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Matt Zimmerman discusses bringing credibility to glassblowing 

Heady glass

click to enlarge CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent
M

att Zimmerman, a Colorado Springs native, has created a name for himself well beyond the Pikes Peak region.

He's one of seven blowers for local company Elev8 Premier, which supplies hand-blown glassware to three stores in the area: Higher Elevations (1323 Paonia St.), Elev8 Glass shop (517 S. Tejon St.), and The 7th Floor Vapes (1420 Aviation Way). Other dispensaries and glass shops in the Denver area also carry Elev8 Premier's products.

You may be familiar with "Elev8 Dolls" — diminutive pipes that resemble human figures. Blown collaboratively by the Elev8 Premier team, these playful dab rigs are both affordable and artistic. Zimmerman helps make the dolls, which require some advanced glassblowing techniques, like spin (creating a spiral pattern in glass) and wigwag (creating a back-and-forth pattern in glass).

Zimmerman has a passion for the craft that drives him to achieve. He's always thinking about how to take that "extra step" and get to the "next level" of skill. It's a fun, creative process — but one that isn't foolproof. "There's a lot of risk," he says. "Even as someone who's been doing it 10, 15 years, every piece you make is not guaranteed to come out." Still, he says, with risk comes reward, and that's what compels glass artists like him to keep progressing.

In general, Zimmerman's a big fan of collaborations with other glassblowers. He describes them as "half the work, and double the ability!" Since the various components of a pipe are usually blown separately, then assembled into final form, the craft of glassblowing lends itself well to teamwork. One artist with whom Zimmerman recently worked is Steve "Spaceman" Smith from the Fort Collins area, who specializes in marbles that other glassblowers use to adorn their pipes. Together, the pair created a fancy wand and knob for a Silver Surfer vaporizer. Playing off an outer space theme, the exquisite pieces glow from dichroic glass (that displays two different colors depending on lighting) inside two synthetic opals blown by Spaceman.

Zimmerman blows solo, too. His main focus at the moment are "production pieces," which are what's most in demand by the public — Sherlocks, spoon pipes, dab straws and the like. They generally sell in the $100 to $150 range.

While only 37, Zimmerman is considered a senior member of the Elev8 Premier team because he's been blowing glass the longest. He got started in 2006, working with fellow glassblower and inventor of the Silver Surfer vaporizer, Steve Kelnhoffer, assembling vapes in Kelnhoffer's garage. Over time, the garage morphed into the Silver Surfer factory, now known as The 7th Floor Vapes, then moved into its current Colorado Springs facility.

While working at the vape factory full-time, Zimmerman learned glassblowing by putting in practice time after work hours. He started out blowing the glass parts needed for the Silver Surfer, like the heater cover, the wand and the knobs. After two to three years he got to "know glass" and could blow these parts reliably. With a lot of hard work and study, Zimmerman moved on to other, more complex processes and more intricate creations. To build his skills, he collaborates with other artists, takes classes and workshops, and attends industry trade shows. He's also taught himself new techniques using the internet. He says he finds the color wheel extremely valuable for choosing color combinations for his pieces.

Industry events offer him the opportunity to network, learn new techniques and, perhaps, get the chance to meet some of his glassblowing heroes, like "Banjo," a nationally known glass artist whose work was recently displayed at a gallery in Los Angeles as part of an art show called "Sacramental Vessels." According to High Times, displaying glass in a traditional setting was "a monumental accomplishment for a 'functional glass' artist."

Zimmerman says he's optimistic about the future of the industry. "The optimism comes from the fact that we're a very young industry, and with being young, there's potential for major growth," he says. "The other big kicker is that, as a community in the artist world, we are finally being recognized as artists as opposed to degenerate artists, and that really helps everything."

There's opportunity as the legalization movement spreads, he says, ticking off the number of states that now have legalized medical (29) and recreational (8) marijuana. He's not too concerned about competition from glass imported from China, which tends to be lower quality and certainly less expensive than pieces made by American glassblowers. He feels that both can coexist by serving their own markets. Inexpensive items appeal to customers who don't want to drop too much money on a piece, but there are more quality-conscious customers as well.

click to enlarge CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent

"China definitely nails it when it comes to what they do, and they are able to provide a very cheap product, which concerns a lot of people," Zimmerman says. "But at the same time, it also opens the mind to why my products are worth more ... Every piece I make is made to the specific time in my career, so as my career evolves or I have inspiration from other things, my products always evolve."

His optimism even extends to the fallout from "Operation Pipe Dreams," a 2003 federal law enforcement investigation into paraphernalia distributors that put the canna-celebrity Tommy Chong in jail for nine months. Although the operation was meant to shut down the pipe industry, Zimmerman says it had the opposite effect — it put glassblowing in the hands of artists, who pushed it to the next level of "art glass" that it has become today.

He welcomes newcomers to the field, as they are a source of fresh thinking and motivation for the old hands. At the Higher Elevations store, Zimmerman teaches a four-hour beginning glassblowing class for the public on Sundays. Known as "Liquid Arts," the class is limited to six beginner glassblowers. Participants learn how to make a marble. Zimmerman finds that teaching helps him to learn too.

click to enlarge CASEY BRADLEY GENT
  • Casey Bradley Gent

"If I make something and it turns out great and everybody's happy then all I see is the end product," he explains. "Whereas, when I'm challenged and asked 'why,' I get to explain why that happened."

He is still somewhat amazed that glassblowing has reached new levels of respectability and appreciation. "When we started out, we were degenerates," he says. Now that public acceptance of marijuana is growing, glassblowers are finally accepted as artists.


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