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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

From head shop to hot shop: Museum of Glass elevates pipe making to art form

By Craig Sailor The News Tribune

Once they were outcasts and now they are stars. Glass pipe makers are taking center stage this weekend at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass.

The museum is holding “Chronic Heat: A Joint Venture,” a two-day event built around the art of glass pipes — devices usually used to smoke marijuana. It will feature 10 artists making the pipes along with lectures and demonstrations.

“For a long time, pipe making was sort of shunned in a lot of ways,” said Benjamin Cobb, MOG’s hot shop director.

Cobb, whose 3-decade-long career in glass began with illicit pipe making, said the weekend is a confluence of changing attitudes in both the art world and society at large. Marijuana was legalized in Washington in 2012. Meanwhile, the lines separating pipe making from art glass have blurred.

“In the Pacific Northwest, a lot of the techniques and skills that are used today were sort of developed in parallel to the art glass movement,” Cobb said. “But it wasn’t always accepted.”

Museum goers entering MOG’s hot shop this week will pass a glass dinosaur inside a display case. A closer look reveals that “Triceratops Skeleton” by Ryan “Buck” Harris is a fully functional pipe. It’s one of several recent glass pipe donations to the museum from an anonymous donor.

Cobb said pipes deserve their place in the museum alongside the decorative wine and beer glasses which have been produced in the hot shop for years.

The glass blowers working this weekend in the hot shop range from glass artists who make the occasional pipe to full time pipe makers. But all of them are artists, Cobb said.

“They’re making incredible objects,” he said. “They just happen to be functional.”

A pipe doesn’t necessarily need to be used for marijuana but MOG is not trying to hide that fact. The event opens on 4/20 — a date synonymous with cannabis across the U.S.

“I totally made bongs,” Cobb said of his teenage years. “That’s what you did to have a little side hustle.”

Cobb left pipe making behind as he switched to glass art.

Hippies to hip

Eugene, Ore.-based glass blower Joe Tsoulfas, 47, spends most of his time making glass lighting fixtures for his company, Bright Block Studio. He’ll be lecturing on the history of Pacific Northwest glass pipe making during “Chronic Heat.”

Like Cobb, he got his start in glass by making bongs as a teenager.

“I was like 15,16,” Tsoulfas recalled during a recent phone interview. “At a young age, I was traveling around with the Grateful Dead and Jerry Garcia and this was when I first got turned on to the glass pipe scene.”

Tsoulfas grew up in Wisconsin, where even today, glass pipes are considered drug paraphernalia and illegal to possess. That’s how he ended up in Eugene.

“In the early 90s, it was kind of a refuge from most of the rest of the United States,” he said. “It was still illegal, but it was one of the places that was more relaxed on it.”

The evolution of acceptance of glass pipes has been stunning, Tsoulfas said.

“It’s amazing to see it from the very beginning, to see the glass pipe go from a parking lot to head shop,” he said. “Then it moved from the head shops and we started seeing them in galleries, and then from the galleries to now we’re seeing them in museums.”

Because most pipes use a different glow blowing process, they’re cheaper to produce than the glass visitors see artists make in MOG’s hot shop. That fact kept Tsoulfas producing pipes for the first decade of his career. He couldn’t afford to work in a hot shop.

Tsoulfas eventually put pipe making on the sideline as he moved in to the art glass world.

“I kind of kept it secret, that I was a pipe maker, because it was kind of looked down upon in these craft schools,” he said.

Both Cobb and Tsoulfas credit Oregon glass blower Bob Snodgrass for bringing glass pipes into the art glass world.

Tsoulfas wants to further that image.

“They’re stoners, they’re hippies,” he said of the old image. “But things are really changed. There’s all different types of walks of life of people in making functional work.”