Carrying the Torch of a Taboo Art Form

Ben Belgrad is Lighting Up the Vail Art Scene

What if I told you that the next storm of underground art was forming just a few miles away down I-70? Bat Country Studios is home to a collective of unique creatives who are working with mediums most of us are traditionally unfamiliar with, like borosilicate scientific flame working. You’ve probably heard of the more well-known version of borosilicate: Pyrex – a type of glass that can be heated to extreme temperatures without breaking. It’s the same type of glass that is used to make bongs, rigs, pipes and, more recently, Drinking Vessels.

Collecting art and selling one-off items at auctions is something we often tie to a level of wealth and hierarchy. When we think of bongs and glass used to smoke marijuana, they usually don’t fall into the same category — until recently. In 2010, Ben Belgrad, owner of Bat Country Studios, won a beautifully made bong in a 4/20 raffle while he was a sophomore at Indiana University. Infatuated with the extreme level of talent that was put into the piece and the opportunity to learn from the creator, Belgrad tapped into a level of creativity, connecting him to the underground art world, made mostly of glass.

Pipe makers historically had to fight through a myriad of legal limitations to get their art in front of buyers. From selling their art pieces, some of which take weeks and months to make, out of the back of their Subaru at the lot of a Grateful Dead show to now having pieces go to auction for $250,000, there was, and is, no easy jump. When talking to Belgrad about the progression of borosilicate glass blowing going from paraphernalia to art, he was not short on anecdotes applicable to the growth.

“20 years ago, my contemporaries were afraid to be in the car with the marijuana pipes they made on the way to the shops to sell them,” shares Belgrad. “If they got pulled over, they could go to jail. Now, you have this situation where these pieces are in museums and being auctioned at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and these pieces are achieving a level of art appreciation that just was not there under the criminalization and illegality of marijuana.”

With marijuana becoming recreationally legal in varying states across the United States, the secretive element of pipe making was able to break its way into mainstream art.

Borosilicate glassblowing is tedious, hot and requires lots of patience. Through the use of a high-powered propane torch and a supply of oxygen, glass artists are able to mold and manipulate borosilicate glass, usually with graphite tools and often a massive lathe. After the creation has been molded to the specifications of the artist, it is put into a kiln and heated to 1,050 degrees Fahrenheit slowly, then dropped back down to room temperature in an eight-hour, molecularly-scientific process. The road doesn’t end there, some pieces require cold working or manipulating the medium after it has been fired. This process takes copious amounts of artistic dedication.

What if there was a way to physically bridge the gap between the pipe maker and the traditional art collector? Belgrad and his comrades are paving the way in doing just that with his project, Drinking Vessels and events like the Vail Cup Collectors Club.

“Through Drinking Vessels I’ve created a marketplace for these pipe artists to translate the pipe art patterns and imagery into the shape of a cup, decanter, flask or shot glass, and it’s created a way for this art to be shared, maybe with people who don’t smoke weed or who aren’t interested in buying pipes but may love the artwork that they’re seeing through this movement,” Belgrad explains.

These cups aren’t your usual handblown glass pieces; they are weird, funky and stunningly beautiful, endowed with the imaginative gems of the pipe artists.

“I can’t go into Vail Village before snowboarding and have one of my fancy bongs and be smoking and showing my friends and sharing it with them,” he remarks. “But, I can go to Two Arrows and bring my own cup and have them serve me my matcha latte in my heady mug and share it with my friends.”

By lifting the limitations of the traditional art created by pipe makers, enthusiasts can interact with functional art within the community.

Community is a word that came up often in the discussion with Belgrad. He feels it is a pillar of success among artists. In Vail, we are not unfamiliar with the arts in the form of traditional modalities, but what Belgrad and the artists that make up Bat Country Studios are trying to do is add a fresh new element to the Vail art scene.

“A lot of the people that are serving the Vail community are of a generally younger demographic,” he says. “Surprisingly, very few of them have a place to create their art.” By working to create open house taco nights with his team that welcome in the community in any aspect, he hopes to foster a stronger connection between the traditional art lovers of Vail and the new age glass blowers and their out-of-this-world pieces.

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The ultimate goal of Belgrad’s mission is to bring access to a form of art that has a hefty overhead cost to established and up-and-coming artists.

“My friend Seth Levy helped finance this studio here in Minturn, because he views it as a community asset,” Belgrad explains. “His kids are younger than 10 and two of them have melted glass in my studio. All three of the kids have come here and worked on art projects on the floor of the studio.”

Sure, this form of glass blowing originates with a connection to cannabis, but with the fresh element of Drinking Vessels, a taboo craft is now increasingly more accessible and desirable to all art lovers who live in and visit the Vail Valley.

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