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Daniel Nelson's Porcelain Bongs Are High Class

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Daniel Nelson - SHEM ROOSE
  • Shem Roose
  • Daniel Nelson

Anyone who uses marijuana has probably, at some point, smoked it out of a pipe. Those with greater enthusiasm may have used a bong — a tall pipe that pulls smoke through a water-filled chamber and into a mouthpiece. Most such pipes are made from blown glass, but some artists work in other mediums. Daniel Nelson of DCN Porcelain is one of them.

The 26-year-old ceramic artist makes water pipes almost exclusively, working at his Hinesburg home where he lives with his dad. His styles are intriguing and a far cry from the psychedelic inspirations of many glass blowers. Nelson's bongs fit into three primary decorative categories: colorful stripes, traditional floral decals and imitations of Grecian urns. Nelson says each bong takes 20 to 100 hours to create, depending on the style.

The cost of these artful creations: $500 to $1,500. While the price tag may be hefty, Nelson's unique approach helps him stand out in a crowded pot-centric marketplace — or so his nearly 28,000 Instagram followers would suggest.

Seven Days visited the artist in his studio to learn more about his work.

DCN Porcelain's traditional floral decal water pipe - SHEM ROOSE
  • Shem Roose
  • DCN Porcelain's traditional floral decal water pipe

SEVEN DAYS: You have a few distinctive styles. Where do they come from?

DANIEL NELSON: I'm inspired by a lot of different things, ranging from traditional pottery of the past [to] contemporary pottery. But I'm also very inspired by glass, which is where the stripes come from. And the floral imagery — I started collecting these vintage decals for ceramics that have kind of gotten lost or gone out of style. I started putting them on my work — they get fired onto the pieces — because I wanted to come up with a design that you could kind of see in a china cabinet or something ... it's like our generation will have these as heirlooms.

SD: And what about the amphora-style pieces?

DN: I wanted to make pieces that connected more with traditional art, like a piece you'd see in a museum, to kind of state, "This is art." Pipes are art. They can be art. It doesn't matter what they're going to be used for.

SD: When did you start making pipes? Who taught you?

DN: It was always on my mind, but I never actually made one 'til 2013. It was the summer before I was going to graduate [from the New Hampshire Institute of Art]. In college, I didn't want to do it, out of respect for my teachers. It was always in the back of my mind, and I knew once I got out of school that I was going to start really doing it and pushing it.

I just taught myself by studying glass and using glass pieces, and studying how they work. A lot of the [problems] I used to run into when I started [involved] sizing — the size ... to make certain pieces like the neck and the joint and the down stem. I used to spend tens of hours on a piece and have the down stem — the part that goes in the water — get clogged with glaze.

DCN Porcelain's three primary decorative categories - SHEM ROOSE
  • Shem Roose
  • DCN Porcelain's three primary decorative categories

SD: When was the first time you thought, I feel really good about the things I'm making?

DN: Probably not 'til last year.

SD: Really?

DN: Yeah. And even now, I feel like I'm never truly happy with a piece.

SD: But you have a huge following of people who think what you're doing is great.

DN: It helps a lot. I don't know what I would do without Instagram — it's huge.

SD: Would you say a lot of your customer base comes from social media?

DN: I would say close to 100 percent.

SD: How many pieces do you sell a month?

DN: Well, it's kind of always all over the place. Sometimes I won't sell a piece for a month, and sometimes I'll get five sales in a week. I do a lot of custom work these days, so the orders come in like that. People tell me what they're interested in, and I tell them what's possible and work my ideas in with their ideas. 

SD: What's the weirdest thing someone has asked you to make?

DN: Here's a good one: "I had an idea for a custom piece depicting Ra floating in the cosmos caged over pits of the underworld while cats are playing Whac-A-Mole with the hands of the underworldlings trying to get out." Also, someone genuinely asked me how to clean a porcelain toilet.

The original print version of this article was headlined "All Fired Up"

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