Some artists draw inspiration from pop culture, others are captivated by sea life and the mysteries of the deep. Dan Foster finds inspiration in trees. But not just any tree. As a glass blower, Foster creates stunning smoking accessories that mimic the papery white barked birch.
“It’s the coolest and most beautiful tree around here,” says Foster who calls Kalamazoo, Michigan home.
Whether you’re a nature nerd or a weekend hiker, you’ve likely awed at the birch tree with its slender trunk, spindly limbs, and dark horizontal raised lines crossing the iconic white bark. Native Americans collected birch bark to make baskets, scrolls, fishing creels and even canoe construction and wigwam coverings. Foster doesn’t use the actual bark in his glass pieces, but he’s developed techniques to realistically simulate it for rigs, chillums, stash jars, and even candleholders.
“I do a lot of ‘blow in’ where you take a color and blow it into another tube. For the birch trees, I use a golden ‘butter’ color on the inside to represent the wood and a creamy white on the outside for bark. Black and brown stringers act as the dark striations.”
“Compared to a lot of pieces, they might seem simple. But they feature techniques that I couldn’t do without twenty years of experience,” Foster adds. “White glass is finicky. You can’t just let it cool down like you can with clear or some of the other colors because it wants to crack. It can be a pain in the ass.”
Foster has his mom to thank for getting him started in glass blowing. Back in 2002, she signed him up for soft glass lessons with a local artist. In that hot shop, Foster learned to make goblets, vases, paperweights, and even collaborated on a chandelier. For a teenager, though, setting up a studio for soft glass was out of the budget. It wasn’t until he took a class in flameworking that he found his calling.
“Soft glass has its limitations, and there’s so much more that you can do with boro,” he says. “Being on the torch gave me more opportunity to do what I really wanted to do.”
Foster dove into flameworking, teaching himself the craft while creating pendants, marbles, and pipes that would wind up in the showcase at the local smoke shop.
“I would take something as far as I could and then try to figure out something new,” Foster says. “Once in a while, I try to go all out and make something completely crazy. The first birch piece I made was this massive thing with a treehouse with a fox, bird, and squirrels.”
Foster is happy to be known as the “birch guy” and he has 20K Instagram followers who truly admire his work. “So sick and so unique!” remarks one fan. Another comments that the pieces “ignite so many memories of spending time in beautiful Wisconsin forests.” “These are some of the most BEAUTIFUL pieces I have ever seen. . .my wedding was full of birch pieces that my husband cut so this is just perfect!” compliments a customer who now cherishes one of Foster’s custom pieces.
“The person who’s buying a clear glass chillum just wants to smoke,” Foster says, “but those who appreciate my pieces have a real connection with them. That makes me feel like I’m making art rather than just a pipe.”