Lansing area artist finds passion in glass — and extravagant bongs

Global Glassworks’ Ben Birney describes glassblowing as ‘molten dance’

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Ben Birney talks about glass like it’s a rare gem or a precious metal. To him, it’s a limitless and mysterious medium for creativity, a substance that he has been deeply enchanted with since he was a teenager, something he has spent the last 20 years pioneering into artistic perfection. 

And as the cannabis industry expands, so has the world of glassblowing, allowing Birney’s artwork to enjoy a recent surge in popularity while stoners across Michigan continue to build on their eccentric collections of glass spoons, bubblers, bongs, chillums, dab rigs, steamrollers and much, much more — with some of the more intricate pieces selling for thousands of dollars.

“Out of everything in our world, glass is one one of the more intriguing substances you can come across. There’s just so much diversity in terms of what can be done. It’s just one of those mysterious substances with amazing optics,” Birney said. “The depth, the clarity. It’s a substance unlike any other. It just stands apart. Then, you’re working with the flame and it’s this whole molten dance, timing the movements to achieve these different effects. It’s so rewarding.”

I met with Birney last week at his North Lansing studio, Global Glassworks, after spotting his products at Lansing Botanical Co. and Su Casa. Last year, I bought a bubbler that was made there by Charlie Sanford — and it’s still one of the crown jewels of my personal glass collection.

From the outside, Birney’s studio looks more like an automotive garage than a space for exquisite art. There are no flashy signs or colors. Birney is used to keeping a low-key operation, especially after a nationwide crackdown on paraphernalia for years had made his artwork illegal. It was only this month that the city of Lansing actually wiped those outdated laws from its books, though local cops have allowed headshops to sell pipes without issue for more than a decade.

“It’s also about making something physically with your hands. That can be so rewarding to people in general,” Birney said. “It’s a physical thing where you’re pulling off these sets of movements to lead to an end result. And if you mess anything up, the end result is messed up.”

Birney grew up in Mason, attended Okemos High School and opened his Lansing studio about 10 years ago. Over the years, his staff has shifted size and focus — leaning on both mass production for wholesale orders and also spending weeks crafting a handful of $3,000 bongs. Birney has also been focused on training new artists and sharing his knowledge of the craft, though the pandemic has stalled his plans to host workshops. Nowadays, it’s mostly just Birney and lead artist Ben Biela working in the shop, fulfilling a very limited number of orders, he said. 

“I grew the business from a passion to help people learn glassblowing, and that’s not something that’s exactly lucrative for me,” Birney added. “I’m not trying to make a big business and I never was. You churn out production pieces to fuel your art career, to afford the materials to make those pieces that you really want to make, the pieces that sell for several thousand dollars.”

Rather than perfect one artistic technique, Birney has focused on a variety of glassblowing styles. Shelves at his studio are filled with dozens of pipes with different shapes and sizes — no two exactly the same. Some are simple designs. Others are shaped into television and video game characters with patterns that glow shades of neon green and purple under UV light.

“I can’t make one thing over and over again for years,” Birney said. “It just gets boring.”

Among Global Glassworks’ specialties is millefiori, an Italian glasswork technique that produces distinctive floral patterns that are only viewable from the cut ends of a glass rod or cane. Those rods, once cooled, can be cut into beads or discs for jewelry — or colorfully decorated bongs.

Birney is also particularly proud of glass weaved with a distinctive spiral pattern unlike any other glassware on the market. That “DNA” pattern, as he labeled it, is unique to his studio, he said.

“It’s like this really interesting, amazing, unique, art mecca here that is a gem in the country. There are very few things like this going on but I haven’t been able to share it with my community because of the prohibition aspects,” Birney said. “With all that changing, it’s really opening up my vision for this company. I’m hoping to keep offering learning opportunities.”

The pandemic paused Birney’s plans to offer community glass blowing classes last year, though he wants to roll out some more opportunities for lessons at his Lansing studio later this year. 

“Even at the beginning level, those don’t have to be to learn how to be a glassblower. It’s just about learning something new. It can be a couples’ night: Come in and learn some glass.”

For now, a limited collection of his artwork is available at globalglassworks.bigcartel.com. 

Kyle Kaminski is City Pulse’ managing editor and a cannabis enthusiast who has been smoking marijuana just about every day for the last decade. Almost weekly, Kaminski samples some of the best cannabis products available in Greater Lansing, gets real high and writes about them. 

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