“Degenerate art” is a euphemism used to describe highly stylized pipes, bongs, dab rigs, and other smoking apparatuses, coming from a fascinating 2011 documentary that looks inside the world of functional art glass.
Artists working in this largely underground scene have always been marginalized, but in February of 2003, they were quite literally criminalized: Hundreds of businesses and homes across America were raided by law-enforcement, the culmination of an elaborate federal undercover sting operation dubbed “Operation Pipe Dreams.”
Fifty-five people were arrested for crimes related to the sale of drug paraphernalia—including famous actor/comedian Tommy Chong—and many of the country’s most talented functional glass artists spent the night behind bars, stripped of all assets and facing the possibility of serving a long prison sentence (although Chong was the only one to actually serve hard time).
But that was more than 15 years ago. Today, the cultural conversation around functional art glass no longer focuses on government censorship and oppression. Now it’s all clickbait stories about how a bong just sold for $100,000, or the opening of a new mainstream gallery show focused on the incredible creativity and technique exhibited by the movement’s leading practitioners.
But how did we get here, and who propelled this degenerate art form to such dizzying heights?
The contemporary history of functional art glass begins exactly where you might expect—with a stone-cold hippie trying to make ends meet as he followed the Grateful Dead.
Long before becoming the “Godfather of Glass,” Bob Snodgrass was an inveterate tinkerer who worked a straight job in a machine shop. But in 1971, he saw a glass pipe displayed in the window of a head shop and met the artist who made it. They shared a smoke and by the time they were done, he had a new calling in life.
Snodgrass would eventually invent a series of groundbreaking techniques that set his work apart—most notably “fuming,” which involves vaporizing silver, gold, or platinum to release fumes that bind to the surface of glass.
The first time I encountered the Grateful Dead scene, a friend told me he had tickets and I should bring my bus so we could camp in the parking lot. He said I was going to sell glass like I’d never sold glass before.Bob Snodgrass
He also invented the popular sidecar style of pipe after spending the night on a friend’s waterbed and finding it impossible to set down a standard pipe on the unsteady surface.
But Snoddy contributed the most to the functional art glass scene by selling his one-of-a-kind pipes to Grateful Dead fans as the band endlessly toured the country. Over time, this created a market for “heady glass” from coast-to-coast and well beyond.
“The first time I encountered the Grateful Dead scene, a friend told me he had tickets and I should bring my bus so we could camp in the parking lot,” the artist told Leafly in a feature on his life. “He said I was going to sell glass like I’d never sold glass before.”
Jerome Baker Designs
A talented and influential artist in his own right, Jason Harris (head of Jerome Baker Designs) profoundly changed the game by turning his passion for heady glass into a thriving professional business, paving the way for the modern industry to follow.
His company began in 1991 in a dorm room, and grew to over 70 employees working out of a large production facility—until he was taken down in Operation Pipe Dreams.
But even after the devastation of his arrest and the federal case against his business, Harris refused to back down. He now operates a thriving custom glassware outfit with offices in Las Vegas, New York, and Maui.
For more on Harris and his craft, check out Leafly’s documentary of him and his crew making a giant bong.
A self-taught glassblower working out of a small town on the Oregon coast, Ryan “Buck” Harris often finds inspiration for his work in the beauty of the nature that surrounds him, like his best known piece, a pipe shaped like an angler fish skeleton.
Buck changed the game by consistently pushing for the acceptance of functional glass work in the world of high art, through both the intricacies of his sculpting work and his sharp business acumen.
Jason Lee has been blowing glass for nearly 25 years and specializes in line-work, or what he calls “non-specific geometric patterning.” The depth and precision of his work have created a standard for other glassblowers to follow and these continue to set his work apart today.
After dropping out of college in the mid-’70s, Robert Mickelsen apprenticed with a professional lampworker for two years before traveling the country to sell his glasswork at outdoor craft fairs for a decade.
