A subculture brings new energy to glassblowing

These glass pipes were collaborative projects, but they take the distinctive form of glassblower Brandon Martin's aliens. Photo by Dylan Thomas

It was the afternoon of April 20, and with just a few hours to go before the sold-out opening reception for “Torched” at Gamut Gallery, a small crew led by gallery director Jade Patrick was hustling to pull everything together on time.

That hustle slowed to a careful, deliberate pace anytime someone handled the delicate blown-glass sculptures displayed on pedestals around the edges of the room. Tacked temporarily into place with sticky museum wax, many were priced at between $3,000 and $8,000, with at least one expected to fetch more than twice that. Hard-plastic suitcases on the floor held several pieces not yet on display, each nestled in a foam cocoon.

“We have a lot of serious buyers coming tonight,” Patrick said, directing the action while she spoke with a reporter. She mused aloud about instituting a backpack ban for that night’s party; the gallery on the edge of downtown was expecting a capacity crowd, and it wasn’t hard to imagine one absent-minded move ending in an explosion of multi-colored glass shards.

Maybe “absent minded” unfairly evokes stereotypes. If the date of the opening didn’t already give it away, the glass art featured in “Torched” is a subcategory often referred to as “functional glass.” The works on display were, for the most part, water pipes meant for smoking — many of them extremely elaborate, skillfully crafted bongs.

That they functioned as pipes and not objets d’art was not always obvious at first glance. This was particularly true of one of Chris Ahalt’s gravity-defying “balloon animal” sculptures, a rhinoceros that looked like it would float away if not for a thin, copper tether that doubled as a stand. Patrick noted Ahalt, who produces pipes under the name “Cha Glass,” had recently studied under master glass blowers in Japan.

One of Chris Ahalt's blown-glass "balloon animals." Submitted image
One of Chris Ahalt’s blown-glass “balloon animals.” Submitted image

Like the other artists in the show, Patrick was introduced to Ahalt through RepoMn, a street artist who has shown at Gamut and who curated “Torched.”

“This is a legit scene. I had no idea how much movement it had,” Patrick said, noting even Minnesota — where marijuana is legal only for medical use, and even then under one of the most restrictive legal frameworks in the country — is feeling the effects of the “green rush” in Colorado and on the West Coast, where money is flowing into newly opened recreational marijuana markets. But functional glass isn’t just attracting collectors with money to burn; galleries and museums are recognizing functional glass for drawing young practitioners to an ancient craft.

This spring, Philadelphia’s National Liberty Museum opened “The Treachery of Images,” an exhibition of glass smoking pipes. The title references René Magritte’s iconic 1929 image of a pipe on which he painted the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”), a surrealist koan meant to guide the mind to think of how language and art represent reality.

The title also nods to the headshop doublespeak that developed under marijuana prohibition. People who sell functional glass and their customers strictly refer to them as “tobacco pipes” to stay on the right side of the law.

(“Functional glass” is itself a potentially confusing euphemism; the phrase has also been applied to artist-made vases, goblets and other objects with non-illicit functions.)

A cultural shift is just now allowing artists who create functional glass to emerge from the underground, said Josh Wilken-Simon, who recently opened a second Legacy Glassworks shop in Minneapolis after starting his business in Duluth. The LynLake storefront (in the former Tatters space) combines a gallery, a retail operation and a glassblowing studio used for classes and hosting guest artists.

“The glass pipe movement has really exploded, because it’s an extension of the smoking culture,” Wilken-Simon said. (What are they smoking? Click on the “Proper Use” tab on the Legacy Glassworks website and you’ll see two recommendations: display your art on a shelf or use it to smoke tobacco.)

Wilken-Simon said Ahalt was one of three internationally known artists from Minnesota to appear in “Torched,” alongside Eric Ross and Brandon Martin, who he referred to as “local legends” of the glass-blowing scene.

Ross specializes in “very, very highly functional pieces” that also display an elevated artistry, Wilken-Simon explained. (“A lot of these glassblowers will make a pipe that is just amazing to look at, and the skill behind it is incredible,” he said, “but when you actually go to use it, sometimes you’re drinking the water.”) Ross specializes in wig-wag, a technique that involves twisting rods of colored glass together over a flame to create intricate patterns.

Martin collaborated with other artists on several pieces for “Torched,” and several took the shape of bug-eyed aliens — cousins to Admiral Ackbar of “Star Wars.” Wilken-Simon said Martin is known for his imaginative creatures, highly detailed creations that could withstand hours of contemplation.

“At the end of the day, in my mind, glass art is glass art — if it’s a vase, if it’s a glass pipe to smoke out of or if it’s a vase to put in your house,” Wilken-Simon said.



When: Through May 12

Where: Gamut Gallery, 717 S. 10th St.

Info: 367-4327,