File: Oliver Parini
Bern Gallery owner and Pipe Class founder Tito Bern
Competitors, start your torches! Pipe Classic 12, Burlington's annual glass pipe making flame-off,
begins today, September 18, at 4 p.m. with a dozen glassblowers competing for the top prize and bragging rights as the country's best glass pipe maker.
The event, held each year during the third week of September, lays claim to being the first-ever glassblowing competition to celebrate the art of glass pipes, bongs and bubblers. This year, 12 elite glassblowers — 11 men and one woman — chosen from around the United States by a committee of 11 industry professionals, will go head to head as they try to push the envelope on what's possible with glassware. No Vermonters are competing in this year's event.
Pipe Classic's four rules haven't changed since the first fest was held in 2006: Each piece must be produced from scratch by an unassisted solo artist; it must be made within the Bern Gallery itself; it must be finished within 12 hours — divided into two, six-hour sessions held on consecutive days; and the completed piece must be a functional pipe or be attached to one.
That said, the official guidelines
for the event are constantly evolving, explains Bern Gallery owner and Pipe Classic founder Tito Bern, as glassblowers bring their newest and most innovative techniques to the competition.
“We don’t want to restrict [the competitors]," Bern says. "We get some really odd requests, some odd directions and odd things they want to use, [including] strange found items.”
Defying lazy-stoner stereotypes, Pipe Classic glassblowers typically rehearse their pieces for weeks or months in advance of the event. It's not unusual for pieces to get broken, as competitors race the clock to produce large and elaborate glass contraptions of remarkable form and function.
Winners of the annual event are selected by 250 judges, most of whom travel to Burlington from around the country. Last year's first-place pipe and Artists' Choice Award winner, went to Washington State artist Phil Siegel
, who produced a wizard leading a gryffon on a leash.
In an unusual outcome, Siegel's winning glassware didn't sell during the formal auction itself, which is always Pipe Classic's Saturday night concluding event. However, it was snapped up for $5,000 shortly thereafter.
Though that price tag may seem steep, “That’s about half the price that Phil Siegel would ever sell a piece for," Bern noted. "Pretty crazy.” The previous year's Pipe Classic winning piece, he notes, sold at auction for $14,500.
Bern wouldn't comment publicly about the particulars of Pipe Classic's unofficial, after-hours events, which have become at least as legendary in the pipe-making biz as the competition itself. For years, Bern rented group houses on Lake Champlain where competitors and their teams stayed, but he has since burned some bridges with Burlington-area landlords due to the alleged raucousness of those parties. Indeed, after intense, six-hour glassblowing sessions, competitors invariably blow off some, er, steam to relax and unwind.
So, what's new this year?
“The one thing I’ve noticed is, I’m getting older,” admitted Bern, 40. “I went to bed at midnight last night. That’s the earliest I’ve ever gone to bed during Pipe Classic.”
The Monday through Wednesday glassblowing competition is free and open to the public to watch at Bern Gallery, at 135 Main Street in Burlington. The judging will take place on Saturday, September 23, from 2 to 6 p.m. at Nectar’s in Burlington, but is open to paying judges only. It'll be followed immediately by an art auction at 7 p.m. at Bern Gallery.