“Banjo” Studio Spotlight
I am one of seven siblings. I can relate to the complexities and comforting unity of a big family. The pressures of supporting a family of that size must have been taxing for my father. Back then the cost of living was much less than that of today. Glass artist/pipemaker Banjo, father of six, is a rare breed in the functional glass community. His career, spanning 15 years, represents the interesting dynamic of being a dedicated glass artist and devoted family provider. After attending the 1st Annual Humboldt Harvest Glass Gathering back in October. I had the opportunity to visit him and his family. Nestled in the Redwoods just north of Arcata, California are a two-story house, a studio workshop, and enough open space to entertain any number of energetic and adventurous children. I could see how this artist could immerse himself into a project and devote countless hours to creating masterpieces. With the recent Habitat shows in Florida highlighting the glass counter culture surge into the mainstream art scene, Banjo is one of an elite group taking charge of an art movement that can no longer be ignored. Banjo will be a featured artist in Contemporary Pipemaking: A Showcase of True Underground American Art, exhibiting from December 4-7, 2014 at Habatat Galleries during Art Basel Miami.
“Banjo Studio” Crew
Banjo and his assistant Tyson Peltzer
1. Considering that most people in the glass blowing community know who you are, when and how did you first become interested in making glass art? How much did you sell your first heady piece for?
Banjo: The first glass pipes I ever remember seeing were in a headshop called “Stairway to Heaven” in Ann Arbor, Michigan around 1995. I was in college- maybe 18 or 19 years old and I remember being impressed with the craftsmanship. (Somebody- probably a neon sign maker) – was bending a long piece of thin wall tubing in a corkscrew shape with the tube then penetrating back through the corkscrew and ending with a small steamroller bowl. A college friend bought one and named it “Laverne” and we all were basically in love with it as we had only been aware of brass pipes and acrylic graphix bongs up to that point. It was a couple years later after dropping out of college and hitting the west coast hippie trail that I started seeing color-changing pipes. I noticed that the people who had these pipes also cherished them deeply, keeping them in ornately-decorated, handmade pouches and treating them with a great deal of respect. I remember around this time seeing a dragon double bubbler in Ashland Oregon that I later surmised was made by Marcel Braun that really opened my eyes to the possibility of glass pipes being an art form. The first time I saw somebody actually blowing glass was out in the middle of the woods at the Shawnee Regional Rainbow gathering in southern Illinois in 1998. In 1999, when my first daughter was 6 months old, I began a two-month “apprenticeship” with a 15-year-old high school dropout named Levi Beard. I paid his oxygen and in return he showed me what he had learned during his time working with Marcel and Jlee. (Inside out flares, how to push a bowl, butt seals, implosion marbles, etc.). I really owe Levi the hugest debt of gratitude for teaching me how to blow glass. I think I sold my first headpiece for about 10 dollars. I never really learned production so from day one, I always considered every piece I made to be “heady” even if they were horrendous. I still operate from that perspective.
2. What kind of challenges does making a living in this profession present?
Banjo: For me, the most obvious challenge is probably inherent to any career where you get to be your own boss. The workday never really ends. Often, when I step out of the shop for the day, my mind is still pretty wrapped up in the piece I am working on so learning to be present and available for my family has sometimes been a tough one. While I can say that this relentless dedication to my craft has resulted in plenty of achievements I can be very proud of, it has also introduced me to a fair share of difficult emotional terrain. Call me a wook, but my energy healer lady says there is a “deva” or spirit that represents my glasswork and it has been my habit to give “her” waaaaay too much of my attention. I suppose a western psychotherapist would say I’m “obsessive–compulsive” or “hyper–focused”, but I like the sound of the “deva” thing a lot better. Interestingly, I’ve noticed that most pipemakers tend to anthropomorphize the medium of glass to some extent, whether they get all new agey about it (as I shamelessly choose to do), or whether they just jokingly refer to the “glass gods” as some force that must be reckoned with.
Either way, I blame this force for making the first decade of my career a real motherfucker for my family. All I thought about, day in and day out was glass. I guess it was one thing I found that I could exert some degree of control over and admittedly, that wasn’t always healthy. I know I’m not alone in this; it seems pretty common among most highly motivated pipemakers I’ve known. I am very grateful to be blessed with a supportive wife and without her I would have probably gone insane a long time ago. She has been a serious badass in dealing with all this glass shit and with her help (and insistence) I have been doing a much better job getting ahold of my workaholic tendencies in recent years. Nowadays, I’m getting pretty good at putting the glass down when I leave the shop.
3. What kinds of rewards have there been?
Banjo: Thankfully, the rewards are wide-ranging and far more numerous than whatever challenges this path has presented. I believe that at the core of every one of us lies an unstoppable urge to manipulate and arrange things in both our inner reality and our external environment. We achieve this in myriad ways, whether it be through music, art, playing games, working business deals or even arranging boxes at the local Wal-Mart distribution center. The immutable tendency to solve problems creatively is innate to our species. To make my living as an artist, feeding my family while at the same time nurturing this creative core within myself is by far the biggest reward I can think of. It’s sad, but people who are unable to honor this creative aspect within them, at least to some degree, wind up pretty miserable. With that said, I find that inspiring fellow artists to discover and develop these creative inklings within themselves has always been very rewarding, and seems to satisfy my desire to make the world a better place. Being part of this community, constantly meeting an interesting and diverse array of people, and developing friendships and working relationships with them is a constant source of satisfaction. At this moment, I’m sitting with my family in a beautiful mountain vacation rental, looking out over Evergreen, Colorado. In the next few weeks, I’ll be collaborating here at studio Everdream with a group of insanely talented artists including Elbo, Quave, Joe Peters, WJC, Eusheen, Nate Miers, Tyson Peltzer, and Lyons glass in preparation for a show in Miami, Florida during Art Basel. It’s hard to imagine what other career I might have chosen that would have me enjoying the company and working with such a wily assortment of fun–loving characters, all hailing from different backgrounds and locations around the country. All this with no strict schedule or asshole boss to worry about pleasing! Whenever I’m lucky enough to step back from my work and recognize the bigger picture of my life, I see that it is a very charmed life indeed, filled with innumerable blessings and wonderful opportunities. I always like to quote my great friend and fellow artist, Chaz Pyle who once said, “There is no end to a good thing.“
