From scraps of glass to pieces of art: how flameworking set the art world ablaze

Nish Jajal wakes up early and heads to the studio. It’s Saturday, but he knows he could be working over 12 hours. He turns on his gas, flips on the ventilation and heads to the GTT Mirage. It’s time to torch.

“This is a subculture,” says London-based Jajal, who has been flameworking – melting rods of glass with a flame, since 2003. “It’s awesome to be a part of.” The sixth bi-annual American Glass Exposition, or AGE, the largest trade show within the industry, takes place Sep. 28 to 29, 2015 in Baltimore.

32                               Left: A 2014 Nish rig; Right: A 2015 Nish mini tube. Photos courtesy Nish Jajal.

Flameworking is separate from glassblowing, the art of shaping semi-liquid glass by blowing through an attached metal pipe. It traces its history back 600 years, to Murano, Venice, where it was first practiced on modified oil lamps.

Today, contemporary flameworkers use compressed oxygen, invented at the start of the 20th century, and borosilicate glass, created in 1893. Originally the world of borosilicate was dominated by multiple peripheral markets, such as marbles and beads. However, as flameworker Devin Somerville explains, things are beginning to heat up in the flameworking scene, much of it due to increased interest in the pipe-making community.

1718                                   Above: Two collaborative pieces between Somerville and Brandon Martin. Photos courtesy Devin Somerville.

“Pipe-making blazed a trail for what were really better markets for a number of years, like marbles and paperweights … they’ve really been in a slump the last number of years, and the pipe market has really helped pull them out.” Says Somerville, who has been on the torch since 1998 and currently works under the alias “Cap’n Crunk” in Oregon. He says that when the “non-functional”, or non-smokeable, scene began to die down, the pipe market was headed in the alternate direction. “I was in [those] markets for a number of years … I was running a gallery and doing other things that required just non-functional stuff to be displayed. As that started sizzling out, the pipe market was really going in the opposite direction and picking up a lot of momentum.”

197                                         Left:One of Somerville’s pieces from 2015; Right: Some of Somerville’s earlier paperweights from 2005. Photos courtesy Devin Somerville.

What makes flameworking such an interesting craft? For Nathan Miers, it’s the communal aspect. “The fact that this industry has been largely shunned by society, government and the fine art world as an acceptable art form has created a stronger unity within. We are the table of misfits at a square family reunion, and there is certainly some stronger-than-usual camaraderie as a result of that.” Miers has been flameworking since 2002, currently torching in ado under the alias N8.

Below: Two Nathan Miers pieces illustrating his signature space-themed glass. Photos courtesy Michael Zislis.

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Some just like the medium. “Once you work with glass, it’s addictive,” says Korey Cotnam of British Columbia, who has been torching since 2000. Others discussed a primal interest to the flame. “What really makes it stand out to me is we’ve got this primal connection to fire,” says Jajal. “The phase change from a liquid to a solid really allows us to do a lot of things that we wouldn’t be able to with other materials, as far as moving the materials and then having them re-solidify.” Somerville adds.

168       Above: Two 2015 Korey Cotnam pieces showcasing different colours and sculpted animals.

Below: A Korey Cotnam piece from 2015. Photos courtesy Korey Cotnam.

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20                                                                                                         Above: A collaboration between Somerville and Ryan Green. Photo courtesy Devin Somerville.


1211                           Above: Detailed images of some of Miers space-themed scenes. Photos courtesy Ben-E.    

“A lot of the credit’s really got to be given to the cannabis market itself, and the legalization of medical [cannabis],” says Somerville, discussing pipe-making’s recent rise in popularity. “People can feel a little safer about collecting expensive glass if they feel safe displaying it in their house [without worrying about] police coming in and smashing It,” he says, noting that borosilicate adds something new to the art world. “I think pipes in general have a way of holding a lot of sentimental value for an object … [they] bring a lot more smiles to peoples faces then some of the stuffy gallery type things that have been happening in the art world … It’s a breath of fresh air for a lot of people,”

Miers attributes increased popularity of pipe-making to a number of converging aspects. “It’s a combination of things, really, but the pipe specifically is a cultural symbol. It’s functional, so it’s used often. It’s collectible, so it’s cherished … it can even be a status symbol in certain social circles.

So, society is changing. How long then, until we see pipes in traditional art galleries? “It’s already happening, we’re seeing artists like [Robert] Mickelson and Micah Evans, who do traditional art, coming over to the pipe side.” says Keshav Gupta. “They’re helping to get pipes into shows. [Habatat Galleries] just had one, that’s pretty big … History is going to confuse a lot of people. They’re going to say, ‘Why is it a pipe?’ when they see a $100,000 Banjo collaborative piece. Why not? That was the market that supported him when he started, so he is going to be true to that.” Gupta has been on the torch for three years.

