We are now at the end. This is the last of the 3 interviews done in honor of the West Coast Pipe Show happening in Las Vegas this coming weekend. All of the 3 interviews and the work connected to them started more than 4 months ago.
We finish up with a bang, by talking to Adam Davidson. An american carver whose most interesting feature in my opinion, is that he is a part time pipe maker. This part time aspect is an item that can easily be overlooked when looking at his top notch work. Even with his full time job, Adam finds time to carve pipes on nights and weekends. Looking at his star shine so bright under these current circumstances, I can’t help but imagine and wonder how much better his work would be if he did it full time. This aspect of Adam’s career adds an interesting element of intrigue when evaluating him and his work.
Additionally, I’ve always adored Adam’s comfort level with unusual shapes. He is more than happy to experiment in different and odd directions. Yet his strong appreciation for the classics allows him to blend the old ideas he has learned, with the new ideas that he creates. Adam’s design roots run wide and deep, as you will shortly read about & the amount of design rules and systems he has picked up along the way has served him and his work very well. Adam knows how to keep things balanced in his designs, even when he is walking along the edge of some new and seemingly ‘out there’ ideas. In my view, this element within him, puts his work in a unique position where Adam’s version of a ‘different’ or ‘unique’ composition, becomes that much more accessible to collectors who are more used to classic shapes, when compared to the work of those carver’s who choose the more extreme direction when pursuing unusual shapes. This carver, who is only seven years into his career, has already mastered the concept of balancing old & new. This element alone implies a design maturity in this young man that is far beyond his age. I hope you learn as much about Adam as I did.
David M. (DM): Any thoughts or highlights you can share on your career as you look back at when and how you began?
Adam Davidson (AD): I began making pipes in December of 2005, when I moved to South Carolina to work for Smokingpipes.com and Todd Johnson on his Medici line of pipes. These were pre-turned bowls that needed to be drilled to fit bamboo, and pre-form stems that also needed to be modified. I really didn’t know anything about working on pipes before I met Todd and I tried to absorb as much knowledge as I could. It was great watching him pick up a block and make one of his creative shapes. After working on Medici pipes for a few months, I was getting the basics down but really wanted to – eventually – work on making some of my own designs from solid block and rod. Todd moved to Charleston in March or April of 2006, and I couldn’t afford to take over the lease, so I packed up what few tools I had and was fortunate to get a single car garage at my apartment complex. The down side was that I didn’t work on pipes for ten months, but I eventually built workbenches and purchased some small machines to make five or six pipes for the 2007 Chicago show.
AD: I was actually going nuts during those ten months I didn’t have a shop, so when I eventually set it up, walking outside to a creative atmosphere was fantastic. I could look at the briar, bamboo, and other materials I had scattered around the shop and think about their potential. I suppose this is why I love working with bamboo so much. So this was my shop, my supplies, my tooling, and the only person preventing me from doing what I wanted was in the mirror. Even today, going home after work at Smokingpipes and heading outside to start another focus is great. My shop is often over 100-degrees in the summer and cold in the winter, but even if I am able to start on something, I feel that accomplishment isn’t far away. When I met my wife Lera and showed her a picture of the Witch Finger that Greg Pease photographed, she was drawn to the different creativity.
AD: Lera is a driving force in my pipe making, because I no longer make pipes just for myself and customers, but need to work extra hard to support both of us. Pipe making can be very expensive to start out, but it’s great when Lera sees a completed piece and a smile on my face. She wishes I made handbags or jewelry, but I doubt anything would be available to the public if I did. So, the creative drive is probably the best thing I remember when I look back. Building customer relations over the years and going to shows makes up for all of the hard work.
DM: Is there anything that you would have changed when you first got started, knowing what you know now?
AD: Looking back, I understand what I would have done differently, but a lot of this was necessary trial, error, and experience. Everyone needs to go through that at some point in their early career, I think.
I also wish I catalogued my work better. At least year’s Chicago show, I brought 18 pipes and I only took pictures of a few of them. I thought it was more important to focus on pipe making rather than taking a picture of it so I believe I did the right thing in that regard. I still however wish I would have had time to photograph everything. Most time when I go to a show, my pipes are completed the night before. Sometimes I don’t even go to sleep. I suppose pushing for ‘just one more’ had its drawbacks. A good guess is that 60% of my pipes have never been photographed, and of the 40% I did take pictures of, most of those are simple camera phone pictures. It would be nice to magically have nice pictures of all of them.
