Last month I spent an evening strolling through the Mingei International Museum in Balboa Park, San Diego. As I meandered through the exhibits, I stumbled across a series of quotes by the 20th century Japanese philosopher Sōetsu Yangani. His seminal work, The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty, captured the essence of a Folk Art movement that celebrated the style and function of handmade goods, crafted by everyday people.
Staring three feet away, at a starkly colored wall, I stood reading a 16x16 inch framed box that had these printed lines:
No machine can compare with [human] hands. Machinery gives speed, power, complete uniformity and precision, but it cannot give creativity, adaptability, freedom, heterogeneity. These the machine is incapable of, hence the superiority of the hand.
Sōetsu Yangani's words got me thinking about my artisan friend Jeff Burt-Gracik --founder & owner of J. Alan Pipes -- and the quality, creativity and heart of his craft. As husband, father, surfer and thinker, Jeff embodies the Mingei theory of normal people creating objects for everyday use; a salt of the earth type using his hands to fashion and form an artifact that reflects the spirituality, beauty, tradition and intrinsic value of carving pipes, as well as the individual and communal characteristics surrounding the experience of smoking.
I was fortunate to sit down with Jeff in his shop and ask him about his work. Sipping Japanese whiskey and enjoying some seasoned Jamaican Macundo cigars from 1981, I listened as he talked-story about his company, his artful-inspiration, being a father and the fulfilling, yet challenging process of partnering with nature.
MC When did you recognize you had a bent toward art?
JA I was a creative kid; I loved drawing, recreating frames of comic books and entering into drawing contests at school. I think watching my Dad, someone who was always making items for our house, I learned the lesson of, “Why buy something, when you can make it for yourself?” This sparked an interest in me to make my own stuff, there was always a freedom to try.
MC Was your family artistic?
JA You could say that. My maternal grandfather, a finance guy, was actually a really good painter. It was funny, he loved painting clowns. I was the kid who grew up with non-scary clown paintings (laughs)! And then on my Dad’s side, we have cousin Andy – Andy Warhol.
MC Wait, you’re related to Andy Warhol?
JA (Laughter) Yeah, I never met him but my dad’s mom used to paint with him when they were kids. Growing up there were always stories about cousin Andy; which looking back, I think impacted me. From early on in my life, I knew I had art in my blood. Plus, there was an academic-side to my family that influenced me. On my mom’s side, my 3rd great grandfather founded the University of Massachusetts. So, I had the best of both worlds growing up: art and thought. For me, they complemented one another. I mean, I was the high school student taking AP calculus and model-boat building classes at the same time. In college, my interests shifted from visual art to music. I learned to play the guitar, then built one. I’ve always been someone who enjoys thinking and creating.
MC And pipes? How did that come into being?
JA Before attending grad school, I had developed a taste for nice cigars. But once my wife, Melissa, and I started attending classes and living as full-time students, our money went to more important things. One day, Melissa suggested that I start smoking a pipe, and it was like Alice in Wonderland – I looked into the hole and fell in. My neighbor had some tools for making pipes; I bought a book, read some forums and met some people that helped me understand the process. I would attend classes during the day, then after studying in the evening, I’d work until early the next morning practicing and making pipes. I’d get tired, go to bed and do it all over again. I loved it.
MC Did you start selling your pipes right away?
JA I started posting images on-line of my stuff, and someone reached out and said they liked my pipes and wanted to buy one. I was blown away that people were paying attention to my work, not to mention willing to buy it! With that sale, I was able to purchase three more pieces of briarwood, which kept the process going. By my 18th pipe, my work was included in an illustrated book written by a Portuguese author named Jose Manuel Lopes and published in Portuguese. The book is entitled Cachimbos – it’s like a coffee table book about pipes and smoking. It was about 5 or 6 years into the craft that I had an ah-ha moment and realized I was a professional pipe maker.
MC You mentioned that you had people along the way who helped you in learning the craft of carving pipes. How important are mentors in the process of becoming a skilled artisan?
JA I think it’s extraordinarily important. There are very few people in the pipe-making world who haven’t apprenticed under someone else that I can look at their work and say, “That’s good.” Pipes are functional. Though artistic, they have to perform – they’re not just pretty things to set on a table and look at. There is a precision that comes from learning the craft. Art comes from your head and your heart, but the craft comes from watching and learning from others who invest in you as an artisan. There is sloppy design and sloppy craftsmanship; and then there is excellent design and excellent craftsmanship. I firmly believe that having multiple mentors, people who give you the gift and diversity of their experience and skill, help you become excellent in your work. Your ideas can be unique, but they have origins – a foundation for you to make informed decisions about design.
MC It’s like jazz, you have to know the rules before you can break them.
