Michael Parks is one of the most talented North American pipe makers working today. His work vibrates with an aura of unique customized authenticity. He represents the classical side of pipes with a calm and confident yet very rugged expression. You can feel a Michael Parks a mile away. They seem to vibrate with a potent boldness that make all his pipes appear very robust. His sandblasting has improved tremendously and the detailed cragginess that he gives these pipes stands in high contrast to the incredibly delicate and comfortable stems he makes. You can see that each part (stem, bowl, adornment) of his pipes receives his full and very deliberate attention. His talents are soaring and because he is still so young, we have a lot to look forward to over the rest of his career.
Michael and I spoke at length on various topics and below is the collection of the most interesting parts from our discussion. You will read a lot of wonderful information about Michael, his history as well as his general thought process on various pipe and other topics. I will leave my opinions to my articles. For these interviews, I will let the pipe maker do most of the talking. I hope this read enhances your view of this incredibly talented pipe maker.
David M (DM): Michael, you are just over a decade into your career. Knowing what you know now about what brought you to this point, would you have done anything differently when you first started, if you had the chance to make a change?
Michael Parks (MP): I would have pursued studying with a master if possible, rather than developing my own techniques at their own pace. I think that it would have been very valuable to establish my working methods from the teachings of an old-timer. This is more about efficiency in the shop than design language. I feel as though I have cultivated an understanding of design. I have looked at pipes for a long time and I have mastered my own hands so that I am now able to create what I see and what I imagine, in terms of say a classic shape. A nice balanced, geometric, refined harmonious shape. I can now make what I want to make, in this medium. There’s two things there, one is for me to make it quick enough so I can make money, so to work with a master like Eltang, or any of the masters, they are so proficient at what they do. They have learned so many tricks that although it may be hard for them to explain it, just to be able to work with them, the amount that you could pick up in terms of efficiency would be amazing.
MP: Especially at the beginning of anyone’s career in pipe making. When you are establishing how to make a pipe. It would be good information to have to speed you along. Todd Johnson is a great example, the same with Jeff Gracik, both are very gifted sculptures, gifted craftsmen but given great instruction at the beginning, hands on instruction from a professional, I think that is really important and you can clearly see the results. Where as myself, I worked on my own and my connection with pipe makers was only at shows or over email or on the phone and I would take that information home and then into the shop and hammer it out myself. If I was able to work in someone’s shop for some amount of time, I feel as though I would have learned better.
DM: I see so many pipe makers struggling to find their own voice and their bearings in our community. How would you counsel them to get back on a better path?
MP: I think there is a connection between what I just said. That is learning and having the ability to create what they imagine. It takes time to learn the medium that way. Some of the attempts at classics are simply not refined. I feel as though the maker can’t quite see yet or they have not quite learned yet. I see some really crude examples of people’s work far too often. So it takes a lot of time to learn the briar.
MP: Then there is the market and what it calls for. Unless a new pipe maker who hits the scene and is known for their creativity and it’s not like Kent Rasmussen is new but he is someone who is known for doing his own thing or Kei-Ichi Gotoh both of them hit the scene making creative work and continue to do so. Those two howver are both extremely talented so them starting off by doing their own thing, well, it’s a rare occurrence and I think more pipe makers should accept that. Michail Revyagin is another great example. These guys have no choice but to be immensely creative. They also have their own battles, one is pushing forward to find new creative expressions for their work and two, finding a market for that work. Part of it is what collectors are responding to and can they cater to that, with what they personally want to create?
DM: In the initial portion of your career rise, you spent a considerable amount of time creating some amazingly unique creations. Like your Lord of the Rings set for instance. Now that you are more established, you are likely focused on fulfilling commissions.
MP: Yes this is true.
DM: Is there a reason why you have mellowed out in that other area recently?
MP: Well answering the call for commissions, of course, and so my production is largely based on the demand for classic styled pipes. Although through this process I have developed an appreciation for traditional utilitarian pipes. I know that I share this appreciation with many pipe collectors…those who want to smoke and enjoy a pure and simple pipe. Like this one.
DM: Do you have any planned projects on paper that you will soon get to? Something that will blow us away again? Can you discuss the project if it exists? Even a teaser would be nice.
MP: Last week I received a commission for a seven-day set of ‘Tikki’ pipes, The Aloha Seven Day Set! It’ll grow from a theme of palm trees, pineapples, hula girls, moais, surf, etc. This one will be great!!
I’m also currently working on a seven-day set of classic giant bent Charatans, based on some Supremes and Coronations. These are magnificent pipes. Here is one giant Cup and Saucer.
