Sometimes, museums are their own worst enemies. They keep the best of their collections hidden in storage and, when they finally expose them to the light of day, they both underpromote and misunderstand what they've got.
We saw that years ago at the Fine Arts Center, when then-Director David Wagner sold off the FAC's matchless collection of Northwest Coast Native American artifacts for a fraction of its value, apparently unaware of the collection's aesthetic, historic or monetary value. And we see that now in the Pioneers Museum, which is, for the first time, exhibiting a small fraction of the James Lee Dick pipe collection.
Some background: Mr. Dick, who began smoking a pipe as an undergraduate in 1903, assembled an enormous collection of pipes over the next several decades, which were presented to the museum in 1948. Of the hundreds of pipes in the collection, less than a hundred are on display.
The collection is presented as an essentially whimsical show, titled One Smokin' Collection. Its theme, reinforced by a number of quotations from a book on the subject, is the psychopathology of collecting things, whatever they may be. The pipe collection is therefore not a group of objects with historical or aesthetic interest, but simply a window into the obsessive-compulsive world of the dedicated collector. And what are collectors? Why, they're eccentrics who fetishize a certain class of objects, which they collect in order to absorb the magical properties that they believe the objects possess.
I dunno; maybe the goofy behaviorists who write such nonsense have a point, but let's look at the pipes; they're amazing artifacts, and some of them are marvelous works of art.
The exhibition is nicely mounted, with each pipe displayed on an individual stand within one of eight vitrines. The pipes are organized, rather eccentrically, by material (metal, clay, meerschaum, briar) or by carving subject (animals, people, other). It might have been better to focus on chronology, or on type of use (tobacco, opium, hashish). No matter -- the pipes, not the show's organization, are the story.
It's interesting to learn about the history of smoking and of the various materials used for crafting pipes. Meerschaum, a type of clay that hardens into a plasticlike compound that's easily carved and darkens with age is still in use, as is briar, carved from the root of the Mediterranean hawthorn. Catlinite, found only in North America, may be mined only by Native Americans.
Some of the pipes are simple, unadorned and graceful. Others are fantastical creations, swirling and magical works of art. I was amazed by a Japanese "Kiseru" pipe, its ebony stem circled by a silver dragon. And take a look at the half-dozen or so 19th-century opium pipes on display, beautifully crafted in a variety of materials -- bamboo, tortoise shell and jade, sometimes inlaid with semiprecious stones.
There are a dozen elaborately carved pipes, most, I suspect, of 18th- to 19th-century European origin. Some are enormous; it's hard to imagine that anyone actually smoked 'em. They may be pipes, but they're really sculptures, as accomplished and beautiful as any of the French animalier bronzes of the 19th century. Don't miss the extraordinary meerschaum in a corner vitrine, a riotous rococo celebration of excess, featuring horses and dogs. And these aren't modest, bas-relief depictions; these are three-dimensional sculptures, flowing and beautiful.
Go see for yourself. This is great art, not merely a window into a quirky collector's soul.
-- John Hazlehurst
One Smokin' Collection
Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 215 S. Tejon St.
Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Through March 12