“Food is not a neutral category”: Eugene glassblowers find inspiration for their work in the world of food
It’s feeling like a burger day to Ryan Rosburg, so the self-proclaimed “wannabe chef” sets up his station. He preps his ingredients, choosing condiments, lettuce, tomato, onion, cheese and what he’ll make his patty with. He sparks a flame, then wields a spatula. But it’s not a spatula — it’s a graphite paddle. Rosburg is a glassblower, and he’s shaping a miniature burger out of glass.
In many ways, working with glass isn’t all that different from working in the kitchen. There’s prep, flame and the mixing of different ingredients, sometimes successfully and other times not. If not heated and cooled properly, complex glass sculptures like these can crack and shatter.
“It’s definitely hot and dangerous. Getting burned and getting cut are just parts of it,” said Rosburg, 40, who has been blowing borosilicate glass under the name Rosburg Glass for 25 years. He taught himself to use torches and make pipes at 15, while working in a kitchen in Colorado. Today, his work, which encompasses sculpture and smoking accessories, sells through Instagram, where he has more than 22,000 followers, for anywhere from $100 to $2,000.
For other glass artists, sculpting food is a way to objectify decadent foods they may appreciate but no longer consume.
“I have no sweet tooth,” said Renee Patula, 36, a glassblower for 16 years under her business name, Sweet Shop Glass.
Though Patula also started out making pipes, for the last seven years she’s exclusively made pendants and mini glass sculptures of ice cream cones, gummy bears, cupcakes, animal cookies and other candy-colored confections. They sell in auctions on Instagram (nearly 22,000 followers) or in her online Etsy shop for anywhere from $90 to $300.
It’s been longer than seven years since she’s eaten a cookie or cupcake, Patula said. But like Rosburg, she watches the Food Network and follows food-centric Instagram accounts obsessively, where everything from shakes piled high with toppings to elaborate cakes and sugar sculptures are there to be visually devoured.
“I could never eat that, but it’s so cool-looking. It’s like art in itself,” Patula said of images she’s inspired by.
Any representation of food in art is deeply symbolic, said Danielle Knapp, McCosh curator of Northwest and American art at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art.
“Food is not a neutral category for a lot of people. We bring our own feelings to it,” she said.
Because the glassblowing community in Eugene is driven by the cannabis industry, collectors of this type of glass art are often — but not always — cannabis users, so for them, mini burgers and ice cream cones may be just one way to satisfy and celebrate the munchies. For those unfamiliar, “the munchies” refers to the sometimes insatiable appetite using cannabis can induce.
“People who consume cannabis really love a burger, or really love tacos or really love cookies,” said Heidi Fikstad, co-owner of Moss Crossing dispensary, which enjoys a synergistic relationship with the Friendly Street Market and its Party on Friendly cafe next door.
Before opening the dispensary, Fikstad worked in restaurants. She said there’s an obvious connection between food and cannabis.
“The foodie community in particular, every single chef I’ve known has also been a cannabis connoisseur,” she said. “That might just be that evolved palate.”
Beyond the munchies, Fikstad said food brings people together and helps form social bonds, not unlike cannabis. Perhaps people also are drawn to glass food by nostalgia for childhood treats like animal cookies in a lunchbox, said Fikstad and Patula.
Whatever drives the demand, it’s real, and both Patula and Rosburg say they’ve tapped into new markets for their work through direct sales on Instagram and hashtags that cross over from cannabis and glass to food and drinks. And they’re able to brand their work like never before through curated photo collections and show interested buyers more like it, all while keeping more of the profit.
For many American pop artists, Knapp said, drawing from the present moment and bringing mass-produced iconography such as food into their work has been a way to blur the line between fine art and pop culture.
“Any subject matter is worthy of art if an artist chooses to depict it,” Knapp said.
Bongs become art
So how did glassblowers making pipes come to be seen as artists, rather than craftspeople or production workers?
Artfully made glass pipes have been available for decades, but the art aspect leveled up when cannabis users started spending more on glass, Rosburg said. He saw this cash infusion as a result of the recent popularity of smokable cannabis extracts like hash oil, which are highly profitable.
Once that money started flowing into the market, Rosburg said glass artists like him were “able to do a lot more and get paid for it, so we were willing to take bigger risks, do bigger stuff.”
Rosburg and Patula work in neighboring studios in Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood. Both said Eugene has been long considered a mecca for glassblowers, and that community drew each of them here. Rosburg is a Colorado native and Patula is from San Diego, by way of Chicago.
The building they rent studio space in is filled with dozens of glassblowing stations, each with its own torch and kiln, a piped-in supply of propane and oxygen and a ventilation system.
Though the insides are wildly decorated, there’s no indication from the studio’s outside of the creative magic happening within. That’s partly a relic from the days when glassblowing was taboo.
“When I started, glassblowing was not OK,” Rosburg said.
In fact, prior to legalization in Oregon it was illegal to sell what was considered drug paraphernalia. In a sweeping 2003 indictment known as Operation Pipe Dreams, the U.S. Department of Justice targeted head shops nationwide, including one based in Eugene.
