Pipe Dreams 

Is it an art form, or just drug paraphernalia? Richmond's vibrant community of glass blowers has heard it all.

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If he could, Andrew Morris might like to caption his most recent pieces of work on display at Highpoint Gallery: "This is not a pipe."

Most visitors to the exhibit in Scott's Addition wouldn't argue. Draped over pieces of driftwood, each long string of hand-blown, glass beads is clasped by a pendant shaped like an animal's skull. A shock of scarlet horns sprouts from the forehead of each, the only burst of color against a background of earth tones. It's difficult to look at the necklaces and not think of Georgia O'Keeffe.

But like the work of that enigmatic, Virginia-born artist, Morris's pieces also contain secrets. Cleverly hidden within each pendant are a mouthpiece and a bowl where tobacco can be packed. For all that they appear as elaborate pieces of jewelry, those necklaces are, in fact, pipes.

"I wanted to make pipe art that people didn't want to say, 'Oh, that's just a pipe,'" Morris says. "If you can remove that ... then you really get the true reaction to what they think of the object."

Across town the Virginia Museum of Fine Art has been stunning visitors with its exhibit featuring the internationally renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. But locally there's a vibrant and growing community of glass-pipe artists whose work is just beginning to appear in various galleries. And although the pieces that emerge from their kilns and torches sell for prices into the thousands of dollars and are sought in cities from New York to Eugene, Ore., most Richmonders have never heard their names — and many are quick to dismiss their work as drug paraphernalia.

As Morris shows in his work, things aren't always as they seem.

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Influence Glass is housed in a narrow, unmarked unit in Scott's Addition, right around the corner from Highpoint Gallery. Surrounded by loading docks and warehouses, the exterior gives off the vibe of a contractor's office. Only the flyer tacked up in the front window advertising the gallery's "Melt" show hints at the building's real use.

Inside is a different story. Long workbenches stretch most of the length of the building, crowded with torches, tongs and dozens upon dozens of thin glass rods in every shade imaginable. At any given time, a handful of young men wearing hoodies and protective eyewear are bent over these benches, torches in hand, rapidly shaping layers of molten glass into pipes.

The brainchild of co-owners Morris and Michael Grecheck, graduates of Virginia Commonwealth University's craft and material studies program, Influence Glass is a private working studio that opened in 2008. It rents space to area glass blowers on an invitation-only basis. Along with Morris and Grecheck, who work under the names AKM and G.Check, there's Seth Meacham, known as Elks That Run, and Adam Childress who works under the name Egon, putting Influence at the core of Richmond's pipe-making community.

That community largely is comprised of articulate men in their 20s and 30s, a handful of whom came out of VCU, despite the glass-blowing program's discouragement of pipe-making. They are passionate about their craft and wary of the judgment from strangers who label them as makers of drug paraphernalia — a charge they adamantly deny. They say they only sell their work as art objects or for tobacco smoking, or sell to stores that deal exclusively with tobacco products.

Perhaps because of the sometimes negative perception of pipes, or because of the rigor of glass blowing, the Influence pipe-makers are a tightly knit group. Grecheck and Morris initially met at VCU, when Morris also worked at Katra Gala, which then maintained a single-bench studio in its back room. After graduation, Grecheck picked up a variety of jobs to make ends meet but eventually was pulled back into glass blowing by Morris, who helped him get a job at Katra Gala.

"I had glass-blowing experience, but no pipe-making experience," Grecheck says. He credits Morris with getting him back into the studio: "I learned almost everything I know from Andrew."

The Influence collective offers a number of benefits to the glass blowers who set up shop there. On a practical level, sharing studio space allows the pipe-makers to pool the tools of their trade. With basic torches starting around $500 and kilns around $1,000, glass blowing requires a serious financial investment that's often burdensome for young people a few years out of art school to carry alone.

"Being in an environment like this is really nice," Morris says, "because Seth will buy a sandblaster, and we've all reaped the benefits of that. Michael has a very large kiln, and we've all reaped the benefits of it."

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More important, the community allows the pipe-makers to share techniques and foster an environment of creative growth.

For Meacham, a Charlottesville native who spent seven years teaching himself to blow glass in a garage studio, that community has been vital. His arrival at Influence in 2009 marked his first major exposure to the range of techniques that were being used by other pipe-makers.

"There's tons of different ways you can do one thing," he says. "So [coming to Influence] really helped a lot, because you can grow, you can feed off the other artists. They'll influence you to do something, and you'll influence them."

For glass blowers, the versatility of pipe-making is one of its most attractive features. Unlike the "soft" glass that is often seen at historical sites, pipes are made with boro-silicate glass, a highly heat-resistant material that's also used to make Pyrex baking dishes. Although boro-silicate originally was manufactured for the laboratory and the kitchen, pipe-makers and a handful of other glass artists latched onto it in the '80s because of its ability to withstand being heated repeatedly.

