The story of glass, for all its intricacies, liquid tubes and folds, tapered bulbs whorled and fumed into glossy fingers and bowls, is tempered with a temptation that's about to become unbearable — to open with a dick joke.
"I'm not sure what I'm doing, but it kind of looks like a dick."
"That's 'cause you're gay and everything looks like a dick to you."
The back-and-forth drifts through the open door of Higher Elevation Masterpiece Productions — a building with a façade of charred beams and painted fires, sandwiched between two less colorful fronts at North Powers and Omaha boulevards — from a back room emitting a fierce brand of static. The oxygen and propane passing through flame and melting down a tube of glass make the sound; the men at the torches make the jokes.
In the front of the store, the showrooms are colorful and studded with cases filled with glass — glass set on glass, behind glass. It's a rush of visual stimulation, overwhelming in the extreme, and that's even before you look to the highest shelf.
In some of the cases, the rods and tubes fold once, and back again, into distinguishable forms: the glass eyes of an alien whose fingers grip a pipe; a reef perforated with bubbles and clownfish and angelfish lodged in the coral; the handle of a prison shiv you can smoke from.
They show mastery of the craft, a craft that sucked Steve Kelnhofer in when he was an unemployed electrician looking to make glass parts for a vaporizer. He read books, started creating things in a garage, expanded, opened Higher Elevation, and stocked it with "connoisseur glass."
But here's the thing: These pieces now sit on these shelves for years. Today's glass market is flooded, and the simplest pipes are what sells.
Kelnhofer, his cheeks somewhat sunken, gestures at the glass on the top shelf.
"I can see it," he says, his voice lilting with a bit of a Southern accent. "I know that it took 10 years of skills, and fucking shit breaking, and doing all that shit to get to that level."
But as a businessman?
"For me, it comes down to a time-dollar ratio," he says. "I only got so much time, and with so many businesses, to make so much glass."
Blower in red
He moves through a door to the back of the store. The flames that had been muted in front take on the qualities of small jet engines, creating a glow on the concrete floors that's swallowed by the black rubber mats where the blowers stand.
On the tables to his left are lines of red and green hoses that breach from the neck of the torch and lead down to a pedal below the bench, and on into the ganglia of tubes carrying gas held in white tanks. The walls in the back are choked with posters, while the hoods that suck up the gas are covered with bumper stickers.
There's a sour, almost pungent, burn in the air, and a slight chill when fresh air makes its way back from the front door. The music drones. You have to wear blacked-out glasses to look into the flames.
Nearby a blower's dressed in red, with a red dangling beard, a tube drooping limp from his mouth. The end of the tube is fixed to a piece of molten borosilicate (better known as Pyrex); he presses it against a black ceramic plate, and a base appears. A glass rod is held to the side, and the bowl grows nubby little fingers that line the rim.
Below the bench, there are small labeled boxes filled with granulated glass the size of BBs colored every color from "Elephant Grey" to "Lazuli." Called frits, they form color in the glass when applied within or without.
Another way to make color is found in the bulbs, with suspended bits of gold and silver, that stand out of jars like writing utensils and are used in a process called fuming — burning gold or silver and staining the inside of the glass with the colors it produces: oranges and reds from gold, cloudy blue from silver.
If you spend time watching the "lamp workers," what you're watching is work that's become second nature. As Kelnhofer puts it later, "I've got some guys here, they're workers and that's all they want to be. So, they're learned to a point where they can make pieces and parts real fast — 'cause that's how I pay, by piecework — and they make good money at it."
Of course, they, and the equipment they use, come with a price tag. An ounce of gold, a tenth of which one glassblower will burn through in a month, costs about $1,600. It's roughly $50 to $60 for an ounce of silver. The glass itself runs around five dollars a pound for clear, $60 for colored.
The torches here at Higher Elevation can cost three grand. And the large, digital kiln that anneals the glass, making all the molecules within it move at the same speed, runs $1,800.
But if we're talking business, it's better to go upstairs.
Past a row of work stations where no one is working and up the stairs, the music gets swallowed up by the boxes, and coat racks, and coat hangers, and ducts of the ventilation system.
There's a silver tube made of metal on the wooden desk, and this tube, this thing, is what keeps the business going: the Silver Surfer Vaporizer. The guys downstairs are making the glass pieces that go into it. Because it's what sells.
Kelnhofer isn't the only one torn between the demands of business and the call of artistry. Eric Ernst, CEO of Chubby Glass LLC in Boulder, says he's looking at a 20 percent dropoff in sales in 2011, as compared to 2010.
"Ten years ago, you could double your money," Ernst remembers. "You could double your money with every transaction, and you're thinking this is a great job ... now, you're making like 10 percent every transaction."
It's caused by the influx of glass from abroad, due to the increasing interest in glass. Fueled by the dispensary boom, Ernst says, the number of head shops has leapt from a few dozen 10 years ago, to around 550 today.
"I'm seeing it here, and I saw it in California, too," he says. "When California started the whole dispensary thing, the whole glass industry has just dropped, the floor has just dropped out."
Even then, it's not just abroad. It's also underground.
If you were to, say, ask Kelnhofer for his thoughts on the kids from Pueblo blowing glass, bringing it to his store to sell, he'd have some choice words for you. He'd tell you, becoming increasingly animated, that the industry is "fucking fucked" because no one who's doing it under the table is paying into the system.
"Your glass sucks, so you need to get it up to par," he says. "So you can get what you want for your underground shit, or fucking get out of the field, or come join the real field, or something."
The gratuitous F-bombs paint him as angry; in his presence, you see Kelnhofer is mostly just passionate about his work, perhaps to a fault. He loves glass.
Regardless, at this point, Kelnhofer's sunk into his chair.
"We're trying to do real business, and it's hard to do business ... and I've got all these guys underground here," he says. "And the thing is, I get what they're doing. Because if it's just you, it's not so bad. But when it's a whole group of people, you're like, 'Whoa, wait a minute.'"
Both Ernst and Kelnhofer give a sense of the uncertainty endemic to industries faced with radical change. Is it better to embrace what almost seems inevitable — for instance, to send some of the work abroad, to turn a better profit? Or do you adapt to change by looking at your business differently, by taking risks and branching out?
"For most people in Colorado, we're glassblowers, but we're mainly artists," says Ernst. "We're artists first, and glassblowing kind of pays the bills by blowing the pipes."