South Florida's Best Glassblowers Turn Bongs Into Art

Jay Scott, sporting a brown ponytail and a shirt that exposes his tattoos, walks through Habatat Galleries in West Palm Beach, past Dale Chihuly's fluorescent, coral-like cylinders and William Morris' display of ancient tools. The 39-year-old weaves among pieces created by some of the world's most renowned glass artists and then stops at the back of the store. Then he picks up a spiky blue alien sculpture.

His partner Lindsey, who inherited the gallery from her retired parents in 2009, flashes a coy smile as Jay twirls the $20,000 piece, revealing its bright colors and elaborate workmanship. But this one is different. It's "functional," Jay says.

In other words, it's a bong.

"The older generation have this propaganda in their head that only dirty criminals deal with marijuana and pipes," Jay says. "You have to show them that this is real art, and that it makes a statement, and that it takes real talent to make fine art that also has a function."

The Scotts didn't anticipate the blowback they would face when they began selling bongs.

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As 25 states have legalized medical or recreational marijuana, the market for such "functional" glass pieces has grown quickly, and there's been an unexpected side effect: a new appreciation for the sheer artistry of bongs. Gallery owners such as the Scotts, smoke shop owners, and glass artists say the industry has taken off in the past five years.

Yet in Florida, it's still controversial to make and sell artworks that can also be used to torch weed. The Scotts didn't anticipate the blowback they would face when they began selling bongs from their quaint periwinkle gallery on Clematis Street in 2014. After the pair's first show featuring glass pipes from all over the country, some of their older artists threatened to pull their art.

But the Scotts didn't give in, and two years later, the extravagant marijuana rigs are an eighth of their gallery's inventory and sell for just as much as many traditional glass pieces. Established art collectors invest in bongs and even purchase insurance for them.

That's not to say life as a Sunshine State bong-maker is easy. Just three years ago, state Rep. Darryl Rouson tried to ban all retail pipe sales. His push failed, but smoke shop owners and artists must say their work is for tobacco use only — even if it's a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer. If a piece breaks, artists risk a possession charge if they agree to pick up and fix a piece full of pot residue. Many local glass artists who make pipes use fake names and prefer to work in the shadows.

Floridians will decide in November whether to legalize medical marijuana, a move that could narrow the gap between fine and functional art. Some of South Florida's most talented glass artists are pining for the change, but in the meantime, they're still selling their work for thousands of dollars on Instagram and in local smoke shops.

From a vaunted art-school grad to the region's first salaried glass artist position, they're displaying their artwork with pride to break the pothead stigma that has undermined their trade.

"Over the years, functional glass art has been one of those things that refuses to be ignored," Jay Scott says. "Galleries will slowly have to accept this is art. As a business, we knew that the only way to stay relevant was to evolve with the times."

Chadd Lacy and Adrienne DiSalvo: The Academics

Chadd Lacy, clad in a green shirt that reads "Make Pipes Not War," pulls a glob of molten glass from a 1,080-degree kiln inside his cramped studio without air conditioning in Boynton Beach. The boyish 34-year-old glass artist lowers his didymium goggles, which block harmful UV rays, and ignites a geyser of orange flame at the torch. He blows into a glass rod and inflates the transparent bubble.

One of Lacy's whale pipes can sell for as much as $7,000.

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After hours of delicate exhales and careful flicks of his wrist, Lacy will mold the body of a foot-tall sperm whale sculpture that doubles as a pipe. They're all one-of-a-kind and not in the style of cartoonish animals created by other glass artists. The whales are typically designed so that marijuana (or tobacco) is packed in the blowhole. A hole by the tail is for inhaling, and a harpoon acts as a dabber.

Lacy's final product is aimed at heady art aficionados with some serious cash to invest. One of his whale pipes can sell for as much as $7,000. He connects with clients either through direct message from one of his 7,061 Instagram followers or by selling through smoke shops, some as close as Kendall's Holy Smokes and some as far away as Just Another Gallery in San Diego.

"It's the weirdest thing; there's this culture of dab kids and heady boys that are so enthusiastic about this," Lacy says, shaking his head. "Now I don't understand the enthusiasm, but I don't question it."

Lacy didn't plan a lucrative bong-making career. After graduating from the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia in 2004, he moved to Ohio to teach glassblowing at the Cleveland Institute of Art. He never expected to leave academia; he had seen too many classmates abandon their art for the stability of a 9-to-5 job. But he was intrigued by the others who had segued into the functional-art world.

