Originally published Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Last Saturday evening I found myself in a late-night pipe conversation with Jody Davis and Brad Pohlmann. These talks are rare and precious - at least for me. It’s not often that I get to sit down over drinks for a couple of hours to talk pipes, listen, learn, and reflect on the conversation. I love these conversations most because while I learn about pipes, I also learn about myself, too. I am grateful for the insights I gather.
I am at different places in my relationship continuum with Jody as opposed to Brad. Jody Davis is the first artisan whose work I seriously collected. Brad is an artisan whose work I watched grow and develop into someone to whom I felt increasing urgency to collect. So while I have a modestly respectable number of Jody Davis’ pipes, my Pohlmann collection is very much at a beginning stage, though it will undoubtedly grow.
As I sat and talked with these men, I contemplated what it is, exactly, that I find compelling in their work. There are so many fine pipe makers out there. Why them?
One of the many things I value most about both Jody and Brad is their generosity. They give and give and give their knowledge, their experience, and their friendship. While I may have developed a collector’s eye to some small extent, they have developed the artisan’s eye. It is their ability to see and discern that makes all the difference. Their eyes are the architect of their uniqueness and the master of their hands.
As I sat listening to the conversation, I reflected on my understanding that if they didn’t express their particular and unique sensibilities - if they weren’t capable of being different from one another in some meaningful and recognizable way - that my own eye simply wouldn’t matter. Like any collector, I have developed my own notions of what is beautiful and desirable. Still, I cannot escape from the truth that my taste has developed in response to theirs, and to the other artisans whose work constitutes the core of my collection.
As our conversation progressed, Jody declared, “You know, it’s interesting how you can go around a show looking at pipes, and see amazing carving skill and craftsmanship that leaves you cold on some level. Then, you walk up to a table and see a simple, classic GBD that is just ‘right’ in every way. There’s something about that pipe that just works.”
As I listened to Jody describe his experience - realizing that I have felt the very same thing myself quite a few times - I thought about Plato, his poetics, and his writings about defining essence. Plato claimed that we know a chair not because all chairs look alike - clearly they vary widely - but because they possess “chairness.” Their functional essence transcends their form and comes through clearly and simply.
The same thing may be said about pipes. While some pipes communicate the essence of their function, others are given form that obscures that essence. Their “pipeness” is weak.
In the world of artisanal pipes, there is currently a strong drive toward originality and a desire to create objects that inspire and amaze. It is exciting and energizing to see the results of the virtuosic carving skill to which I refer. Some artisans possess such redoubtable skill that the question is no longer “What can they do?” but rather “What can they imagine?”
Still, virtuosity for its own sake often fails to move the heart. Like the violin prodigy who can effortlessly toss off a program of Paganini caprices, these skills may conjure the delighting gasps of audiences, but they are not the tunes that we are unable to banish from our memory - those tunes that we hum to the rhythm of our footfalls on a walk home.
No, these melodies surf the sweet breezes of the mind’s eye looking wistfully backward or hopefully ahead. These tunes require more than agile fingers or lightning reflexes, they require a rooting in the long arc of time, a certain warmth, and most of all - a connection to one’s primal need to sing the heart’s song, not solely to satisfy the ego.
I believe that those pipes to which I am most attracted possess “pipeness.” I believe that both Jody’s and Brad’s work belongs in my collection for this reason. Beyond being wood and rubber with two holes through which smoke is drawn, their pipes communicate with some confidence that they could rightly reside in my rack alongside their briar kin. They would not look like a screwdriver in a silverware drawer.
In other words, they somehow belong.