Below: Various examples of Gupta’s “dot-stacked” work. Photos courtesy Keshav Gupta.
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“We are already starting to see traditional fine art galleries warm up to … our movement,” says Miers, adding that although it’s nice, it’s not flameworking’s main goal. “Our success isn’t dependent on the affirmation of the fine art market. It’s not our end goal to convert galleries and their patrons into avid supporters, as much as we’d just like to receive a little respect for what we do.” Somerville agrees. “I don’t think any of us pipe-makers really care [if our work is accepted by the fine art community] … we all feel that we’ve made a success out of it already, and anything else is just icing on the cake.”

Colour improvements have also helped increased the craft’s accessibility. “When I started, there was a handful, maybe a couple dozen, sort of, ‘muddy colours,’” says Somerville. “The year after … was when [Glass Alchemy] dropped all the bright cadmium colours … it created a huge leap in flameworking technology.” Glass Alchemy, a borosilicate manufacturer and distributor based in Portland, Ore. now sells over 80 different colours.

Today, there are multiple colour companies, with hundreds of options to choose from – “slyme” green, glow-in-the-dark, even blacklight-reactive uranium glass is available! As Matt Pike explains, having a large base of colour is the foundation of artistic creation. “With boro, the colour palette hadn’t [previously] drawn people in to do artistic work, because they had a limited number of colours to work with,” he says. “Having solid colours to work with is the foundation of making nice art.” Pike runs Toronto Flameworking Technologies, a glass studio in Toronto.

Similar to colour, tools are essential to the craft. Pike explains that creating tools for flameworking is highly improvised. “Everything we use has been adapted from another industry … welding supplies, ceramics, pretty much anything that [uses] heat,” says Pike. “People basically have to make their own tools to do what they want with the glass.”

127                 Above: Some examples of the types of tools used in Flameworking.

Tools have also eased certain tasks, as well as allowed flameworkers to push boundaries. “Small hand torches … allow you to do things, really tight welds, that previously if you tried, you would run into all types of cracking problems,” says Somerville.

Borosilicate wasn’t always thriving. Jesse, who works under the alias Hippo Glass (and wished to have his last name withheld), has been torching in British Columbia for 19 years. When he started, Northstar Glassworks, a colour company, only had 8 options available. It was tough to find raw glass; he had to source his clear tubing from a scientific lab. “I was bumbling around in the dark,” he says.

Jesse explained that when Operation Pipe Dreams, a 2003 nationwide U.S investigation targeting businesses selling ‘drug paraphernalia’, happened, it brought the pipe-making scene to a complete halt. Shops closed up. Distributors shut down. “People were scared to post anything, online or otherwise,” he says, adding that no one really knew what the future of pipe-making held. Pipe Dreams is most famous for the arrests of Tommy Chong and Jason Harris, for their part in financing glass companies – namely Chong Glass Works and Jerome Baker Designs.

Enter social media. As online communities like Facebook and Tokecity emerged in late 2005, it gave artists and distributors a new medium for buying and selling art, one they could pursue without feeling like the federal government would prosecute them. “There [were] more stores you can deal with … more people see your work,” says Cotnam. Social media also increased the accessibility of artist’s work. “You can’t sell something to somebody … unless they can visually see it,” Somerville says. “Social media allows you to do that, rather then having to drag a bunch of your work to art fairs,”

Miers says that the Internet allows for a much more real-time, communal environment. “Technology has progressed the craft in many ways, but central is the evolution of the Internet and social media. The instant feedback that an artist or a tool/colour company can receive can result in immediate tweaks to production … artists are more accessible, and collectors can now follow the day-to-day progression of their favourite artists on social media, [creating] a connection and an intimate behind-the-scenes experience that might not otherwise occur.

Somerville explains that social media isn’t all good. “We’ve seen in the market the last five or six years, there are so many people … that are just uneducated as to what they’re actually buying. They see one person selling a piece for a couple thousand dollars and look at another one and are like, ‘well why isn’t this worth that?’ … with so many people making comments on this stuff … Its really kind of turned [social media] into a ‘wild west’ market for the past several years.”

29    28           Above: Social media has turned the Flameworking community into “wild west market,” Somerville says.

What does flameworking’s future hold? “With full-legalization of cannabis in the U.S. on the horizon, I see good things coming to everyone involved in the industry,” says Miers. “In terms of a growing populations of artists – competition inspires innovation, and I expect rapid growth in both.”

As Jajal continues to spend his weekends torching away, he himself admits that it’s tough to predict where the glass market will head. “This art form is really in the hands of the people who enjoy it,” he says, adding that although earning a living from flameworking is awesome, it’s not his most important goal. “If I was in it for the money, I’d be better off working a nine to five.”

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