I have known exactly the type of pieces that I wanted to make since high school. The idea of making ceramic bongs didn’t come from a desire to use them, it came for a place of intrigue after browsing Instagram for new ideas on what to make. After stumbling onto ceramist Daniel Nelson’s page and seeing his pieces, my heart was set on making some of my own. Due to the fact that making bongs is generally frowned upon by most high schools, I was unable to even try to make one until college. Once I was given the go ahead, I dove into production head on. These three earlier pieces show the generous amount of thought that I was putting into surface design at this time. This can be seen in the various types of surface techniques employed in these pieces and also in the varying degree of focus put into aesthetic design and/or representational design.
What these pieces do not show, however, is the amount of work and experimentation I was putting into interior components. For those that are not familiar with the mechanics of a bong, the general idea is that you are using water to cool the smoke of whatever herb you are inhaling. This is done by pulling the smoke through a down-stem (essentially a straw that goes into the interior of the piece), into water, before finally traveling through the mouthpiece and into your lungs. Another component of this system is a removable bowl piece that sits in the down-stem. This piece acts as both a holder for the herb and a carburetor to change air flow and allow for a hit to be taken.
Since I was making these pieces with no prior experience, my biggest hurdle was making these components not only work but work well. These pieces all feature hand thrown down-stems and bowls; I have since stopped throwing these components as they have proven to be both a hindrance to piece production and overall functionality. The down-stems tended to crack and generally not be up to par function-wise, and the bowl pieces were nearly impossible to size and lacked the “standardized sizing” that glass pieces have. Testing and re-testing these components using different styles and techniques is what shaped how I make pieces now; all in the pursuit of creating pieces with top-quality functionality.
After struggling with internal components and experimenting with different forms for way too long, I decided to make some drastic changes in my approach to making bongs. As mentioned in my last post, the first and biggest change was the cessation of hand building problem pieces, such as the bowl and down-stem. These components were to be replaced by premade glass components. By making this switch, I saved myself a lot of headaches in the production of each bong, and it also made them more user friendly. This made things easier for me, because I no longer had to deal with the down-stem (which was prone to cracking) or the sizing of the bowl (it is easier to size clay to glass rather than clay to clay, as clay shrinks at semi-predictable rates). The bongs became more user friendly due to the glass down-stem being removable (easier cleaning) and the standardized sizing of the bowl (easier to replace if lost or broken). These changes to the mechanics of my pieces also led to changes in the design process. Since I had finally figured out the internals of my pipes, I finally felt comfortable moving towards regular production. It was at this point that I started working in series, my first being the Shatter series, of which all these pieces are a part.
An 8-bong series, Shatter is largely inspired by Kintsugi; a Japanese approach to ceramic repair, that utilizes lacquer, gold, and other precious metals, to reform broken pieces. The idea being that there is beauty in the cracks and that they should be highlighted rather than hidden. The main difference from this series to actual Kintsugi is that the cracks in my pieces are simulated and “filled” with gold luster rather than gold lacquer. This, and the form of the pieces, were the only constraints that I had made for myself when conceptualizing this group of pipes. The surface designs were left open for me to explore different ideas. That is why the pieces vary so much in decoration, and why a majority of the series is just finished with different, solid colors. Having put so much effort into the mechanics of the pieces, up to this point, I was just starting to actually think about how I want to design the most visible part of my pieces.
Coming into 2020 I was excited to start a new series of pieces, with different design constraints. Many of the bongs from the Shatter series used slip (liquid clay with the consistency of “sour cream”) colored with mason stains, as a paint to decorate the surface. At that point, the colored clay stayed on the surface and the base was always the natural white of the porcelain. In the next series, I would use stains to color the main clay body so that I could create more color combinations and contrast in my compositions. Texture was also a large focus. Thinking about how the bongs would feel in the hand was the driving factor for this series.
Mixing mason stains into the clay body is a troublesome task when done by hand. Several hours of work for this series were spent kneading clay (and admittedly, several hours were also put into getting stain out of my clothes). That, and the onset of quarantine, kept the series unnamed and limited to five pieces. The first two, Thanks for the Boof, Abby and Thanks for the Boof, Jay, named for the friends that they were gifted too, were purely focused on creating a design through texture. Deeply carved sgraffito strips cut through the white or black surface, revealing the contrasting blue or yellow body beneath. This simple design was meant to be aesthetically pleasing but lacks any representative details.
The composition worked well, but I wanted to see if I could push it a little bit further by adding subtle representational features. Burning Banana was my first attempt at this. Using colors that I associate with sunsets in the tropics I carved out small monstera deliciosa leaves (often mistakenly called banana leaves). The background remained similar to the texture on the first two pieces. Because the leaves and texture are the same colors, the leaves remain a subtle feature of the overall texturing of the surface.
This is a series that I would like to revisit in the future. With new techniques for production that I am learning, the color combinations could vary even further with the simple addition of a third layer. But I would also like to flesh out the textural aspect more. The addition of representational tidbits was a good start, and I would like to try out other similar ideas.
The Let’s Get Ship-Wrecked series is one that I had a lot of time to think about. At the beginning of quarantine, I had very little to do. I had no classes, no job, nothing to keep me occupied. On top of that, I was stuck back at my parents’ place which is fairly rural. With an overabundance of time, I turned to TV and YouTube to keep myself entertained. It was this extra time spent on YouTube that brought me to the inspiration for this series. Mentioned briefly in a “Family Guy” episode, scrimshaw is the main influence for the decoration of these bongs.
Traditionally, scrimshaw is ivory or bone that has had a design lightly etched or engraved into it. The etched lines are then filled with an ink in order to show the design more clearly. Typically associated with naval imagery, the designs tend to heavily utilize hatching and cross hatching. Given that I have always had an interest in the imagery of the Kraken and had been trying to think up a way to use it, scrimshaw seemed a good fit. The subject matter for the series, sea monsters, ended up being an extension of my original interest in the Kraken.
My designs on the Let’s Get Ship-Wrecked series utilize scrimshaw-like imagery, but that is where the similarities stop. After messing around (and failing) with trying to do actual scrimshaw on the surface of the clay, I returned to sgraffito to make my designs. Despite moving away from scrimshaw techniques, I still wanted to relate back to the style further than just using similar imagery. To do this, I left the surface that held the etchings unglazed. I did this because I wanted the surface to remain reminiscent of the bone or ivory that real scrimshaw would be on. The contrast between the glazed ceramic body and the bare was also of interest to me, and I believe it adds to the composition nicely. This contrast is also something that I used in my subsequent Not All That Shines is gold series, and something that I plan to use in the future. The contrast is not only stimulating visually, but also physically when holding the piece.