For most people, a pipe or bong is a tool. But for glassblower Matt Phunk, these glass tools are ornate works of art that happen to get you really, really high.
“I started collecting glass,” Phunk explains in the office of his glassblowing workshop. It looks like any other industrial set up, a small office in the front, and a large working area in the back. “I think a lot of it started with the pipe movement,” he says.
The pipe movement refers to glass blowers realizing there was a growing market for people who wanted novel, artistic glassware. “Originally, people made pipes with maybe just one or two colors to try and sell them as quickly and cheaply as possible.”
But competition from Indian and Chinese glass manufacturers meant that North American glass blowers needed to pivot. Instead of blowing as many cheap, basic pipes as possible, glass blowers started to invest dozens or hundreds of hours on a single piece. “Around then we saw a pretty big shift in how people in the community started thinking about glass.”
Phunk started to blow glass in 2009 and spent the next several years bouncing around from friend’s garages and work sheds refining his craft.
After a stint in the Entrepreneurship program at Ryerson University, Phunk figured he had the knowledge and technical skills to fill the niche formerly occupied by Toronto Arts Glass. That’s when he started Toronto Flameworking Technologies LTD.
Toronto Flameworking Technologies has several workstations, where Phunk makes his own pieces and offers lessons to other people who want to take up the hobby. “We got a lot of people from every walk of life. They like to come in and get a few hours on the flame when they finish their day job,” he says.
It’s not uncommon to see Phunk, a big, burly man next to a skinny guy with dreadlocks. Across from him, a woman in her 60s quietly working away on decorative hummingbirds. “A lot of people come in here and don’t make pipes at all. They go for things like ornaments.”
Since Phunk started Toronto Flameworking Technologies, a few former students have graduated to full-fledged glass blowers themselves. One of these people is Michael Shulman. Shulman’s story tracks like many other creative artists. He followed parental pressure to an intense university program, then dropped out and pursued his passion.
Like Phunk, Shulman started off as a collector. “For me, it was bowls. They were cheap enough that you could actually build a decent little collection,” Shulman said. “It was so cool to be able to identify artists and compare with other people online.” Shulman had some experience before he came to Toronto Flameworking Technologies, but after some lessons and tinkering, he’s managed to make glass blowing his full-time job.
The actual process of glassblowing has modernized over the centuries. Viral videos of massive cauldrons filled with molten glass are popular, but those show a process that’s centuries old. Contemporary glassblowers use a different, stronger type of glass that can go right into the flame without damage.
“The modern glass we use really opens things up for collaboration. Three or four people can work on a piece with no problem,” says Phunk.
In place of a giant cauldron is a small torch that fires out a flame. The blower can control the intensity of the flame with their foot. Each piece starts with long cylinders of glass. Phunk shapes the end of a cylinder into a bulb, then blows into the end, expanding the glass.
Colour is filtered in later, again with long cylinders. But before the color can be melted into the actual piece, it needs to be made into whatever pattern the blower wants for the final piece. Then the glassblower can weld the color. Once that’s done, a small section of what will eventually be bong is complete. This only takes a few minutes, but depending on how complicated any given piece may be, it could have dozens of sections.
Shulman and Phunk acknowledge that it’s more exciting to be a glassblower now than ever, but they are nostalgic. “Pieces are way more expensive now,” Phunk says. Even though he benefits from the rising costs in the industry, he can’t help but acknowledge that it can “shut some people out.”
Along will the ballooning costs, Facebook obliterated all the old online community. “There’s still a tight-knit community, but it’s a little different than it was. New artists and old vets would share work the day after it was done,” says Phunk.
Even though things have changed over the years, the one constant in the glass blowing community has been a love and an appreciation of weed. “That’s definitely how I fell in love with the medium,” says Shulman. “The growth of the marijuana industry has been great for the glass blowers. It’s definitely an exciting future.”
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