The term “pipe dream” originated in the 1890s to describe opium users’ wild hallucinations and became associated with unattainable desires. For the past four decades, glass pipe artists have lived a pipe dream as they attempted to grow businesses while fighting for legitimacy and acceptance in the art world and with mainstream society, and all while under the draconian gaze of the federal government. But in 2021, millennia of glass art, pipe development, and marijuana legalization efforts will converge in the televised competition series Operation: Pipe Dreamers, a show which promises to turn these glass artists’ pipe dreams into reality.
Conceived by television director Jason Wald and glass-blowing entrepreneur Jason Harris, Operation: Pipe Dreamers will pit master glass artists against each other to fashion exquisite flame-blown bongs, pipes and rigs worthy of museum display. One difference from other competition shows is that all artist creations will be auctioned off for charity. Another is the community element implemented when a piece shatters – an inevitability when working with glass.
“Sometimes the glass gods take over,” says Harris. “And some good pieces just want to go to heaven.” In such instances, the contestants will team up to repair the piece, demonstrating the tight-knit community inherent in this tribe of modern-day alchemists with ancient roots.
An Art Form Steeped In Tradition
Glass art has wowed our ancestors for thousands of years. While Moses was hot-footing it out of Egypt, his pursuer, the Pharaoh, was likely dipping his finger into core-formed glass kohl tubes to apply dramatic eyeliner. A few thousand years later, three wealthy astrologer kings presented extravagant gifts to a barn-born infant, their frankincense and myrrh possibly housed in receptacles of blown glass, a nascent Syrian art form. During the Middle Ages, glass blowing in the Republic of Venice became so prized that the entire industry was moved to the nearby island of Murano to preserve their glass blowing secrets
Pipe smoking’s history is just as rich. Pharaohs’ pyramids housed copper pipes used in religious rites. Scythian tomb excavations uncovered 2,500 year-old golden bongs that tribal chiefs hit. Native Americans had been smoking tobacco from pipes thousands of years before European explorers in the 1500s brought the lucrative leaf home. And in 1728, the discovery of porous carvable meerschaum led to an explosion of creative pipe designs that are still valued as art collectables.
Flash forward to the 1970s, when the pipe and glass worlds finally coalesced. Bob Snodgrass, a glass artist who toured with the Grateful Dead selling pipes, revolutionized the pipe industry with his elaborate designs and innovations. He developed borosilicate or hard glass pipes and discovered fuming, whereby glass mixed metals change color as they are heated.
He started the Eugene Glass School in Oregon and built a following of dedicated glass blowers. Glass pipes and bongs became more intricate and experimental. What were once objects of utility became fantastical art layered with color and light. The industry spread globally, and Snodgrass secured his place as the glass pipe Godfather.
Attending those Dead shows, Jason Harris was mesmerized by the art form. “The glass itself is an ancient alchemy. It’s like magic,” he says of the malleable, expressive substance.
Harris sought out Snodgrass and became his apprentice for years before venturing out on his own to create Jerome Baker Designs. His company became a multi-million-dollar leader in the creation of high-concept pipe art, selling glass to such notable figures as George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, and George Clooney. But in 2003, the glass pipe market collapsed during the DEA’s sting “Operation Pipe Dreams,” which targeted dozens of businesses selling drug paraphernalia. Harris’s entire stock was confiscated and he was placed on house arrest. Famed actor Tommy Chong, who operated Chong Glass Works/Nice Dreams, got nine months in prison. The U.S. government treated these artists as if they were cartel members.
Authoritarians attacking art is not a new concept. In 1937, Hitler denounced and banned “Degenerate Art,” often created by Jews, Communists, the Expressionist, and even jazz artists. The Soviet Union censored and destroyed literature, art, film, and music and arrested artists deemed damaging to their ethos. In the last century, underground forms of expression including graffiti, rap music, and even skateboarding have met government push back. Yet time and popular acceptance have transformed the subversive into the conventional. Now Banksy street art is a collector’s dream, the X-Games are televised internationally, and Kanye West is working on his next billion.
The 2011 documentary Degenerate Art highlighted the underground art of glass pipe blowing and its search for legitimacy in the art world. In fact, the mainstream glass art scene has directly benefited from the evolution of the glass pipe world. In the film, glass manufacturer Henry Grimmett of Glass Alchemy says, “Any advancement you’ve seen in the sculptural world has all come from advancements in the pipe.”
Yet pipe art is still regarded as the glass world’s prodigal son because of its association with marijuana. Many pieces could compete with any Dale Chihuly sculpture in the Corning Museum of Glass, but add a bowl and carb and suddenly it’s lambasted as mere paraphernalia like any old crack pipe.
Operation: Pipe Dreamers Encourages Legitimacy, Community, And Competition
But sometimes the stars align. Jason Harris and Jason Wald, director of “The World Series of Poker,” conceived of the show Operation: Pipe Dreamers, a cheeky play on the harsh governmental sting. The goal of Operation: Pipe Dreamers is in part to reverse the gen-pop perception of glass pipe art and marijuana consumption.
“We’re just part of a bigger-picture political process of legalization,” says Harris. “I’m super stoked to be alive during this, it being a little arm of social justice.”
To reinforce the validity of the art form, they’ve recruited renowned glass sculptor Karen Willenbrink-Johnsen as one of the judges to preside over the competition. She studied under such revered glass masters as William Morris and the late Pino Signoretto of Murano.
“By bringing someone as elite as Karen, we have changed the whole canvas,” says Wald, who aims through Operation: Pipe Dreamers to add legitimacy to glass pipe makers and the marijuana industry in general.
“I look at pipes like the fine goblets of 16th-century Murano,” says Willenbrink-Johnsen when asked about pipe artists’ future in the greater glass art world. “I think within the next few years, it’s going to be accepted in museums because they’re going to take away that wall of uncertainty. They’re allowed to acknowledge the aesthetics of it instead of ‘this is a vessel to smoke this bad, bad marijuana.’”
Top on Jason Wald’s list of goals for Operation: Pipe Dreamers is highlighting the altruistic nature of these glass makers. “If you watch any show that’s reality based around competition – they make cupcakes; they make knives – what happens after that? Where do those knives go? Where do those cupcakes go? In our show, the pipes that are made, and they will be beautiful pieces, will be up for charity auction.”
“We all need to remember we’re a community. We all need to give back,” says Harris. “That’s why we are going to donate … proceeds to Pilchuck Glass School to educate young glass blowers. It’s leading by example.”
A stalwart of this community and top ambassador for the glass piper movement and marijuana legalization, Tommy Chong, has signed on to the Operation: Pipe Dreamers team. He will voice the opening of the show and perform all the voice over work for each episode. He is also full committed to be a sitting judge for season two of Operation: Pipe Dreamers, which is already in the pre production stages.
Harris, who, alongside Chong, has experienced first hand the harsh realities of government crackdowns and has fought in the trenches to legitimize marijuana and its associated businesses, sees Operation: Pipe Dreamers as being the vanguard for mainstream acceptance and political change.
“Were on the cusp here. All we have to do is tip it off the edge,” he says. “It’s about education. Operation: Pipe Dreamers is a little pawn in the big chess game of legalization.”
The first season of Operation: Pipe Dreamers will air this year on YouTube.