"A lot of the innovations in boro-silicate glass have come from modern-day pipe-makers," Meacham says. "A lot of these [glass] companies are developing new tools, new equipment, new colors — mainly just to fuel the artist."

Those scientific developments in turn have prodded the pipe-makers to experiment artistically.

"The pipe-making scene loves something new — something people have never seen before," Grecheck says. "Whether it's a new form, a better representation of something in reality, a new functional achievement, or simply just keeping it fresh for your audience and yourself."

The result? Morris's necklaces, or the pipe Meacham constructed in the shape of a bow crossed with two arrows, spanning almost 4 feet from end to end. Or a pipe by Grecheck that's shaped like a sheep, no larger than a chocolate-chip cookie.

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After all, Morris notes, a pipe needs only two elements to be functional: a mouthpiece and a bowl. Then, he says, "you can take that simple thing and make it as complex as you like."

For some, it doesn't matter how ornate the piece, how long it took to construct or how many years of study the artist went through: A pipe is a pipe, and that makes it the kind of tool used to smoke things other than tobacco.

Although the field draws on traditional Venetian methods as well as scientific developments, modern-day glass pipe-making was born in the 1980s, when glass blower Bob Snodgrass inadvertently discovered the technique of "fuming" silver and gold leaf onto glass pipes. Fuming allowed the colors of the pipe to change as the instrument was heated and reheated. Snodgrass's creations became wildly popular among young people who'd dropped out of the mainstream, and within a few years pipe-making spread throughout Oregon and down the West Coast while glass blowers experimented with the form. Grateful Dead shows provided a huge market for Snodgrass's work.

"When the industry started, it wasn't an industry," says Justin Browne, co-owner of glass pipe shop Kulture in Shockoe Bottom, which opened in 1999. "[Sellers] would travel around and go to the shows — Phish, Grateful Dead ... and then on their way to the next city, they would stop by a shop and break out their cases of glass, and we'd pick stuff up."

Throughout the '90s, the industry grew in both numbers and sophistication, and the first pipe artists began to emerge. For a while, the potential of the business seemed limitless — until the early hours of Feb. 24, 2003, when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided dozens of homes and businesses connected with the manufacture and sale of pipes. The investigation, called Operation Pipe Dreams, ultimately indicted 55 people on charges of illegal trafficking in drug paraphernalia.

The pipe-making community was stunned. Subsequent federal initiatives, including 2005's Operation Head Hunter, did nothing to quell fears. Until that time, glass pipes were widely viewed as legal. Some shop owners had even been assured by local law enforcement that they were acting within the law and had been operating openly for years, paying taxes and hiring employees from within their communities.

"That was a big deal," Browne says of the raid. Suddenly, small local businesses weren't sure if they'd awaken to federal agents on their doorsteps. "We didn't want to spend money, because we didn't know what was going to happen."

Although most of the raids ceased after 2005 and many in the industry saw President Barack Obama's election as a sign that a new chapter was beginning, the effects of Operation Pipe Dreams can still be felt nationally and in Richmond.

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Because the question comes down to how the term drug paraphernalia is interpreted, businesses worked to tighten up any legal loose ends. All three of Richmond's glass shops — Kulture, Katra Gala and Green House Glass — post prominent signs announcing that their products are intended only for tobacco use, and all three ask customers who use marijuana-related terminology to leave the store.

"We haven't had any issues," says Christian Ronan, manager of the family owned and operated Green House Glass. "We're always in compliance with all the laws and regulations."

"We've never had a problem," Browne says. But, he adds, "from local law enforcement that we're friends with or happen to know, we know that undercover has come into the store."

And no matter their in-store policies, these businesses face other challenges.

"We can't advertise on Google," Browne says. "We can't use Paypal. ... We can't sell our products on eBay or Amazon. A lot of them say, 'Well, that's drug paraphernalia, that's against our policy.' ... Well, I've been doing this for 10 years and no one's told me no, and now you're telling me I can't sell on your website or I can't advertise with you?"

The pipe-makers, too, face challenges.

"There is that stigma of drug use attached to the pipe-making," says Emilio Santini, a Williamsburg-based glass artist who spent nearly a decade teaching glass blowing at VCU and lists Morris and Grecheck as former students. "Even if the pipe-maker makes an art object, there is still a stigma attached to it."

Nowhere in Richmond is that more evident than in VCU's craft and material studies department, which classifies all pipes as drug paraphernalia. Students who attempt to create pipes in the studio are first warned and then asked to leave the program.

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The policy runs partially counter to that of the larger university. While pipes are classified as paraphernalia in residence halls and barred from the dorms, "there is not a university policy prohibiting glass pipes," says Michael Porter, a public affairs liaison for the VCU police. "They are prohibited, though, if they're used for drugs."

The department's decision may have as much to do with the significant divide in the glass-blowing world over the differences between artistic and functional work.