MP: Recently I completed a pair of briar Calabashes with bowl designs taken directly from an actual gourd. One is a smooth with a meerschaum cap and black ebonite stem and the other a sandblast with a natural briar cap and vintage bakelite stem (both seen below), both have mammoth ivory accent bands.
MP: Also in the shop I’ve been working on a Christmas Cavalier complete with antler, olive wood from the Holy Land and cast solid sterling silver accents.
DM: Your blasting seems to have remarkably improved. The final result is much deeper and craggier. Are you doing anything different there?
MP: I am adjusting my technique. It’s funny though it really is block to block. Say I am using Italian wood, sometimes I get outstanding deep craggy and sharp blasts but then other times it will be shallow blasts with tons of sharp fine points and other times a deep rounded undulating type of surface like old Dunhills maybe. I feel like I don’t have ultimate control there. I obviously work with the wood as hard and as much as I can. I am now comfortable to blast at a higher pressure than I used to and this does help me to enhance the briar as much as I can.
DM: Any big life changes you can share with us? I heard you have a new work-shop?
MP: Yes the new shop is now up and running smoothly, as it has been for a little over a year. Also I have a new website in the works.
DM: When is the new website expected to launch?
MP: In a few months. I am also going to update the gallery with something like 80 more pictures so my customers and collectors can look forward to that.
DM: While your work clearly influences many people, who or what is influencing you these days?
MP: The old catalogues from the turn of the 20th century, Dunhill, BBB and Comoy’s, have provided tons of inspiration. Here is a pair of noseburners modeled after early BBBs.
MP: This year a friend of mine picked up a 20’s Dunhill Patent black shell Billiard ~group 4. What a pipe! It’s THE quintessential PIPE….
Also at shows and online I continue to do as I have always done and that is to check out the work of my peers. I like to see what everyone’s up to.
DM: Of course these are subjective questions but I am curious about your personal thoughts on the subject. Your welcome to use yourself as an example as well. How much room do you think we have in the pipe design realm to freely explore different & totally unique pipe design creations?
MP: The mind’s eye is limitless. I think that there is always opportunity for, and interest in, the new combinations of shapes, textures and materials in pipes.
DM: Is it good to be able to completely break the mold –or- should we break the mold within certain confines of the general design language?
MP: Regarding sculptural pipes it is my opinion that if choosing this path the designs begin with breaking away, so design options are totally open to inventiveness. So long as the pipe can be smoked Why Not? How else will new ideas come to be?
Perhaps though this Baldo Baldi pipe, for example, takes things a little far!
DM: Do you personally want to explore the more abstract & sculptural side of design? Or is this simply not your cup of tea?
MP: Absolutely I do, sometimes I enjoy creating things that are new, be them planned or beginning without any initial direction. Here are two interesting ones, Flat Fish and Whale.
DM: Can you talk about the inspiration for this pipe as well as your general thoughts on the design you chose.
MP: It’s a Sperm Whale pipe made for a Russian zoologist who works with sea mammals. It was inspired mostly by the classic whale motif of David Blackwood paintings and also the pipe shapes of Tokutomi, Rasmussen and Knudsen. A simplified gestural movement characterizes this piece. I especially like the gesture of the whale/shape in the Blackwood painting and the design began from there, combined then with a simplified and somewhat abstract form. Also from a visual standpoint the stem is translucent to preserve focus on the pipe /whale shape itself. The stem could be viewed as ’water’ and the accent ‘spray or splashes’.
DM: The importance of art and unique creations is undeniable. Yet we clearly have a lot of traditional thinkers out there who feel that a pipe should always look like a classic version of the design language. What are your thoughts on this?
MP: The appreciation for new art will develop on it’s own. I don’t know if it will ever outgrow the classic pipe. Well who knows. I wonder how pipes were received in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, because I know there were Danish freehands and Charatans, those were then the more artistic creative pieces. I wonder what percentage of pipes were creative then, compared to classics. I think right now, the market for creative pipes is getting very fertile. There are a lot of pipe makers making really unique creative works.
This area is always stuck in a slow movement process. More makers are making more creative works. A pipe, by definition, is a classic, conservative, utilitarian thing and that is what people are drawn to when they think of a smoking pipe. I make a lot of classic pipes and I like them for what they are.
