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The Glass Menagerie

This november, legal recreational pot in oregon could change the functional art glass industry
Bob Snodgrass. Photo by Trask Bedortha.
Bob Snodgrass. Photo by Trask Bedortha.

The godfather of glass pipes works in a bus down by the Willamette River — make that a 1940s bus and a semi trailer outfitted with several workstations. Inside the bus, torch blazing, Bob Snodgrass focuses on a golden glass mushroom inside a pendant.

“I’ve been working more than 20 years trying to figure out how to do the gills,” Snodgrass says, pushing and pulling rods of molten glass over the flame. “And I just got it together.” Tubes of colored glass poke out like stalagmites from every surface of the bus. Overhead, silver vents are covered with stickers stating, “I miss Jerry” and “Support Local Glassblowers.” One bumper sticker says “Thank Bob for your Snoddy.” 

Thank Bob, indeed. Snodgrass put Eugene on the world map for functional glass art (i.e., pipes) more than three decades ago. He’s the artist behind the first Grateful Dead head piece. Under his pioneering flame and tutelage, the Eugene-Springfield glass scene in the 1990s became like Montmartre in the 1890s or Greenwich Village in the 1960s — a place where artists flocked, a hub where innovators rubbed shoulders and ideas spread like wildfire.

But perhaps you didn’t know that. Perhaps, when you think of the local glass industry, you don’t think of artists but of the Drug Enforcement Administration sweeping through Eugene in 2003 as part of what is still the largest drug paraphernalia raid the U.S. has ever seen — Operation Pipe Dreams. Images of federal agents in navy jackets carting stacks of boxes out of local smoke shops and warehouses are still imprinted on Eugene’s collective memory. Of the 55 nationwide arrests, including comedian and pot advocate Tommy Chong, two were in Eugene: entrepreneurs and artists Jason Harris and Saeed Mohtadi, owners of Jerome Baker Designs, one of the largest functional glass manufacturer in the world at the time. 

The bust sent a chill through the glassblowing community, a chill that has yet to completely thaw. In reporting this story, several people refused to speak to EW, several more didn’t return phone calls and still others insisted on anonymity. Those who did agree to talk made it crystal clear that any products made or sold were strictly for tobacco use by adults only.

Operation Pipe Dreams may have temporarily pushed the community underground, but it didn’t kill it. The local multimillion-dollar industry has recovered to numbers much greater than pre-bust, in both dollars and artists. 

In the last decade, the country has seen a cultural shift in attitudes about cannabis and with a petition headed to the November ballot, Oregon could become the third state to legalize recreational marijuana use. If Colorado and Washington are indicators, a green rush is nigh with a potential flood of “ganjapreneurs” and “green” tourism, meaning big business for ancillary businesses like functional glass art. 

In a gold rush you want to be selling shovels; in a green rush you want to be selling pipes, or the glass to make pipes, right? Some aren’t so high on the possibility. Eugene’s glass throne may have been usurped not only by competition from other states like Colorado, but other countries and industries as well.

 

The Alchemists

As recently as 2013, High Times magazine declared Eugene as the “undisputed capital of glassblowing.” Dave Winship, Eugene’s president of Colorado-founded Glasscraft, one of the largest glass distributors in the country, is not so sure.

“Denver is slowly taking over,” he says. “Right now everyone is moving to Denver because it’s legal and everyone can smoke weed and make pipes.” But, Winship notes it is Snodgrass who made Eugene “the center of the universe for glass pipes.”

Ask any pipe artist and he’ll tell you that it begins and ends with Snodgrass. Since first picking up a torch over four decades ago, Snodgrass has taken on dozens of apprentices and taught upward of a thousand students from all over the world. He has been flown as far as Japan to do glass demonstrations. His business, Snodgrass Family Glass, boasts 12 employees.

Originally from the East Coast, Snodgrass, 68, picked up glassblowing or, as he prefers to call it, lampworking, in Ohio in 1971. Before long, Snodgrass headed west with his wife and family, hitting up Grateful Dead shows where he pawned his glass marbles, figurines and pipes. 