“It’s kind of underground still, but now that everything’s legal, it’s a lot more socially acceptable, so you see a lot more of it in the public eye,” Rosburg said.
Next door to the studio is Cornerstone Tailgates, a catering service owned by Justin Sheppard. Before it was Cornerstone Tailgates, the space was Cornerstone Glass, a supply shop, studio space and retail distributor for glassblowers founded in 2003.
Sheppard agreed that though he’s not sure whether the rise of hash oil played a part, somewhere along the way, what collectors were willing to spend on a piece of glass started rising to an astronomical level for some sought-after artists, whose work can go for anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000.
Sheppard co-founded the Degenerate Flame-Off, a glassblowing festival and competition that eventually attracted artists from all over the country to Eugene. First held in 2008, it moved to Portland in 2017.
“Before the DFO, people weren’t really collaborating, sharing ideas, getting together for these events,” said Sheppard, who credits the festival with helping to open up the craft to the public and coalescing the national and even international glassblowing community into a more collaborative spirit.
Collaborating on work has pushed the artistic envelope, Sheppard said. It’s also allowed artists to charge more for their work, Rosburg explained — because two people have to get paid.
He and Patula will create ice cream cone-burgers, a burger with Popsicles smashed on top or a juice box decorated with goldfish and animal crackers. He described the collaboration pieces as a lot of fun and a lot of pressure.
“You want to show up for somebody. You don’t want to be lagging, and you definitely don’t want to be the one that breaks it,” he said.
Insta-sales take off
Greater acceptance and higher spending aren’t the only major forces of change in the glassblowing industry. Sales also are shifting from going largely through retail shops to direct-to-consumer, aided by platforms like Etsy and Instagram.
But prior to the rise of these platforms, businesses like Eugene’s Cornerstone Glass brokered sales at head shops around the country.
“Glassblowers would come to us, we would purchase pieces and resell them to stores for a profit,” Sheppard said. But the need for distributors was eventually cut out, and his company with it, he said, by people selling on their own or through Instagram. “Which is great, more power to the artist.”
For Patula and Rosburg, selling their work used to involve carefully packing a case and making weekly visits to local shops or trade shows. But with the rise of social media platforms, direct sales are easier than ever. Rosburg pretty much goes from home to the studio to the post office, where he said he fills out customs forms for international sales two to three times a week.
Patula’s been trying to bridge the gap between buyers who use cannabis and those who don’t, but they’re still primarily within those circles. She said her customers are evenly split in terms of gender.
“People buy for their kids, cousins, nieces, nephews, grandparents.”
Some of Rosburg’s buyers are just food lovers, he said, or even engineers who appreciate the craft. Many are cooks or chefs, which delights Rosburg.
“It’s actually really flattering, too. Whenever I sell a piece to a chef it’s kind of like my favorite, you know, that really validates me a lot.”
Some of the Rosburgers end up as wearable pendants or simple sculptures, and some are incorporated into pipes, but most become a functional smoking accessory known as a “carb cap.”
A “carb” or “rush” is the third hole in a glass pipe that allows the smoker to control the air flow, usually with a finger.
When smoking cannabis oil out of a glass bong or “rig,” there isn’t a true carb, only a large bucket, sometimes called a banger, heated to a high temperature where the extract is vaporized. A carb cap traps the vapor while letting a small amount of air through in a controlled fashion.
Rosburg makes the burgers with a barely noticeable slit on one side of the bun’s flat bottom, which allows a small stream of air to travel over the vaporized oil. And, the user gets to admire the burger while they’re toking.
Rosburg has made sushi-themed rigs, too, which look like a bottle of soy sauce with a piece of nigiri sushi visible inside. Another piece of glass nigiri, a blob of white rice topped with pink fish, acts as the carb cap. Other food themes he uses include chicken legs, tacos, Goldfish crackers, ketchup bottles and French fries. He said he sticks to food because it sells so much better than anything he was making before that first burger.
“People respond strongly to that imagery because it speaks to something beyond the visual,” said Knapp, the art curator.
Life beyond glass
The work Rosburg makes one day determines what he’ll eat the next, he said, as he attempts to sell the piece on Instagram. He’s observed that the pieces shown in videos next to the real food get the most views. So, he’ll truck down to Sushi Pure to order nigiri, to Toxic Wings to get sliders, or even to a nearby grocery store to pose a glass Tater Tot pendant next to the Ore-Ida package on the shelf.
“I sometimes get funny looks,” he said.
Cooking is a stress reliever for Rosburg, who has a tablet mount at his work station for watching cooking shows while he works. At home in his kitchen, he’s able to set his mind free and know that he’ll be able to savor what he creates.
“I don’t have to worry about getting paid when I’m in my kitchen.”
He said some days he dreams of opening a food truck, but he knows it’s no cakewalk.
Patula has a 10-month-old daughter, Addison, who is on a very healthy diet. “We’re trying to keep her away from any sugar for as long as possible,” she said.
And it’s unlikely that will change when her first birthday rolls around — there won’t be a cake.
Follow Anna Glavash on Twitter @AnnaGlavash and on Instagram (541ToTheTable). Email firstname.lastname@example.org.