DM: I would like to categorize you in more detail if you don’t mind. To use a grounding element in understanding you better, let’s randomly compare your work to that of Negoita’s for a brief moment. Both of you have tremendously different styles and very different ways of approaching the briar. Yet the one area where you are both similar is in your clear focus on creating highly contemporary, new form function seeking pieces. Neither of you shy away from exploring the conceptual realm of pipe design. Beyond those general similarities between you and him, how would you go further in describing yourself in terms of the general design aesthetic/system that you are following and/or is driving you? And how does the design aesthetic/system that you employ focus your attention & on what does your attention focus? Help us get inside your ‘design mind’ please and how it brought you to where you are today.
AD: Being compared to Rolando Negoita in that general way is flattering, because I find him to be such a wonderful artisan. Rolando has a design background and has worked with many mediums besides briar, including metals. It’s easy to see that he frequently enjoys pushing the limits of what a pipe can be through form and detail, though he never avoids the necessary engineering to make it work. Looking at my history, my mom still has little sculptures and carvings I made from wood when I was only six or seven years old, so I suppose you could say I’ve always liked working with different materials. Sometimes it was finding a piece of wood and carving it with chisels or a knife to create an ornament for our Christmas tree, or sometimes it was digging up clay from the backyard to roll out cutty shapes before firing them in a wood kiln (when I was 11 or 12). They didn’t hold up well over time, but my neighbor enjoyed smoking them and making them was fun.
AD: My desire to work with different materials also allowed me to work with clay and iron in my blacksmith forge (as a teenager) which was quite thrilling. At 15 I was hired by an artist at a glass blowing gift shop and again I continued to change to different mediums – glass rods – shaped into flowers, ships, birds, and anything else the shop sold. It really wasn’t glass blowing, except for when we made liquid-filled swans, but I had to learn how to work with the different materials. Blacksmithing and glass working are much different than working with briar, but I often think back to when I was drawing out a piece of glass over a torch, or bending one of those swan necks, when I think about how much I want the stem to bend on a pipe. Just like the swans, I try to make them look fluid to my eyes, all while paying attention to other lines on the pipe. Sometimes I wish I could just heat and stretch some briar, bamboo, or vulcanite. Anytime someone works in a different artistic medium, it’s bound to leave trace effects for further ideas.
DM: What are your thoughts on classical shapes and how they blend into some of the more individual directions your design goes in?
AD: I still like classical shapes, although I do disagree with the idea that people should begin learning how to carve by mastering all of them (meaning the English tradition shape chart). The reason I disagree is because I don’t like all the classical shapes. I do like some of them however, and am open to new ideas of interpretation. Some guys will always like classics and some guys like off the wall stuff, so I try to incorporate as much of both world’s as possible for my customers and myself as an artist. It’s fun experimenting, tweaking, and stretching ideas. I think that if collectors see any artisan at a pipe show that has a table full of really ‘out there’ shapes, the assumption might be that the artisan does not know how to make classic shapes. That type of assumption is really unfair because out of hundreds of pipe makers, 99% of them are making classics and only classics, and most of those vary from what we think of English or Danish classical shapes. If a collector knows that a pipe maker is skillful at making classics and then he sees the same artisan make an off the wall piece, the collector will understand that the artisan is capable of changing lines, though has all of them where he wants them to be should he chose something unusual or asymmetrical. Hopefully the collector realizes that the unusual pipe is not an accident.
DM: Some people have difficulty appreciating art for art’s sake, especially in something as deeply rooted in tradition as pipe making. Your gentle blending of classical and unusual shapes actually helps people gravitate towards and understand new directions in pipe shaping philosophy.
AD: It gives them something to relate to. Even in oil paintings, like works by Picasso and Dali. Both of them could paint very beautiful photo-realistic scenes. However; they can also traverse to very extreme and unique areas. Picasso was doing something completely new however with the fundamental and important design principles which he previously learned. Even if I do something really weird, the collector may be able to tie it into something else concrete in my design philosophy.
DM: Are you planning to be a pipe maker full time?
AD: A lot of people ask me this question. I will be doing it full time eventually, but don’t plan on it anytime soon. The reason why I am not full time right now is because I am working at SmokingPipes and I enjoy my work there. Plus, I attend four pipe shows each year and make commissions. As I see it, I will branch off in the next few years.