"I think that really what it comes down to for a professor there is that he wants his students making artwork, not production glass blowing that's meant to make money," Grecheck says.

"No matter what it is," Morris says. "If you're making 100 Christmas ornaments a day" — another item that VCU students are prohibited from making in university studios — "you're not progressing yourself as an artist."

Although such a prohibition is common in many art schools throughout the United States, Santini sees it as shortsighted. "The majority of glass workers aren't making art objects," he says.

Santini, who makes a living off of producing functional objects such as goblets and tumblers, says the attraction of pipe-making for young glass blowers is money. Given the steady demand for pipes in the marketplace, pipe-making provides a reliable source of income in a field that often isn't financially rewarding, he says.

And although he's wary of the association between pipes and drugs, and suspects that many pipe-makers are simply fascinated with the image of artistic hedonism, Santini finds it impractical to forbid young glass blowers from making the objects.

"Pipe-making is a reality that the art departments in these schools are going to have to face," he says. "They're already selling some of these pipes in well-known, renowned, respected galleries in the United States. It's only a matter of time."

In Richmond, that time arrived in November with the launch of Highpoint Gallery's "Melt" show, organized and curated by Grecheck and gallery owner David Morrison. Bringing together the work of both pipe-makers and more traditional glass artists, such as Santini and Chuck Scalin, the show marks the first time that pipes have appeared in a city gallery. It's an indication of how the larger glass-blowing community is beginning to embrace the pipe-makers.

That growing acceptance is the result of many factors, but one is certainly the ongoing effort of the glass-pipe business to establish its image as a community-oriented industry with a strong emphasis on American-made products over imported, sometimes sweatshop-produced glass.

"That's something we strive for," Browne says, "is to support the artists, support the American glass blower, and keep the glass that we carry American."

Ironically, Operation Pipe Dreams played a major role in securing the position of glass shops in their communities. When the raids began, Meacham's family glass shop Roots Rock Reggae, which had operated in Charlottesville for several years with no problems, suddenly found its business constrained.

"I could no longer call up a company in California and order a product and have it shipped to my store," he says. "So that forced my store to start looking locally."

Buying local has helped pipe-making communities throughout the United States to thrive. In Richmond, Kulture, Katra Gala and Green House Glass make a point to carry work by local artists.

"We've been going to Influence since day one," Ronan says.

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But the question remains: Is it art — or is it just a pipe?

"Art is kind of a loose term sometimes," Browne says. "It's all about how one person perceives it. ... You know, is basket weaving art? They had some of Chihuly's baskets at the VMFA, and that's in a museum. [They were] built for a purpose, but now [they're] seen as maybe art to some and maybe craft or a part of history."

Morris sees no conflict between the art and pipe labels. "We like to consider them as both," he says. "It's obviously a pipe, and it's obvious to me that it's art in the way that it's been presented, and the way that it's thought about as opposed to just created for one use."

Grecheck points to the Highpoint show as an example of growing agreement with that outlook. "Everyone in the show treated every object as we look at it," he says — "as a piece of artwork."

Despite his reservations about pipe-making, even Santini agrees that a pipe can be an art object. But, he notes, "It's up to the maker."

The increasing number of collectors and the growing culture of collecting pipes also are evidence of changing perceptions. This group of people sees pipes, like paintings or sculpture, as art objects that can be traded for large sums of money and displayed as a status symbol or for the pleasure of looking at a beautiful object. Ronan recalls one of the most valuable pieces that passed over his counter: a $5,000 pipe by glass artist Banjo in the shape of a sinuous, winged woman. "She had a joyous expression," Ronan says.

And while the collecting world focuses on more sophisticated pieces, there's another development: Many collectors may never use a pipe they've bought.

"There's a higher value to some of these collectors' pieces of work that have never been used," Grecheck says. "That's the selling point."

And the market isn't limited to individual connoisseurs, he notes. "When I was in L.A. at a trade show, there were people from museums coming to look at some of the artwork that was being displayed and seriously considering buying it for their collections."

Virginia's art museums may not have reached this point yet.

Cindy Mackey, public relations liaison at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, which has one of the largest glass collections in the world, says that a quick survey of its collection reveals only three blown-glass pipes, all of them historical. Two date from the 1830 to 1850 period and the third dates from 1915. They don't have any contemporary glass pipes at this time, she says.

Like most new mediums, pipe-making is still finding its place. "There's the potential for it to go in any direction," Meacham says. "That's the fun part of it, is that we're all right on the cutting edge of possibility."

Whatever the direction, the Influence pipe-makers plan to be along for the ride. "I know that I will probably be working with glass for most of my life," Grecheck says. "Whether making pipes or another object is up in the air." S

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This video, by Alex Fuller, shows the blowers at Influence Glass hard at work on a collaboration piece.

AKM G-Check Collaboration from Alex Fuller on Vimeo.

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