He had dabbled with pipe-making in art school for fun. Even though functional art was somewhat stigmatized, he had sensed a shift in attitudes, especially as more states began legalizing medical and recreational marijuana.

"In the last four to five years, a lot has picked up in the heady-glass world, and more people appreciate the artistry," he says. "I came in late to the boom, so it was important that I carved out a niche."

Lacy's fine art has been exhibited in galleries across the globe. One of his pieces features figurines of tree stumps and rain clouds juxtaposed with houses and business suits. The piece hints at man's lack of control over the natural world, he says.

When Lacy sidestepped into the functional-art world, that same theme carried over. After reading Herman Melville's Moby Dick to his wife and fellow artist Adrienne DiSalvo, the pair concentrated on creating whale rigs together. That was two years ago. The duo moved to Florida last July. Now, Lacy blows the glass whale body, and DiSalvo engraves the exterior from designs in her sketchbook.

"At first, they were just sculptures with no function," DiSalvo says. "Then he made larger whales, and it all just meshed together. He got so much traction, and it just took off."

Bradley Miller: The Forefather

Perched at his regular sports bar in Kendall, Bradley Miller raises his empty pint glass to the chandelier. The burly 30-year-old squints, examining the workmanship. "Is this art? Can art be functional? At what point does art become a craft?" he asks rhetorically, whirling the pint glass. "I don't know the answer, but it's an interesting philosophical debate."

"At the end of the day, it's still taboo."

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Miller began blowing glass more than a decade ago and, after racking up more than 12,000 hours behind the torch, has carved out a loyal following in the functional-glass-art world. He makes colorful, kaleidoscopic pipes, bongs, and rigs from a makeshift studio in his Kendall garage. They sell for as much as $3,500 and can be found locally at the U Smoke Shop. Miller has seen the industry transform and is considered by many to be the forefather of heady art in South Florida.

"I never saw it as a career," Miller admits. "At the end of the day, it's still taboo. The only difference is that now there are people willing to spend $2,000 to $3,000 for their collections."

Born and raised in Kendall, Miller never expected to be a professional glassblower. He comes from a family of educators and studied at Miami Dade College to become a math teacher. In the evenings, he took ceramics classes for fun. He became fascinated with the glassblowing class on the other side of the studio. He bought a torch and taught himself.

Miller never graduated from college. He took an entry-level job at a medical supply factory but couldn't resist making small pendants and lopsided hand pipes in the company kiln. He soon realized he could make a small living off it and quit his job against his family's wishes.

At first, he tried to sell his hand pipes, which he admits now were frumpy and amateur, to local smoke shops. Smokey's Paradise in Kendall was the first place to buy. He received no more than $300 at a time, but it was enough to help cover the costs of the glass, color, and, eventually, equipment.

That was seven years ago, and Miller has since upgraded to more complex pipes. He's known for his use of vibrant colors. Even though his rigs now sell for ten times more than his first pieces, Miller is modest about his success. "I don't want a fancy car or a mansion," he says. "I just want to be able to go out and drink a couple beers."

Interestingly enough, Miller doesn't smoke marijuana. He doesn't have anything against it, he says; he simply prefers unwinding with a few brews.

He remembers how difficult it was to get started as a pipe-maker and has now taught a few apprentices the craft, including his friend John, who blows pipes only as a hobby and is known online as "Pringles Glass." The pair spends evenings torching, drinking beers, and working into the early morning in Miller's Kendall studio.

"It's addicting," John says. "We're like moths. The color of the flame is therapeutic."

Miller adds, "There's no threat of competition. The market is big enough for all of us. Everyone smokes, and glass breaks."

Aaron Uretsky: The Employee

Aaron Uretsky saunters into Mr. Smokes, a smoke shop located beside an ice-cream parlor in an unassuming shopping center in Sunrise. Unlike other smoke shops in South Florida, Mr. Smokes is spacious and well-lit and functions more like an art museum: The glass pipes, some listed for as much as $25,000, are displayed in glass cases throughout the store.

Uretsky, a glass artist originally from California, ping-pongs from case to case, pointing out his favorite pipes: a $15,000 piece depicting a cartoony pope and a $25,000 work that looks like a surrealist's machine gun.

"As a business, we knew that the only way to stay relevant was to evolve with the times."

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He pauses when he reaches the exhibit along the back wall. A handful of $2,000 pipes of hip alligators and inebriated koalas are propped beside a placard with Uretsky's name. He made them all in the fully equipped studio in the back of the store.

The 27-year-old is one of the first and only glass artists to land a salaried position making glass pipes. Legally, Uretsky must say his pipes are for tobacco use only, but as Florida — he hopes — inches toward legalization this November, Uretsky's job might be all the more common as local smoke shops race to meet demand.