AD: Sometimes a carver might have a successful pipe show where they sell a lot of pipes and even get a few orders. Those same carvers may go home and think that they will start working as a pipe maker full time and they will be able to have enough income from it. The problem however, is that the work which might take them 6 months to do, may only take them 1 month once they start to get a hang of it. At that point, if they don’t have enough pipe commissions to go beyond that demand, or have a retailer who needs additional stock, they end up saturating their market very fast and they might have to start looking for another job again. I am just not ready to go full time right now. I never expect to be at a show with 50 pipes, so showing 6-12 pieces is a goal. My production is between 70-100 pipes a year and this is usually evenings after work and on weekends, so I feel decent numbers are still being produced.
DM: Any words of advice to pipe makers that may be struggling to find their voice?
AD: They have to keep making pipes to find out what works best for their market and ability. Consistency is important. They will need to dedicate a lot of time and energy into their goals and be willing to risk shaping something further and further and further. Sometimes going too far or too thin is a learning experience to find out how to back off a little bit. Also, they don’t need to have a lot of machines or tooling. Many of us started out with a few tools and just had to devote a lot of extra time with our bare hands. The biggest challenge is usually right between the ears.
AD: People can be comfortable in what they do but somebody has to push themselves forward to always try to do something better, different, or simply evolved. Some things can be learned and some things cannot, but we never know until we push ourselves.
As an example, I love the old Comoys classic shapes. If a carver wants to make an exact copy of a Comoys pipe, well, they should challenge themselves to do that. Every line, curve, and symmetrical detail should try to be replicated as a practice. Students studying oil painting often are tasted with making an exact copy of something in a museum. If they can, there is a lot learned along the way for their own work in the future. By doing those types of tasks they will slowly figure out their own abilities.
AD: I also believe that artisans today are more aware of little details and the driving force is being aware that there are a lot of carvers popping up every year that are learning how to make pipes beautifully. Collectors get to compare most of their work online or at pipe shows, and the collectors take notice of the little details. It’s up to the carver to do their best every time if they want to continue to grow.
Criticism can hurt some people, but constructive criticism can only help. Some guys don’t want to ask those tough questions because they might be afraid to hear the truth, but it can only help. Even established artisans push themselves each time they make a pipe. Once they figure out what really works for them and their customers, can they actually do something like that again? This whole process takes time.
DM: Is there anything new that you’re working on in terms of previously unexplored design directions? What have you learned from some of the previous designs you created?
AD: There are always new ideas. Some of them are roughly shaped and others are simply sketches waiting for the right block and right time. The McDonald Bulldog was a really fun shape from a few years ago but I only made it once. My Almond Amoeba shapes are also popular, but I understood it was important to make a few variations of the same idea. The McDonald Bulldog (which isn’t even a bulldog, just a play on a pup eating at McDonalds) has been made by many other people – even calling it the same name. This is pretty cool, I think. Maybe I should make another one. In developing some signature shapes, making multiple versions is fun and reaches out. I shaped something called a Fig only a couple of months ago, and am already playing with the same shape with bamboo, horn, and stretching the proportions. Still, a lot of new shapes or interpretations are on the horizon.
DM: What are you noticing in terms of popular current concepts or ideas that carver’s are playing with these days?
AD: Pipes made from Morta are getting a lot of play these days. When Morta pipes first came around, everyone thought they were neat and somewhat weird, and now we see it all over the place. That was just 5 years ago when they really started hitting the market. The same thing with Revyagin’s reverse calabash, Gotoh and Eltang are also starting to play with that idea. Many ideas were around years ago but people simply didn’t take notice of it. Rolando actually is the first guy that I know of that did the reverse calabash. He had played with his Tubos design. I think it’s great really and those are the things that I am noticing really today. Carvers make what they want, and inspiration is everywhere.
DM: You work at one of the largest pipe shops in the world. Any insight you can provide as to your personal perception of what some brands are doing good or not good these days? Are there any trends you can see developing?
AD: Companies sell, change hands, or come under new management with new management’s new goals. We all see changes in Dunhill, but they are probably the most consistent company. Dunhill as well as Peterson, for the last century have been very consistent. Other brands were once beautifully shaped and finished, then they were sold, and now they aren’t but a shadow of what they once were.
If there is somebody working in a factory, they are going to try and get their pipes finished as fast as possible. They have quota’s that they have to deal with and they can overlook details because of it. This is very different from the artisan pipe maker who can work at his own pace. Since the artisan is responsible for everything, I believe they pay more attention to the final product.
DM: Beyond the basic engineering requirements of a pipe, are there any rules to pipe making that must be followed? How much room do we really have in pipe design to freely explore abstract design concepts?