4. What is it like living in the Pacific Northwest?
Banjo: Well, the weather is always perfect for blowing glass. It’s rarely too hot or too cold. Options for eating healthy organic food are basically becoming the norm and there are tons of hippies, some in disguise, some in denial, and some as flagrant as can be. It’s very friendly territory for open-minded artsy folk. Even the rednecks are eerie and fairly progressive around here.
5 What are your influences (in no particular order)?
Banjo: Legos, Bluegrass, my family, Alex Grey, robots, my mom, Allis Chalmers farm tractors, Lucio Bubacco, Barbara Brennan, H.R. Giger, Syd Mead, Pushead, Randy Rhoads, Star Wars, Earl Scruggs, all manner of psychedelia, Wook stuff, my dad, banjos and guitars, old machinery.
6. Could you lead me through your creative process?
Banjo: I typically start with an image that I have in mind and then try to imagine a way for air to travel through it, while keeping the volume of the vessels to an absolute minimum. Sometimes if it’s tricky, I’ll draw it out on paper so I can better visualize what in the piece needs to be hollow. For the most part, I prefer to construct everything out of solid components whenever possible, only involving hollow vessel work when absolutely necessary.
7. Knowing your work ethic of spending countless hours in the studio creating masterpieces, what do you enjoy doing away from the grind?
Banjo: Playing music is a big one. I play banjo and guitar and my wife plays mandolin.
Hanging out with my large and unruly gang of feral indigo children occupies quite a bit of my day. The last couple of years I’ve been doing a huge amount of meditating, sometimes for a of couple hours a day. It’s helped me to reel back in a lot of the energy I’ve given to the aforementioned boro deva.
8. As part of an elite group of popular glass artists that have paved the way for others, how do you think you’ve influenced the next generation of artists?
Banjo: When I teach classes, people always remark that they didn’t realize how much time and work goes into stuff. They tell me that seeing a complex process broken down into several simple steps helps them to look at their own methods in a new light. It’s funny; some artists are directly influenced by my visual aesthetic and methods for creating things while others make it a point to avoid what I’m doing completely in an attempt to carve out their own niche. Either way, I guess my influence is there. I like to think I provide inspiration for people to live a creative life. I had a list of artists whose work I admired when I started – Clinton, Darby, Marcel, Jlee, Pedro, Ezra, Chris Dawson, Jamin Diaz, and my teacher Levi Beard, just to name a few… Seeing these guys making such beautiful pieces and living life on their own terms was a huge inspiration for me and I’m not too humble to say I know I do the same for the next generation. I try to show that with passion and dedication, amazing things can happen.
9. What kind of intensity flows when you’re doing collaborations?
Banjo: Collaborations have always been a great excuse to get together with friends and contemporaries and basically have a party while actually having something to show for it the next day.
In the early part of my career, I did a lot of collaborating with my good friends Firefly, Daniel Leo, Shad, Chaz, Drew, and Mike Fro. Our styles evolved together and were very similar, so working together basically allowed us to produce a shitload of work in a very short time. In recent years I’ve been drawn to mix it up with artists who possess very different skills and aesthetic sensibilities from my own, so our collaborations produce works that would be very difficult for any of us to create by ourselves. Regarding the intensity that can flow, usually there is an inherent time limit because somebody always has to catch a plane…. This is often a blessing in disguise because it forces us to really push through the piece with an exceptional amount of drive. With little time to second–guess creative decisions, the creative spontaneity often functions at a much higher level than would be typical on a solo piece. I consider glass collaborations to be very analogous to making music. All the members of the band play different instruments, the bass, the lead, the rhythm, the vocals, etc…. With glass, everybody’s unique sculpting and patterning techniques come together in a similarly harmonious way. On another note, working closely with fellow artists in the glass shop for a few days is a terrific way to get to know one another.
Many of my favorite pieces have been made with friends. I find the idea of glass being the initial unifying factor in these friendships to be very cool.
10. Describe the transitional period that contemporary pipemaking is going through in becoming the true underground American art?
Banjo: In a sense, the notion that pipemaking is gaining ground in the wider art market is speculative at this point in time. While the fact that an established fine art gallery such as Habatat has chosen to present our work in a recent show does indicate that the tides might be turning, it’s anybody’s guess how long it will take before we enjoy widespread acceptance in popular culture. Pipemaking is a lifestyle where there is a strong personal connection between the makers and the fans. Nobody had to sell the idea that pipes are beautiful and attractive in order for this market to have developed. The work and energy that goes into the pieces does the marketing for us. As with many fringe movements that have preceded us, it is natural that mainstream interests are beginning to take notice of what we’re up to and that’s not going to change or slow down. I am stoked that I got to experience pipe art from a pretty early point in its history, first as a fan and collector, and then as an artist. That’s how it always goes and I’m very enthusiastic about the opportunities that might come from the widening appeal of this not-so-underground-anymore phenomenon.