“We came here in ’90 and there were three glass blowers in town,” Snodgrass says, sitting in a desk chair in the bus, his ginger cat Hilary weaving around his feet. Originally the Snodgrass clan only planned to stay the winter but, he recalls, “my friend says ‘Well, Eugene has better herb,’ and here I am.” 

A self-described inventor, Snodgrass stumbled across a game-changing alchemy: fuming. “The accidental discovery of silver fuming making color raised the bar on lampworking,” he says. When sprayed into hard glass, Snodgrass discovered that silver nitrate and gold chloride change colors as the inside of a pipe blackens. In other words, the more you smoke a fumed pipe, the prettier the colors become.

“It becomes dazzling when it’s done right. It’s real magic,” Snodgrass says. The technique made Snodgrass a pioneer, catching the attention of both the conventional glass art and functional glass art worlds. “That’s when I really started to learn as much as I could so I could teach somebody and be informed.” 

At that time, 1991, Jason Harris, who later formed the doomed glass empire Jerome Baker Designs, was just a curious kid at the University of Oregon. He had heard about Snodgrass and the two met at a Grateful Dead show.

“A few people used to come over to my house and watch,” Snodgrass says. “Jason Harris, the fellow that started Jerome Baker, he was the most enterprising of the bunch. They’d come over and watch and hang out and we’d party and get a lot done.” Snodgrass remembers Harris asking him to come see the makeshift glass studio in the garage of a house Harris shared near campus.

“They had three torches and like seven guys lived at that house,” he says. “Nobody knew what they were doing but it was the blind leading the blind. They were having a ball. All of sudden there’s 20 guys over there at the university trying to be glassblowers. From then it just kind of exploded exponentially.”

Eugene and Springfield’s pipe glassblowing community mushroomed from three people to hundreds. Stores began popping up selling specialized tools. Meanwhile, Winship was entering the scene from the other side.

 “It was never a direct decision,” Winship says of getting into the industry. “I was doing Saturday Market.” Winship began tinkering with glass in the late ’80s, and in the early ’90s he started procuring borosilicate glass for other artists. 

“Jerry Garcia was still alive. The Dead were touring. So I was getting this glass for this particular glassblower and he was sending it off on the road to the Grateful Dead parking-lot scene,” he remembers. “That progressed on through the mid to late ’90s. In the late ’90s into the two thousands it just continued to grow.”

Harris and Mohtadi, both glassblowers, set up Jerome Baker Designs and began selling glass across the country.

“JBD was the biggest manufacturing company in the world,” says Joe O’Connell, owner and manager of Cornterstone Glass’ campus smoke shop on 13th. “They were killing it.” 

“There was maybe five shops that were comparable to Jason’s that were pulling down millions of dollars and supporting 50 people or about. It was a large scene,” Snodgrass recalls. “Instead of going to a convention in Las Vegas to buy pipes, you’d run an ad in the paper that you were going to be in Eugene and that you were an interested buyer of glass pipes … Head shop buyers would come to this town.” He pauses, “That went away.”

 

Shattered Glass

On the morning of February 24, 2003, a team comprised of the DEA, the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force, U.S. Marshals, Secret Service and the Postal Service, under the guidance of then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, swept through smoke shops, distributors and manufacturing businesses across the country — 55 people were charged for violating federal drug paraphernalia laws, specifically U.S. Code Title 21 Section 863, which forbids selling, importing, exporting or using the mail system to transport drug paraphernalia — defined by the U.S. government as “products that are primarily intended or designed to be used in ingesting, inhaling or otherwise using controlled substances,” which includes everything from bongs and scales to small zipper storage bags.

Jerome Baker Designs was shut down and the merchandise confiscated. Higher Source, the smoke shop affiliated with JBD, was raided and closed, as well JBD’s distribution websites jeromebaker.com, ghettoweb.com and smokelab.com.

“It just ruined a lot of people,” Winship says. “One day you’re doing business and the next day there’s no revenue. No one is buying glass anymore. Everyone was shitting bricks. I laid everybody off.”

Jason Harris says he still hasn’t fully recovered from the bust. 