AD: There really are no rules. Even taking engineering into account; makers each produce pipes that they think are best – to their eye. Tobacco chamber sizes and shapes aside; there is no consistent airway in the shank, stem, button, width of button, slot, or anything else. Some people prefer acrylic while others like vulcanite. Some like thin bits, thick bits, narrow bits, wide bits, big pipes, small pipes, and every color in the world. As long as a pipe will hold tobacco and work as a smoking device, there will always be variety for everything else.
DM: I think of you as one of the top US carvers with the lowest public profile. Although your employer does a great job of providing you exposure, you yourself seem to shy away from it. You don’t have a website and beyond Facebook, no active outreach to the public. I assume your business is sustaining itself without these items however I am wondering if there is a conscious reason behind this?
AD: I appreciate your kind words, but don’t place myself anywhere among my friends and peers. There are a lot of great carvers in the United States, for sure. A lot of them have websites and are active on pipe forums, but I choose not to be. I really should get a website soon, if only to showcase some of my work. Probably one of my biggest faults is not being interesting in technology, so I was always more concerned with getting better as a pipe maker. Not every pipe I make gets posted to Facebook, and the ones that do are either commission or already sold. I don’t want to use it as a store, but it’s nice to share pieces sometimes. Fortunately, most of my work is commission either from Facebook, phone calls, emails, pipe shows, or word of mouth. Having a website would be greatly beneficial, for sure, so I’ll probably get one up and running in the next year or so.
AD: The reason I choose not to participate in pipe forums is because I spend all day looking at and describing pipes, or I’m making them. Sometimes being a back-burner guy has benefits. Forums can often get heated, and a pipe maker can either post his opinion, refrain from doing so (while people would wonder why he doesn’t speak up), or worse, dig a deep hole and offend others. I talk with my pipe making friends and customers, and have read and privately replied to a few over heated topics, but figure that getting involved – on either side – could be worse. At the same time, if anyone has anything positive or negative to say about me or my work, they have the freedom to say whatever they want without worrying that I would be reading the comments. I think pipe forums are great for the business and hobby, but my being rather introverted and quiet has benefits too.
DM: How is your personal life going? Has Lera’s adjustment to life in the US completed or is it still on-going? How is your Russian these days, improving? Any plans to expand your family beyond the both of you?
AD: Lera and I have been married for two years now. We got married in the U.S. and also in her home town in Russia last year. Seeing her country and meeting her family and friends adds a lot to our relationship. While my Russian is pretty much on par with a three-year-old who knows more bad words than they should, I can communicate on a small level to her parents over the phone, on Skype, or through Russian Kontake (like Facebook). When I met Michail Revyagin at the Chicago pipe show in May, I was very happy to find him very friendly. I felt like a fish out of water trying to communicate with him, but he seemed to understand what I was saying, and even said my Russian was good. Most of the details were lost, though, but the practice was good for me. I’m planning on buying Rosetta Stone this winter so I can learn the language and comfortably communicate with Lera’s parents and other Russian friends. Lera has grown a lot, and I’m extremely proud of her. We are continuing to grow together and imagine a future in an old home, huge garden, equally huge workshop for pipes, blacksmithing, and fireplaces. Continuing to grow is important, and I’m grateful every day we are together.
DM: All of us get inspiration from others each and every day of our lives. Who or what is inspiring you and your work these days? Can you show us an example in your current work?
AD: Inspiration is all around if one is willing to look. Working for Smokingpipes is a lot like an aspiring author having access to an extensive library, I think. Part of my job is to inspect every single pipe that enters the building, so I need to take them apart to make sure there are no cracks or problems, but I can also see how they are made. This isn’t to say that I can pick up an Eltang, Toku, or Lars and go home and make it. That would even be hard from a photo. The best thing I can do is take notice of what is in front of me. I don’t know how these guys work, really, aside from watching Tokutomi and Jeff Gracik in my shop a couple times, but the end result is what matters. It might seem funny, but I take more notice of what not to do after inspecting pipes. Some new and estate pipes might have really awkward transitions, accent materials, or some sort of poor engineering or shortcut that I would never want to do. A lot of the lovely ones are a result of the carver taking extra time or risks to make it look that way. Extra time in turning and polishing a tenon or continuing a fluid line. While the added risk was making sure the stem and button were thin, consistent, and the shaping was cut almost to the bone for beauty. When I pick up a beautifully stained or shaped pipe, I hope someone in the future will pick up one of my pipes and think the same things and hopefully not “geeze, why did Adam do this?”
Adam Davidson will be attending the West Coast Pipe Show in Las Vegas on Nov. 5th & 6th, 2011.
If you would like to order a pipe from Adam Davidson, you can contact him through the information below:
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