American pipe maker Jeff Gracik, maker of J. Alan pipes, recently agreed to sit down with Bear Graves to talk about pipes and the life of a pipe maker:
Bear: Every pipe maker seems to have a common theme that is apparent in the majority of his work. Yours are very distinct. What is your inspiration and how do you maintain your theme? Why are your pipes special?
Jeff: There is so much about pipemaking that is instinctive. This is eminently true of my work, especially in its creation and development over time. I have never sought out with a particular thematic direction in mind, but instead allow myself to be open to the inspiration that surrounds me, be it in the block of briar, a shape I've seen in nature, a mood or sense, or even a song that has been prominent in my mind. Themes therefore come and go organically. I think that if one looks at the body of my work they will see several themes present.
First, I am heavily influenced by the classic English and Danish shapes. I have a tremendous respect for them and their dominance in pipemaking
history. Secondly, I have been influenced by all of those pipemakers with whom I've worked: Jody Davis, Todd Johnson, and Tonni Nielsen. Each of them has influenced my work in one way or another. Finally, there is one distinct theme in my work that is overwhelmingly present. I currently live on the Pacific coast of Southern California and grew up spending my summers sailing when I lived back east. If you look at my work, you will see a rather distinct nautical theme like the bow of a boat cutting through the waves, or the sweep of a line beneath a pipe not unlike the silhouette of a fine sailing vessel.
I believe that there are manifold design and engineering elements that make my work distinctive and special. Principally, a pipe must function
properly, and my pipes must smoke supremely well. There is no margin for error. I spent the beginning of my career perfecting the engineering of my work. Everything must be perfect. Later I developed a natural proprietary bowl coating mixture to ease or eliminate the break-in period. Beyond functionality, the shape of the pipe must be elegant, bold, distinctive in some what that makes it leap off the shelf, photograph, or table. The confluence of shape and finishing create a pipe's siren song. I have worked extraordinarily hard to master each one of these elements and to unite them into work that I believe is uniquely beautiful.
Bear: If somebody has never tried one of your pipes, why should they buy one?
Jeff: First, my pipes are engineered in such a way as to create a truly sublime smoking experience. Beyond that, the design of the pipe enhances the experience by unifying function and aesthetic. I believe and have been told that my pipes add beauty and diversity to the young and well-seasoned collection alike.
Bear: Describe a perfect pipe making day.
Jeff: Ha ha! I don't know that I've ever had one, so I may have to dive into the realm of fantasy here. To be truthful, I think that the challenges inherent in the material with which I work (i.e. briar) may be perceived as problems, but in fact they are blessings. I cannot tell you how many of my shapes have emerged rather organically from a block of briar because of its unique qualities. Briar may be riddled with flaws and it can be enormously challenging trying to remove them. Yet, this challenge translates into new aesthetic discoveries. There are of course issues of human error such as forgetting to peel glue residue before it cures or sanding too much from an area during a critical operation. So, I think that the perfect day would involve the elimination of human errors but the endurance of the variables in the briar.
Bear: Many pipe carvers, on occasion, experience the carving equivalent to "writer's block". Does this ever happen to you and, if it does, what do you do get get your train back on the track?
Jeff: I think that every artist goes through periods where creativity is low. One of the advantages of being a pipemaker over a more traditional artist, say, a painter or author is that we have an enormous body of established work from which to draw in the classical shapes. When I am in a creative trough, I tend to work on classical shapes. I may not have the creative energy to conceive of something wholly new, but I rarely lack the creativity to make a billiard with a unique embellishment or two. For me, it is really the proactivity of continuing to work that eventually yields new shapes in my head and then in briar. Another alternative is of course to take a vacation.
Bear: Which pipe makers influence you?
Jeff: There are three pipemakers whose influence is most prominent in my own work. The first is Jody Davis. I have been periodically working in Jody's workshop for the last two years. His shapes are undeniably unique and distinctive for their quality and style. I also consider Jody to be one of the Grand Masters of North America. The second is Todd Johnson, who graciously opened his workshop to me when I was a new pipemaker. Many of the techniques I currently use were originally learned from him. Elements of Todd's style are also evident in my work. He's one of the greatest pipemakers in the world whose work I truly admire, so it is difficult to avoid influence. Finally, Tonni Nielsen shared some aesthetic perspective with me when I was starting in 2005 that has been a persistent influence on my work ever since. All three of these pipemakers are world-class and I am honored to have worked with them and to draw from their various expertise.
Bear: Do you smoke a pipe? What is your favorite tobacco?
Jeff: Yes, I love smoking pipes. I am a sucker for a good full English or Balkan blend. My favorite current production blend is Exotique, a Smokers' Haven blend (can I plug them here?!) blended by J. F. Germain & Son. My favorite vintage blend is Balkan Sobranie 759. I have had precious little of this fine blend, but what I did have I treasured. It was truly sublime.
Bear: What are your plans for the future?
Jeff: I am always looking for ways to improve my quality and efficiency in the workshop. I hope to have a much larger shop in the near future and I will be spending a lot of thought and effort streamlining my processes so the majority of my energy can be focused on creating new and different works of art. Creative freedom is an element of this craft that was so attractive to me when I began and I anticipate exploring new territory and pushing the boundaries of the J. Alan aesthetic further and further. Really, this is a very exciting time and I am extraordinarily happy to be doing what I am doing every day.
Bear: Aside from making pipes, what other things or interests are you passionate about?
Jeff: Well, my principle interest is my family. I love spending time with my wife Melissa and my daughter Sophia. San Diego is a beautiful city abundant with cultural activities, and we enjoy exploring new and different areas of our fine city. I am also a coffee aficionado (AKA a coffee snob). I roast my own coffees and create my own blends specifically for my beloved libation, espresso. I am also an avid fan of music and enjoy playing and listening to it live and on recordings. There are, in fact, too many hobbies to list. Cooking, reading, writing, et cetera, ad nauseum. Just ask my wife!