In 1989, he began marketing his work exclusively through galleries, including prestigious institutions like the Renwick Gallery of American Crafts at the Smithsonian Institution and the Corning Museum of Glass. He also served for six years on the board of directors of the Glass Art Society.
As one of the first and most prestigious glass artists to move from the insular arena of fine art to the underground functional art glass scene, Mickelson and his sculpture-like pipes changed the game by bridging two worlds that lacked common ground for far too long.
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Salty Kraken #2 of 4 sneak peak (has other lil things can’t see Salt did from pic) collab w/ @saltglass from the *live feed. Its for “What’s Kraken?’” at @52nd_glass_shop 🙂 *He will be visiting here down in the tropics for Gas @glassartsociety In St. Pete and finish #4 here at @atlantisstpete . So stoked to work with guys I’ve admired for their talent and work ethic. Hope had a kicka$$ weekend and thanks for checking it out. #whatskraken #saltykraken
Jimi Cummins, far better known as “Wicked Glass,” saw a glass pipe for the first time in 1995, while strolling down “Shakedown Street”—a gaggle of unofficial vendors gathered in a parking lot outside of a Grateful Dead concert. There he met Bob Snodgrass.
Inspired by Snodgrass, his art, and his life journey, Jimi would dedicate the next two decades to learning the craft himself and developing his own signature style.
Then, on April 20th, 2013, he set off in an RV converted into a mobile glassblowing studio with nothing more than a vague plan to log four hundred twenty days out on the road.
He ended up spending the next four and a half years crisscrossing the country, creating commissioned works in his vehicle and hand-delivering them to customers.
I didn’t want to sell to shops, I wanted to sell my glass direct-to-consumer like he did, but I had no idea how. Until I discovered Instagram and realized I could connect with people while I’m traveling and sell my work that way.Jimi Cummins
Best known for his octopus motifs, Jimi didn’t change the glassblowing game so much as bring it back to its roots, while using social media to connect with the community.
“Bob Snodgrass was one of my major inspirations for getting in the RV,” Cummins told Leafly in a feature on his life. “I didn’t want to sell to shops, I wanted to sell my glass direct-to-consumer like he did, but I had no idea how. Until I discovered Instagram and realized I could connect with people while I’m traveling and sell my work that way.”
Having worked his way up by building a network of followers on social media, Cummins’ pipes are currently in high demand. His use of social media to create personal connections around his art is an inspiration to both fellow glassblowers and the collector community.
Inspired by the intricacies of sacred geometry, Justin Cothren (a.k.a. WJC) consistently creates breathtaking patterns in glass while pushing the boundary of what’s considered possible in the glass medium. He’s also a pioneer of a technique called a desk flip.
Banjo began making pipes in 1995, inspired by everything from Legos and farm tractors to Star Wars and the visionary art of Alex Grey. Over time, he’s earned a reputation for bringing skill and vision to crafting intricate and organic forms.
His best work imbues a whimsical, almost psychedelic feeling to pieces based on musical instruments, motorcycles, and what he calls “throne goddesses.”
Technically and stylistically, Slinger’s biggest contribution to the world of functional art glass can be seen in his marriage of Graal-style glassblowing with traditional functional pipe forms. Graal is a high-level style of glassblowing developed in Sweden in 1916 that requires multiple artists to work at once, who using molten glass to carve and shape layers, encase them in clear glass, and then add more layers on top.
Slinger is best known for producing the documentary Degenerate Art, which helped bring the movement out of the shadows and inspired a new generation of artists to take up the torch.
One of Japan’s best known glass artists and among the finest crafters of borosilicate glass pendants and marbles in the world, Junichi Kojima (a.k.a. Rose Roads) creates “dottacellos” or “thousand-dots designs,” which take a pointillism approach to creating patterns and images of mind-blowing complexity.
While she boasts a diverse body of work, Tammy Baller is best known for bringing verve and wit to her satirical glass sculptures of iconic figures, allowing you to puff out of everyone from Jerry Garcia to the Wicked Witch of the West.