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Oregon’s Liberty Glass Builds Cult Following

3 May 2010 News 21,897 views 122 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

 As a teen marijuana enthusiast in Northern California, Chris “Buddha” Miller fell in love with glass pipes whose initially minimal colors filled out beautifully as resin collected inside of them. He would drive from his home in Sacramento to San Francisco, where the most elaborate and well-crafted glass could be purchased — for a sizeable price.

“That’s where all my money went as a kid, aside from paying bills,” says Miller, 35. It’s April 20, and he’s in the midst of celebrating the third anniversary of Liberty Pipes in downtown Gresham, a southeast Oregon suburb adjacent to Mt. Hood.

Miller has a shaved head and a tattoo of Buddha on his estimable belly. He’s hard of hearing and easy in bearing. And the Portland businessman’s recollections of driving along the westernmost leg of Interstate 80 send him into a genuinely educational sort of revelry.

“That’s where I heard about Oregon glass blowers,” Miller says.

The fume-work glass that captured the hearts of Chris Miller and countless others were the work of Bob Snodgrass, the pioneering Eugene glassblower. Snodgrass’ work was so influential that a scene sprouted up around him, one that’s spread to Portland and, in the post-Tommy Chong Internet age, points beyond. Now the Sacramento kid who was so spellbound by glass work is among those creating and selling high-end pipe pieces and building a cult of admiration.

“Our industry is really starting to blow up. We’re getting respect for the craft of what we do,” says Miller. The upper-echelon product in Liberty Pipes is listed at $3,000; most go for significantly less, with a few selling for as little as $10 or $20. “We’re starting to be like porn stars, with our own little awards.”

Competitions for blowers of outrageously detailed glasswork have come to offer cash prizes of ad much as $15,000 and individual pipes have reportedly fetched $4,000. Trade shows in Las Vegas such as the American Glass Expo draw international collections of buyers and sellers.

With its evocative Tattooski Johnson storefront mural contrasting brilliantly with staid Gresham, Liberty Pipes is doing its part to carry the mantle for an Oregon-bred milieu that promotes a stylish individualism among marijuana consumers. Inside the industrial kitchen-size store—which previously had been the Spencer Gifts-style Looking Glass, with cheap pipes in a back room—glass creations dominate. Liberty offers a stunning array of “Sherlocks,” smoking devices in the mode of Sherlock Holmes’ pipes, bongs, and the self-explanatory “Hammer”-style pipes. These fill glass cases that nearly surround Liberty’s periphery. Supplies for the craft of making glass pipes have a space in the room, too.

The style most associated with Miller is sandblasted glass. When he relocated to Portland in his 20s, Miller came into contact with the pipe-making community that had blown his mind back in Northern California. To Miller’s surprise, a number of artists told him he was a natural at working with glass. He bought some equipment, quit his day job and, after setting aflame at least one apartment rug, settled into sandblasting as his signature technique.

The process allows for deeply carved art to be festooned about the pipe’s surface. Then, a visual artist—often Tattooski Johnson in Miller’s case—draws the images found on his pipes. One piece at Liberty that goes for $150 features a vivid depiction of undersea life. It was made by transferring the aquatic images from paper to film, then moving them onto their Pyrex destination.

“With sand-blasting, you can put anything on [pipes],” he says.

Miller’s store saw steady traffic during its anniversary celebration, but he admits that the remote location of Liberty has limited its commercial success. His direct sales to aficionados and other stores has so far propped up the Gresham store. Still, business is good enough that Miller has plans to annex the space next door so that he hold classes on glass-making and, perhaps, open a café.

Such bright prospects are a far cry from 2003 when the federal investigation Operation Pipe Dream nabbed activist/comedian Tommy Chong and showed the government was willing to spend millions of taxpayer dollars to rein in water pipes. The making of glass pipes went underground; their makers didn’t see the risk in making it commercial enterprise.

 “I love Liberty Glass,” Miller says. “The name has very deep meaning for me.”


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