As functional glass becomes more complex and ornate than ever, pipemakers like Northern California’s Banjo have transformed the medium into legitimate art.
Simply the appearance of Banjo’s work is impressive in itself. His painstakingly detailed and vivid depictions of science fiction characters, spiritual deities and clever pop-culture references can hold up in any serious art collection. The fact that his art can also be used for cannabis makes it more of a marvel.
“The particular type of glass I use was developed in the late 1800s for scientific apparati like beakers, flasks and condensers,” explains Banjo. “Because it was designed to withstand drastic fluctuations in temperature in the laboratory without cracking or degrading, it also happens to be ideal for creating these intricately-sculpted pipes we see today.”
Banjo’s works referencing “Star Wars” especially stand out, with eye-popping glass renderings of characters like General Grievous, Boba Fett and Darth Vader.
“One day in 2008 or 2009, while leafing through my kids’ ‘Star Wars’ coloring book, I came upon a simple picture of Queen Amidala that I thought would make a beautiful pipe and I went for it,” says Banjo.
The homage to the ultra-popular, sci-fi franchise eventually became the impetus for a great deal of Banjo’s work to date.
“It went well, so then I made General Grievous. Grievous is mostly robotic, so that sparked an interest in making robots and machinery,” says Banjo. “That led to all of my Transformers as well as the biomechanoid themes I’ve been exploring recently, so it’s safe to say ‘Star Wars’ had a pretty big effect on my work.”
Banjo also credits his local environs as inspiration for his glass. Based in the Redwoods north of Arcata, California, he is part of a burgeoning community of Pacific Northwest pipers.
“The general acceptance for cannabis here has probably contributed to a sense of ease for a lot of Pacific Northwest glass pipemakers at the very least,” explains Banjo. “I personally always felt safe about being a relatively law-abiding pipemaker in an area where the ganja trade was so strong, so I would guess that probably helped create the sort of comfortable conditions in which creativity could flourish.”
Functional glass art is now trending more towards art than function, making many of Banjo’s pieces a must-own for some art collectors who aren’t even involved with cannabis culture. He believes that many fans are attracted to glass art due to the nascent nature of the medium.
“You can show somebody a painting and unless it’s a particularly well-executed painting, you’re not going to be fascinated by it because we are so accustomed to paintings from seeing them our whole lives,” says Banjo. “Glass on the other hand – nobody’s really seen too much yet so it’s all pretty cool-looking to the generally untrained eye.”
In another signal of the art’s newfound legitimacy, Banjo’s gorgeously crafted glass pipes can be viewed in art gallery openings as well as head shops. His work is currently on display at Los Angeles’ Gregorio Escalante Gallery until Nov. 15.
“It’s always been rewarding to see my work in head shops because these businesses are owned by my friends and peers and have been supporting my work from the start. As far as showing in contemporary art galleries, it’s only just beginning,” says Banjo.
Despite a substantial career spanning over 15 years, Banjo believes that his most personal work is still in store.
“I’m actually just recently starting to turn a corner where I’m connecting my work to my own personal human experience and making a conscious effort to express the different aspects of myself and my journey through my work in a deliberate way,” he says. “This new phase for me is in its infancy, for sure.”