There’s a Bong in the Smithsonian
written by Kate McDermott
Here at GRAV, we know that glass pipes and bongs can be beautiful works of art. Yet some corners of the art world can be slow to embrace change and innovation. Van Gogh sold only one painting during his life. Emily Dickinson found publishers for just a handful of her nearly 2,000 poems. Vermeer left his family in debt when he died.
So it’s particularly validating to see a beautiful bong by our own lead designer Micah Evans on display at the Smithsonian. This thrilling turn of events is the result of hours of labor, a judgemental art show jury, and one delightfully eccentric old lady.
Here’s how it all came about.
The Inspiration Behind the Machine
Micah’s piece currently on display at the Smithsonian is an intricate black-and-pink bong in the form of a vintage sewing machine. But it is not the first sewing machine of glass that he’s made.
His first was a Singer from the 1950s, a replica of his mother’s machine. Micah remembers seeing his mother cry one Christmas morning when she was given an old sewing machine, just like the one her grandmother used to have. “It’s a real core memory,” he says. That nostalgic glass replica—which was not a bong—was part of a larger body of work about family.
Recreating that first Singer machine in glass was an instructive experience. “When you reconstruct something like the Singer, you get to follow in the footsteps of the designer who designed that object. You realize how many curves were considered. How the transitions between little elements that you never would have thought of are actually incredibly thoughtful. That first Singer was super instrumental in building the structural reference to how people approach design.”
“I’m Going to Make It a F*cking Sewing Machine”
It’s 2015, and Micah is participating in a three-year artist residency at Penland School of Craft in North Carolina. During this period, word got around that there would be a pipe show in Miami at Art Basel, a famous art fair with annual shows in Switzerland, Miami Beach, Hong Kong, and (starting this year) in Paris.
“Everyone in the subculture wanted in,” Micah recalls. The artists were asked to submit representative work to the jury for selection. Although he could have submitted one of his pipe designs, he chose to submit the Singer (which was not a pipe), as he had just recently finished it.
He was admitted to the show, but word from the jury came that they didn’t particularly want to let him in. The feeling seemed to be that he wasn’t a “real” pipe maker anymore, since he was doing that residency at Penland and had submitted the sewing machine.
“So I decided I was going to make a pipe and I’m going to make it a f*cking sewing machine, and it’s gonna be the best piece in that show. And now it’s in the Smithsonian, so I win,” he laughs.
“In the subculture pipe world, there are a lot of pipes that are those functional, traditional objects. And some are what I call, ‘...and it’s a pipe.’ ‘It’s a dragon…and it’s a pipe.’ ‘It’s a dinosaur…and it’s a pipe.’ The absurdity of that can be hilarious. So I thought if a dinosaur can be a pipe, why can’t a sewing machine be a pipe?”
Micah chose his subject, a Wilcox & Gibbs machine from 1889. It’s a beautiful hand-crank sewing machine, made from cast iron and mounted on a wood platform. Then he had to figure out how to render it in glass.
About the Piece
The time between his approval for the show and the due date for the completed piece was limited. He recalls sleeping six hours per night and eating while he worked. All in all, it took about 300 hours to finish the piece.
Covered in lacy pink webwork, the machine looks more like spun sugar than glass. Each piece of the webbing is about 2mm wide, or about the diameter of a piece of dried spaghetti.
Within the lace is concealed some larger black tubing, which is the functional part of the bong. The bowl is black, standing next to the pink hand wheel, and the mouthpiece is on the other side above where the needle would be, topped with a black sphere.
Yes, it actually functions as a bong. And yes, he absolutely tried it out.
From Miami to the Smithsonian
So how did this delicate pink bong creation get from Miami’s Art Basel show to the Smithsonian?
After Art Basel, the piece returned with Micah to Penland. At the school’s annual auction, resident artists get the chance to show off their work and sell whatever they can. He put the machine out and set a price, but it was so much higher than anything else that he was offering that he had no expectations of selling it. So imagine his surprise when a small, elderly woman asked the price and made a respectable counteroffer. It was more money than Micah had ever made from a single piece before. For that kind of money, Micah was willing to help her get it home, so he drove the piece from North Carolina to where she lived just outside of Washington, D.C.
There, he was surprised again. The buyer, Fleur Bresler, owned both of the 17th-floor penthouses in her building. One side was her home, decorated in grandma style with knick-knacks and wicker furniture. The other side was her personal contemporary craft museum full of pieces from well-known artists and makers, all perfectly displayed and lit.
It turns out that Mrs. Bresler is a highly-respected craft collector and contributor to the Smithsonian. She told Micah that one of the new rooms at The Renwick Gallery, the Smithsonian’s contemporary craft wings, would have her name on it, because that’s where her collection was going.
“And that’s when I realized I never told her it was a f*cking pipe,” Micah said. He was concerned that she would find out later from a Smithsonian curator that the piece was a bong, and didn’t want her to be embarrassed.
Fortunately, their conversation turned to how Micah started blowing glass. He was able to explain how he started making pipes, and the intersection between cannabis pieces and fine art. Mrs. Bresler told Micah that she actually had a bong in her collection from a turned wood artist. “Actually, Fleur, you have two,” he told her. “Because the sewing machine is a bong.” And she loved it.
When Mrs. Bresler opened her collection to the Smithsonian, the curators picked the pieces they wanted to add to the Renwick’s permanent collection and display as part of the gallery’s This Present Moment: Crafting a Better World exhibit. The exhibit includes 171 artworks in a variety of media, including one very special sewing machine bong.
Interesting note: the curator of the show told Micah that she’d tried to get a pipe into another show at the gallery about eight years earlier. But the Smithsonian was concerned that Congress would cut their funding if they were seen to embrace craft in the cannabis space. Just a few years later, they’ve not only put Micah’s bong in the show, but identified it as a bong in the description card that accompanies the piece. Progress!
This Present Moment will be live from May 13, 2022 through April 2, 2023, before eventually going on tour.
To keep up with Micah’s creative work, follow him on Instagram.
And to see highlights from Fleur Bresler’s 92nd birthday at Burning Man, check out her Instagram. She is truly the coolest lady.