"I always knew making a living off pipes was a possibility, but there's not a lot of salaried gigs out there," Uretsky admits. "It's rare to find a glass artist waiting for a paycheck."

Uretsky comes from a family of cops in northern California. Art was always his passion, and as a kid, he sketched koalas and alligators at school. In art classes, he dabbled in ceramics and glassblowing. His teachers told him to pursue art, but when he graduated, he became a manager at a ski resort in Lake Tahoe instead. The mundane work made him unhappy, and he quit after accepting an apprenticeship with a local pipe-maker there.

Marijuana isn't as stigmatized on the West Coast, Uretsky explains. Medical marijuana passed in California in 1996, and local artisans for decades have been making bongs for shops. In 2010, Uretsky was grateful to have a mentor criticize him for rushing through the lessons and not concentrating on technique.

"Some of these top-tier glassblowers, some of whom went to the same top-tier art schools, really paved the way for us," Uretsky says. "No longer are we the degenerates people look adown on. They made what we do art."

Uretsky carved out a niche creating marijuana pipes of cartoon-like animals. He sold some online through Instagram, but the majority of his income came from smoke shops on the West Coast that paid $500 to $3,000 for his works. He did that for two years until he accepted a salaried position last October 1 at Mr. Smokes. Now he spends most days from about 11 a.m. to midnight in the studio behind the store with his Siberian husky, Remy.

"I don't just want this to sit on the mantle," he says. "I look forward to seeing my pieces sell, to know that the people who buy it will cherish and use it."

Luis Valez: The Newcomer

On a searing Sunday, Luis Valez is set up outside a Kendall smoke shop blasting reggaeton. The 24-year-old, whose dreadlocks are pulled into a loose ponytail, stands behind a flame. A crowd flocks in front of Valez's table to watch him make functional glass art. He's been blowing glass for less than two years, and demonstrations such as these help with networking.

"I have to get my name out," Valez says. "Anyone can blow glass. I'm trying to move away from what others are doing and make these really cool, complex pieces."

He's known in the functional-art world as Lu Glass. He hasn't been blowing glass for long but has gained traction in the past few months — landing nearly 3,000 Instagram followers along the way.

"Anyone can blow glass. I'm trying to make these really cool, complex pieces."

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A self-taught glassblower with no lofty art-school background, Valez isn't always taken seriously by some of the older, more experienced functional glass artists. But he doesn't mind. He focuses on creating elaborate pipes, typically with morbid zombies and bloody, amputated appendages. Without as much acclaim as the other functional artists, though, Valez's art sells for significantly less.

"Somebody who has a name can bring in thousands for a pipe, but without a name, it's more like 500 bucks," he shrugs. "It's still good money."

Born in the Dominican Republic, Valez moved to Miami when he was 5. He had always appreciated glass. It started with snow globes as a kid and evolved to hand pipes and rigs at smoke shops. He dreamed of making pipes himself. But as the son of an ice-cream-truck driver, he took jobs at Pizza Hut and Home Depot, and after graduating from high school, he worked as a handyman.

Valez couldn't stay away from art, though. He purchased a tattoo gun and practiced on himself — a Luigi cartoon on his left thigh, a skull on his right. But Valez wanted to make pipes. He didn't have the thousands of dollars to invest in a torch or a kiln. In March 2015, he sold his beloved Honda Shadow motorcycle for $5,000 to construct a studio in his parents' garage.

Valez says he trained himself by watching YouTube videos. He burned himself a handful of times and has gotten broken glass trapped under his skin. "Breaking glass is expensive," he jokes. "You have to learn quickly."

Like other glass artists, Valez got his start at local smoke shops in Southwest Miami-Dade. Smokey's Paradise in Kendall currently has one of his zombie rigs on sale for $474.

Smokey's Paradise owner Julio Camps says it's important to support young glass artists like Valez. Camps holds demonstrations at his shop once a month and isn't wary of purchasing a lopsided hand pipe, even if it doesn't sell. "I take as much as I can. To me, it's all worthwhile," Camps says. "I believe in the art and don't want any artist to leave empty-handed if it's good work and they spent good time on the piece."

In the future, Valez hopes to collaborate with better-known artists. But his real dream is to break into the fine-art world and take on a job that makes his mother proud. Earlier this year, Valez showed his mother, who is a strict Christian, a bonsai tree pipe he spent an entire week making.

"She thought it was beautiful," he says, "but she wished it was just art."