“It was spooky, you know, getting arrested and having everything, my entire life, swooped out from under me,” Harris says over the phone. “One day I was paying taxes on 70 employees and the next day I was getting my door banged down and every single thing I had and material possession was destroyed, gone.”

He continues, “I was 20-something years old, I was doing millions of dollars a year. You go from that to dead stop and owing hundreds of thousands, then it flips the switch real fast. It’s not like a sob story — there’s tons of people who go out of business for many different reasons. Lesson learned and I try to keep moving forward.”

Harris now lives in Maui, where he makes art glass. Before relocating to Hawaii, Harris did leave Eugene with a lasting legacy: the glassblowing program at the UO. “While I was on probation, most of the entire time I was working at the University of Oregon,” he recalls. “I got hired to build their glassblowing program at the EMU Craft Center.” 

 

From the Flames

“It dispersed everyone,” Winship says of the raid’s aftermath, but he adds, “Everyone runs for the hills. They wait a minute and now they’re all guerilla.”

When Operation Pipe Dreams hit Eugene, Cornerstone Glass was only in its fourth year of business as a pipe and glass distribution company.

“We were pretty low profile and underground. We weren’t like a big name company like we are now,” says Justin Sheppard, founder and owner of Cornerstone. “The people who were buying glass from us were going to jail and the other people who were buying glass from us that didn’t go to jail were closing their doors and shutting down and not answering phones and just hiding out because they didn’t know what to do.

“So our business went from manufacturing and packing and shipping and selling thousands and thousands of dollars in glass pipes every week to zero. We had a lot of infrastructure set up and bills to pay.”

Joe O’Connell, manager of the Cornerstone Glass campus shop and Sheppard’s partner, remembers that time. “I had about $36,000 worth of glass out to four or five distributors the day of Pipe Dreams. Everyone just shut and locked all their businesses,” he recalls. “It was really scary for a while. No one would buy glass.”

After the bust, Sheppard started roofing while making wine glasses and peddling them to local wineries. “There was a big adult toys rush,” O’Connell says. Several glassblowers started making glass dildos.  Local distributors like Glass Prodigy still sell locally made glass sex toys.

Surprisingly, the local glass industry, depending on whom you ask, only took about a year to begin to recover. 

“You’ve got 2,000 people who know how to blow glass,” Snodgrass says. “The lampworkers didn’t go anywhere.” 

The lampworkers may not have left Eugene, but other glass communities were popping up around the country.

“There are definitely a lot more blowers and so many people have started back up again and there’s so many new artists, and not just in Eugene,” Sheppard says. “The glass community in Colorado has blown up. The glass community in Philadelphia has blown up. The glass community in Austin, Texas, has blown up. So what happened in Eugene in the early ’90s, now I’m seeing it in other cities.”

About 18 months after the bust, Cornerstone opened its campus in the Whiteaker, which has grown to include a retail store, a large studio where artists can rent space and a glassblowing school where Snodgrass occasionally teaches. Cornerstone is also in its sixth year of hosting the annual Degenerate Flame Off (see ArtsHound), a competition and festival that attracts top glassblowers from across the globe. 

Several glass manufacturers and distributors now speckle the valley, such as Noble Glass, Sky Glass, Trident, Sweet Tooth Glass and Moon Stone Glass. In 2009, Winship’s Winship Designs merged with Colorado’s Glasscraft, becoming one of the largest glass suppliers in the West. Winship says that the current functional art glass economy in Eugene and Springfield is somewhere around $20 million. 

“The market is growing for all things weed,” Winship says. “It’s hard to say but there’s definitely tens of millions of dollars.”

 

Glass Houses

The federal drug paraphernalia laws that took down Jerome Baker Designs haven’t changed, yet the glass scene has managed to bounce back. 

The industry takes precautions. Cornerstone Glass will not do any online sales (one of the actions that brought JBD to the attention of the DEA), and every smoke shop and functional glass artist EW spoke with stated that the products they sell and make are for tobacco use only, and then only to adults. Several business owners said that if a customer uses the word “bong” in their store, the customer will be asked to leave. Smoke shops like Hunky Dory and Midtown Direct have signs plastered everywhere stating “For Tobacco Use Only.”

