About four years ago, glassblower Jeff Ballard was burnt out on fine art. He’d been at it for nearly 20 years, showing his conceptual sculptures. But increasingly, he says, the art world “just seemed really fake to me.” When a studio mate suggested that they try blowing marijuana dab rigs (similar to bongs) and pipes, Ballard took to it.
This was not long after marijuana went legal in Washington and Oregon (Ballard works out of Eugene), and there was still some stigma and confusion around a glassblower with a decent art career forging pipes. But that hasn’t dampened innovation. Ballard’s dab rigs, made under the name Soft Serve Glass, are witty little statues. Some, nodding to the name, appear like toppled ice cream cones. In fact, pipemakers have “pushed the technical boundaries of the material probably more than any other segment of glass artists in the last 10 years,” says Pilchuck’s Benjamin Wright.
Today, Ballard says, “Eugene is pretty much the epicenter of pipemaking in the world.” And the stigma is fading, as more artists turn to a niche industry where top makers can pull six-figure incomes. Museums now include pipes in shows and collections. Ballard even taught a paraphernalia class at Pilchuck in 2018. In a way it hearkens to glass’s Italian foundations, the focus on making functional objects with exceptional technique. How different, really, is a Eugene pipe from a Murano goblet?