to school and find it; you just kind of have to get lucky and stumble on it ... and not that it gets old, but it gets tiresome. It’s all on you. But if I didn’t want to blow glass, I wouldn’t be blowing glass.”
Though the end result is a large-scale production of small pieces of artwork, the glass sculptures ultimately do fulfill a practical purpose — one that benefits from the medium of glass itself.
“(Glass) is cleaner; it’s safer; it’s not bad for you,” said King, who manages a selection of pipes that consists almost entirely of glasswork. “If you think about heating up plastic or metal, there’s tons of chemicals in it. Basically, (with) any other product other than glass or a stone product, you’re going to be able to taste it. It’s going to be unhealthy whether you realize it or not.”
Aside from glass, other popular pipe materials include acrylic, metal, wood, stone and any combination therein. But, according to Ronayne, glass is the ideal for smoking devices.
“You don’t want to inhale any of those things ... metal, especially,” Ronayne said. “(Glass is best) mainly for health, all the way. And it’s cool as hell — you’re not going to get a spectacular piece out of metal.”
And in using glass, the blowers are able to make use of a material not just for its properties as the healthiest material for smoking, but also for its ability to be a blank canvas, a medium with unlimited artistic potential.
King explained that the creative aspect of working with glass makes those who sculpt with it artists in their own right.
“I think it’s a huge form of artistry — anyone who blows glass is an artist,” King said. “Most of the artists who blow glass, if you know them personally, you can see that in them ... you can see they’re a little eccentric.
“It’s definitely, in my opinion, one of the truest forms of art there is — you have to have that ability inside your mind to be able to create something like glass.”
For some, that creative foundation can lie dormant and make itself known later in life.
“I never thought that I was going to be an artist growing up,” Hoffman said. “But this worked out the best for me. I was a junior at (the University) studying philosophy and ethics, and I started blowing glass. And I realized that I can make a living doing this and read all of the philosophy I want.”
However, though glass blowing may appear to be an easy, fun way to earn a living, it boasts a steep learning curve like any other form of specialized sculpting.
“I watched for, like, three months before I would even touch it, because I was learning,” Ronayne said. “They make it look really easy, but it’s not as easy as it’s made to look. ... The fire’s raging, and if you let the fire take you and you want to be aggressive with it, you’re done.”
But despite its difficulty and the patience required to obtain the right set of skills, blowing glass pipes is a career unlike any other. Like with any form of art, there is no level of perfection for what you can put in to your work.
“I don’t know that I’ll ever achieve that (level), which is great about glass,” Ronayne said. “(With) a lot of jobs you have, you see where your pinnacle will be. With glass, that doesn’t exist. It’s wide open ... it’s endless.”