“It’s illegal for me to sell you a bong,” says Marianne Slason, owner of the Santa Clara Smoke Shop. She points to a sticker notice on her counter that says the shop will refuse service to anyone who uses the terms bong, weed, pot pipe, cook spoon, straight shooter, crack pipe or tooter. 

Sheppard also points to politics. 

“It starts with George Bush being the president at that time versus our president now,” he says sitting in his office in the Whit. “Right now, there’s a lot bigger fish to fry than someone making a pipe or a bong, especially with what’s going on in Colorado and Washington. They’re taking a big look at that and making sure that’s under control and in line.”

The shift has been palpable since the heady “War on Drugs” days of Ashcroft and Bush. Twenty states have legalized medicinal use and Colorado and Washington legalized recreational use last year. In 2013, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that the Department of Justice will no longer challenge state marijuana laws. And we have a president who not only admits to trying pot, but inhaling. As of 2014, the Obama administration also allowed banks for the first time to provide financial services to state-licensed marijuana businesses. 

Closer to home, the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act to legalize recreational marijuana of 2012 failed at the polls, with 47 percent voting in favor, though a statewide poll conducted in 2013 found that “57 percent of likely voters in Oregon support a proposal to tax, regulate and legalize marijuana for recreational use” in 2014. Pundits predict that Oregon will be the next to go full on recreational at the polls come November.

 

The Green Rush

Nick Brewer has worked at the Purple Haze smoke shop in Denver for two years. Before that, he worked at Midtown Direct smoke shop on 13th in Eugene, formerly the site of Higher Source, for nine. When asked if Colorado’s recreational legalization of marijuana has been a boon to his business, he laughs.

“There used to be just one person working in the store all the time, now we’re actually having to have two openers, two closers and a mid-shift,” he tells EW over the phone. “We opened a fourth store, which is like, not even enough.”  He says their glass has been marked up 300 percent and “people don’t even bat an eye.”

The same could happen for Oregon, Brewer says. “The one thing I noticed living there the jobs were very sparse and few between, which is really sad,” he says. “It’s creating a whole new job market. I think it would help the economy.”

Others in Eugene aren’t so sure.

“The fact that Colorado was the first out of the gate with recreational gives them a little advantage,” Winship says. He also notes the “implications for our borders,” meaning widespread legalization could lead to cheap imports flooding the market. 

“For the most part, the glassblowers in the U.S. have enjoyed a protected status. They have not had to compete with low-cost production in foreign countries. It’s been the perfect environment for art to flourish.” Winship adds, “These pipe makers are doing things that have really never been done in the 5,000-year history of glass. It’s not a renaissance, it’s brand new. It’s incredible.”

Sheppard of Cornerstone says that cheap imports have already made it past customs. “China and India and other countries are already illegally importing glass pipes into the country, so that’s what we’re competing with and we have for some time,” he says. “There are stores here in Eugene that carry import glass from China with drilled out holes they’re making in factories over there without ventilation, very unsanitary and unhealthy environments, and paying people in dirt basically.” Sheppard, along with O’Connell and others, say that L.A. is also rife with glass “sweatshops.” 

Slason of Santa Clara Smoke Shop buys from more than 150 local glass artists — 95 percent of her glass products are made locally. “There’s more glassblowers per capita in Eugene then anywhere else,” she says. “Why not buy local?” She says she expects there will be a boom in glass sales with legalization, but she worries that dispensaries might corner the market.

“We’re not interested in competing with them,” says David Evans, owner of the Emerald City Medicinal dispensary on 6th. “We recognize that they’ve built up an area of strength as well as inventory.” Emerald City Medicinal does sell a small collection of local glass pipes, Evans says, but they are more utilitarian than the art pieces you see in shops around town. 

 

Back in the bus, Snodgrass says he considers legalizing recreational marijuana as mostly a positive for the industry.

“It’s going to make it better. Maybe people will start coming back here instead of going to tradeshows all over the country. Maybe we’ll have our own tradeshow,” he says, purple John Lennonesque shades resting on his nose. “They’re going to say ‘That’s art.’ I always thought it was,” Snodgrass says, and returns to his torch.