MP: Look at the place of contemporary art in any society at any time. It is not really what the masses want or are open to. It is never really popular. I think in terms of pure art, it is that 10, 20, 30 years down the road kind of thing. What was contemporary in the past, now is part of popular culture. It takes time for these things to develop and be accepted. It is really important that this work is being made though because all the great stuff is in there, new techniques, new tweaks that make pipes look awesome. I look at someone’s work and I add a little flair or something new only because they are the ones exploring something new. It further diversifies the craft that we love.
DM: In terms of generating enthusiasm and motivation inside you, which pipe maker has been your greatest inspiration in that realm and why?
MP: I think Chonowitsch and S.Bang give me the most motivation when I see their work. Both of them make high grade pipes that I respect for their refined and masculine classic shapes. Rasmussen’s work as well, I really appreciate his resolved sculptural designs.
DM: What was the idea behind your new Blasted Bent Bamboo Cup & Saucer pictured below? You seem to freely be mixing several different ideas here. It looks stunning and has been getting an enormous amount of discussion in the pipe community. What technique was used to make the bamboo look the way it does?
MP: Thank you! The bowl is generally like the 50’s Charatan Cup and Saucers, while the longer shank extension is suggestive of the antique Austro-Hungarian/German hunting pipes. The bamboo has been blasted and stained pulling out the detail of the fibres…I first saw Adam Davidson use this technique. For me it is the dark colour theme that really pulls the pipe together and combined with the overall unusual shape gives it an edgy/sinister feel!
DM: What is your personal preference in terms of pipe shape and style?
MP: These days I’m smoking approximately group 3-5 sized bents and straights. Just which pipe I choose depends on where I am during the day, in the workshop, reading, sometimes driving or outside somewhere. Here are the pipes that I’m smoking these days, the ones on the left more so than those on the right.
MP: Here is a shape that I really enjoy making simply because I want one, a ~group 3 blasted Billiard. A pipe that I need to add to my rotation!
MP: Last year I received a commission to, “please make for me the pipe that you would like to smoke.”. So with that I immediately thought of a Dunhill Bent Billiard the type with the emphasized swan neck, in a group 4ish size like a scaled down 120 or LC. Happily I made what I considered to be the perfect pipe! Then unfortunately it dawned on me that it was for somebody else!! At any rate I now have 10+ of these rough shaped and fitted with stems as overstock on my shelf and it’s only a matter of time…..! Here is the original.
MP: In terms of what pipes I’m making, I‘m all over the map. Mostly they hinge on my clients’ tastes. Frankly I like each and every pipe. They all have unique and individual qualities from light and delicate to bold and strong, and I appreciate them. My goal as the craftsman is to maintain fluid lines and create harmonious, balanced shapes every time….and in pipes that are all good smokers.
DM: Tell us about the place where you live. What is special about it for you?
MP: The wild open land. I like the countryside where I live….I like landscape everywhere I go really. I am surrounded by nature. I live in a small town in Ontario, Canada on the north shore of Lake Ontario. To the north and east it is rural, however just 1hr to the west by car will take you into downtown Toronto, a city and greater area populated by many millions.
DM: You spent some time as a landscaper some years ago. I am curious if your artistic side came out while you were working in that job? The image of an Edward Scissor Hands types comes to mind when I think of you and landscaping.
MP: Ironically Yes! I used to spend a ton of time with the quick-cut stone saw shaping coping stones, cap stones for steps and walls, to the contours of large boulders and rocks that we would place at the end of a wall or step, etc. I would get a little lost in my own world cutting and shaping the stones. My boss would yell “Parks we’re not making pipes here, hurry up!”!
DM: Seeing as how we are both Canadian, I have to ask about your hockey playing days. I hear you were pretty good at moving the puck. What was your position and what do you love the most about the sport?
MP: I was a defenseman, and was since I started playing hockey at around 5-6 yrs old. The momentum of skating is one of my favourite parts of the sport, as well as passing the puck and coordinating plays.
DM: What appeals to you about the life of being a pipe maker?
MP: I really enjoy working in the shop and being productive in my craft. I really enjoy being good at it. Not to sound arrogant but I really enjoy seeing the results of my efforts. I also really enjoy that my work will outlive me. That is very cool to me. My pipes travel around the world and they are a part of people’s lives. People take them with them when they are on vacation. It is cool to be a part of that. The people in the community are also just great people. We all have a reason to be together and we share a common interest and I almost always find something that I enjoy about the people.
Michael Parks will be in attendance at the West Coast Pipe Show in Las Vegas on Nov. 5th & 6th, 2011
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If you would like to order a pipe directly from Michael, please contact him using the information below.
Phone: 905.224.0591 (Canada)
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