FIA’s ‘Torched: Glass Pipes’ exhibit showcases functional art pieces that will blow your mind

FLINT, Michigan — The contemporary glass collection at the Flint Institute of Arts (FIA) is one of many highlights that have been part of the museum for decades. And now, the FIA is adding a new and exciting collection that explores the world of glass pipes and the historical significance of pipe-making. 

Sarah Kohn, the curator of collections and exhibitions for FIA, has been working for the museum for 10 years. While focusing on the world-class glass and ceramic collection that the FIA offers, she was able to be introduced to the world of pipe-making. 

“Pipes have been around since the Ancient Egyptians, actually probably even prior to that,” says Kohn. “They initially were made of materials like wood, bone, or even stone. They've been used to smoke things like tobacco, different herbs, and all sorts of different things, but glass pipes are an interesting–a little bit more contemporary–phenomenon.”  

Kohn estimates that the glass pipe-making trend started sometime in the 1970s or 80s and is now one of the fastest-growing elements of the contemporary glass movement. 

Elissa Newmeyer (Elnew Glass), American, What Punishments of Gods Art Not Gifts, 2022. Borosilicate glass, 8 x 6 1/2 x 3 inches. (Photo Credit: Elissa Newmeyer)
Bob Snodgrass, a renowned flameworking artist in the pipe community, started out in the 80s by making and selling small color-changing pipes and would sell them outside Grateful Dead concerts. This would help be a jump start for the ever-growing glass-making community. 

“Because the FIA has a really robust contemporary glass collection, we are consistently looking at what is going on in the glass art world,” says Kohn. “We're seeking out new artists and we're looking at things that are changing and developing. One of the things that we were introduced to pretty early on in our exploration of contemporary glass was the pipe world.”
Bishop Randall, Turtle Island, Waiting on Change, 2022. Sand-carved borosilicate, glass, and copper. Copper Electroplating: Ryan Fitt and Jared Cortland. (Photo Credit: Jared Cortland)
Kohn explains that there are major gatherings of artists throughout the country, getting together and making glass pipes. “We started to realize that there was a very large community of glass makers out there doing really innovative things and we wanted to really explore that.”

Glass pipe-making was not always as popular as it is today, and for a long time, it was an underground phenomenon. It was not until the world became more accepting of the cannabis industry that this underground community was able to emerge. 

“This industry kind of came out from being a little bit more underground, you really start to see people noticing things that they hadn't seen before,” Kohn says. “A lot of people haven't seen their first real sculptural pipe. They have an idea of what these look like as you see them in pop culture and movies, but this is taking it to another level and making something that is still functional and turning it into something that is 100% an artwork.”

For the exhibition, the FIA reached out across the nation for their artists working throughout the country and all the art in the exhibition has been made within the last 10 years, shares Kohn.

“You've got artists who are already out there making things with glass, and they also figure out how to make these objects functional,” says Kohn. “Then you don't want to stop there as a creative person, you really want to push the boundaries. That's exactly what the artists in this exhibition have done, whether it’s revolutionizing a technique or exploring a narrative.”
Shayla Behrman (Windstar Glass) and James Lynch (Hicdogg), Spirit, 2021. Borosilicate glass. (Photo Credit: Daren Miller)
The FIA also has an art school, where they teach glassmaking classes, so you can give glass-making a try as well. They have traditional glass-making classes and glass-blowing classes as well as a relatively large flameworking studio. 

Kohn says when they are thinking about curating exhibitions, they like to think about the educational aspect and how they can make connections between what's in the museum and what is taught in the art school. “Someone can come to an exhibition and see really interesting shapes made out of glass rods, and then they can go take a flameworking class in our art school.”

Kohn encourages the public to attend the glass pipes exhibit as it will leave you in awe and she shares that what you see in the exhibition is not like anything you are going to see in the museum. 

The FIA has beautiful flamework glass but adding that little complex layer of functionality is impressive, shares Kohn. “These artists are not just thinking of creating a sculptural form, but they're also thinking about how someone would use this if they chose to.”

“People are more interested in pipe-making because of the quality of artwork that these artists are creating,” says Kohn. “This exhibit reinforces that, and it pushes boundaries of what you might think you're going to see and you're going to see something that's going to leave you speechless.”

The ‘Torched: Glass Pipes’ exhibit is open from April 20 until October 1, 2023. Tickets can be purchased at the FIA, although FIA members and Genesee County residents get free admission. Tickets include not just the glass pipes exhibition, but the entire museum. 
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Read more articles by Sarah Markstrom.