Have you ever seen those little glass pipes that people pull out at parties? Or maybe you”ve wandered into one of the headier shops in Ann Arbor (no, not Shaman Drum) where they sell little glass jewels ostensibly made for tobacco use. If these experiences are foreign to you, you”re missing out on one of the hippest and most beautiful craft industries to hit the college set.
I have been fascinated with the art of glass blowing ever since I looked in the little black storage case of one of the Hash Bash street vendors and had the dreaded hippie tell me how the apprenticeship of glass blowing allowed him to avoid a life of corporate drudgery.
A year or more later, I bought a pipe from 42 Degrees, on East William. It had a beautiful clear bowl with a swirled vortex of colors leading to a thick, hollow mouthpiece of considerably complex artistry. I felt I was not buying a piece, but a separate peace, something with artistic merit, though devoid of meaning.
And it cost me around $60. If I had wanted a glass piece with a smoke breathing dragon inside a glass tube, it could have cost me upwards of $300. A glass statue retails for about $5,000. Without a doubt, there is a lot of money being transferred in this industry.
This trend started about six years ago on the West Coast. Since then, experts have established themselves to the point that they can command such outrageous prices for their work. It takes considerable experience, though, and more than just a craftsman”s touch to make this glass. As one local glass blower, Steve Hoffman told me as I watched him at work Sunday night, simple pieces can be mass produced like Dutch wooden shoes, but complicated pieces require a command of the glass.
“Believe me, we”d all like to quit pipes and just make sculptures,” Hoffman said adding the finishing touches to a glass chellum, an indiginous smoking tool reappropriated to the medium of glass. But glass blowing does pay the bills. Actually, Hoffman, though he looks the part of a burly punk, with tattooed arms and studs in his ears, is a student of philosophy and ethics at the University, but has taken the semester off to perfect his craft and set aside some money.
The piece, which took about him about 15 minutes to transform from raw glass to finished product, will retail for about $24, “but I only get $8.50,” Steve tells me.
The chellum, more commonly known as a “one-hitter,” is his “production piece,” which he makes repetitiously for national distribution through the owners of 42 Degrees. But Steve suggests buyers go to Stairway to Heaven right around the corner from 42 Degrees because their selection is supplied mostly by local artists, though most of those pieces are production models like Steve”s chellum.
But I”m sure you”re all interested in how they actually make the glass, right? If you”ve ever tried to talk to a store clerk at one of these head shops, it”s nearly impossible to get a source for the material. They”ll tell you, “oh, we”ve got local guys in a warehouse blowing glass for us Ann Arbor is one of the largest production areas in the country.” But when asked about specifics, they give the cold shoulder. So, from a location of I-know-not-where, (I swear, they blindfolded me) I report back the practices of this strange group, the cult of the glass blowers.
First off, this isn”t the kind of glass blowing you see at Greenfield Village, where they have big ovens and men in knickers blowing soft “lamp-working” creations. My new acquaintance Steve and his buddies use Pyrex, the most durable glass available, and they do it in a dark post-industrial space now home to a varied bohemian crowd of leather bondage gear makers and metal workers. The door I find has a 420 sign marked above. Let”s see what”s inside
“First off,” says Steve as he turns on his oxygen and propane tank and dons yellow safety glasses, handing me a pair as well, “the idea that these pipes change color with use is kind of a misperception. What we do is we coat them with a layer of either pure silver or pure gold and that attracts the resin so the colors will come out more.” He points to a half-melted silver piece from the U.S. Treasury.
“We buy these at old coin shops.”
“Isn”t that illegal?” I ask.
“I don”t know. Aren”t a lot of things illegal?” he counters, turning up the torch and grabbing a long glass tube with a 2-inch long 1-inch diameter funnel-shaped appendage and sticking it under the blue flame. The glass quickly heats to a fire red color and Steve manipulates the substance like putty.
“I hear that five or six years ago the University had a glassblowing program but they dismantled it,” Steve said as he flares the funnel-shaped glass out flat and breaks off rods of colored glass. He applies these color variations to the interior of the funnel by melting the glass under the flame and winding a glowing worm of red in the center. Then he wraps a pair of orange spirals, followed by a rod of orange/red spiraled glass. It”s the same design he puts on every production piece.
Next comes the fuming, or what Steve called “the most unhealthy part, because you”re not supposed to breathe any of the fumes.” I stood back as he flamed the silver coin to the unfurled glassware and fumes dissipated into the three stories of industrial space rising above us.
The glass was now ready to be sealed off and manipulated only from the outside. So Steve stuck the glass under the flame to the point that it looked like a psychedelic Faberge egg, all of the inside colors morphing with Steve”s steady hands.
Suddenly a howling broke through the scene, emanating from somewhere within the building, probably coming from the bondage gear artisans. “They”re harmless,” Steve reassures me, as a devilish laugh breaks the silence above the flame once again. He soon admits that even he gets a little scared down here sometimes.
At that point, the chellum, thank god, was nearly completed, as the secret location was starting to feel like a lost dimension where all of its inhabitants just come out at night. Steve then heats the end, blows a little bubble that he breaks off to create the part that goes in your mouth and smoothes off the jagged ends with his big spatula. The last step is to put a little glass bead on the outside of the piece to act as a magnifier for the artwork inside.
With that final step, we walk over to the light to examine his work. Satisfied, Steve tucks the piece into his octagonal kiln where the chellum will seal over night, allowing all the glass to securely bond into a cohesive unit. In the morning it will be on its way to 42 Degrees warehouse with thousands of other glass objects from secret places like Steve”s workshop.