JA Exactly. Seasoned pipe makers are always asked, “What is one piece of advice that you’d give someone starting out?” For years I heard, “Find your own style. Find your own style. Find your own style.” I found that troubling. I never heard, “Learn to make a good pipe.” My approach has been different. From the beginning, I have sought to make the very best pipe I could; and then once I mastered that – or at least had some facility – then I could dress it up and play with design. It’s like an architect designing a building that looks pretty but isn’t functional. What the hell is the point? The same is true for pipes. If it’s not functional, it’s a sculpture with three holes in it (laughs)! When a customer buys one of my pieces, I fully expect them to use it and to pass it down as an heirloom. I have made and stamped close to 1200 pipes and I would love for each of them to be used for 50 or 70 years.
MC When it comes to design, what’s your process?
JA A pipe begins the moment I pick out the wood. This past summer I traveled to Milan to buy my briar. The cutter laid out 200 blocks and I individually inspected each piece hand picking about 25 of them. Sometimes I know the pipe I want to make the moment I see the wood. Sometimes it takes me looking at it for months before an idea hits me. When it does, I’ll either sketch out the design or go straight to the wheel to see what emerges. It’s a place of great satisfaction and frustration.
MC The serendipity of the unknown.
JA I think so. It’s the process of realizing potential. You have an idea that you want to see come to fruition, but each block of wood is different. There are times when I start shaping a piece of briar and everything falls into place. However, there are other moments when I cut into a block and I encounter a flaw in the grain and I have to stop. The same is true for applying the stain. Here’s an example of the same pipe, yet this one is more dramatic in color. (Holding two pipes in his hand) Both are beautiful, one is extraordinary.
In the past I have worked with metal, making knives. Though the process is similar, metal is uniform. You never encounter a flaw in metal that you haven’t created. That’s not the case with carving pipes. Wood is dynamic. I can’t control nature; I have to collaborate. It’s exciting, yet profoundly difficult. My partner is nature.
MC Wow, there’s a life-lesson: “I can’t control nature; I have to collaborate.” Has carving pipes taught you any other “life-lessons?”
JA Well, it’s funny. Having studied theology in graduate school, I get a lot of questions like that from people. They ask me, “How has making pipes influenced your beliefs?” I’m always curious what they expect me to say, “Oh yeah, it brings me closer to God!” (laughter)
MC Ha! (laughter) Okay, let me rephrase the question more specifically. How does your passion to realize potential impact the way in which you parent?
JA (Continued laughter) It’s easier to sculpt briar than it is to sculpt a person!
MC (Continued laughter) Well said.
JA I have two kids: a nine-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy. Both of them are so precious, both so unique, both beautiful and smart; they each possess their own will, their own personality, their own outlook on life, their own creativity. And much like the briar I work with, you can’t control it. You try to create the right environment, you give them experiences that may help reveal who they are to become and you do the best you can with what you have. But in the end, it’s a partnership. That’s parenting - recognizing the gift of each day to help shape and form a life, problem solving when nature introduces challenges and encouraging the passions that are embedded within your children. As parents, we only have them for a short period of time; and we can’t take those moments for granted.
MC Have you seen your artistic roots in them?
JA Oh my God, most definitely; especially in my nine-year-old. She loves to draw, loves to create but mostly she is an avid reader. At the age of seven she read through the Harry Potter series and has since read them multiple times. She writes songs, she writes stories. She’s learning Mandarin Chinese in her school and her best friend speaks Farsi. Together they created their own language with an extensive vocabulary complete with a dictionary. It’s crazy.
You know we tried various sports with her – she was the kid on the soccer field picking daisies and throwing them in the air just to see what they looked like when they floated. But in the end, we realized that she had her own interests, so we started allowing her to pursue them. I think that’s the gift that we, as parents, can give her – allowing her to be herself. It’s respecting the individuality of her life.
MC You strike me as a grateful person. What’s the secret to your happiness?
JA There are so many things that make me happy. Every day is filled with happiness. From waking everyone up, to making coffee for Melissa, to dropping the kids off to school and watching my daughter carry her enormous backpack filled with more stuff than she could possibly use – items that she loves – to making pipes, to interacting with my customers, to cooking, to eating well, to exercising – it’s all of it. I mean everything is a gift.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the details of doing this or that; packing something up, answering an email, shipping something out, making dinner, putting the kids to bed, collapsing on the couch because you’re so exhausted and then getting up the next day and doing it all over again. I think we have to establish memorable moments – reminders throughout the day and week that keep in front of us the simple experiences that bring us joy, not allowing them to pass by.
MC And the result of such a lifestyle?
JA You get to see potential realized. It’s like what Michelangelo said, “I just remove everything that’s not part of the sculpture.”