During my move from east to west coast Canada, my friend and tattoo artist Jesse Fiseskci invited me out to Olds, Alberta for a day. He spoke a little bit about his buddy’s head shop and glassblowing studio, sharing with me some funny stories about the crew of guys. Much like the glass, my whole experience that day blew my mind.
We pulled up to Boxcar Studios, an hour outside of Calgary, around 10am on a Wednesday. The streets were quiet in the industrial part of this small town – the loudest thing on the street was the space. The head shop with a cannabis leaf and ski mask sticker on the front door, and the garage door of the studio with their name painted in green and pink graffiti.
We walked into the head shop and my eyes were immediately drawn to the art overtaking entire walls. Large green, blue, yellow, pink, purple, and orange, futuristic, acidic demon looking things. From showcases to shelving units, the place brimmed with hundreds of glass bongs and pipes. In the back of the store, an abundance of electronic smoking devices, pods, flavoured rolling papers, and racks of local clothing.
Then I entered the door to the right, although connected, I was immersed in a totally different vibe. The studio space – still adorning similar bright artwork on the walls – had a brighter feel to it, where the energy was so light it felt free flowing.
I was introduced to the owner of Boxcar Studios, John Carlson, better known as Ghost Cat. We all shot the shit for a little bit before John returned to glass blowing. I walked around the studio in wonder. The large work station in the center of the studio was filled with broken glass and dozens of finished pieces – with barely a square inch of surface in sight, but one of those instances where you know that everything is in its designated place. I watched John work in awe, as bright flames shot out as he sculpted a minuscule intricate pearl sized glass piece. A newer addition to many dab rigs.
I asked John how he feels while working and ended up learning an entire history and what he sees in store for the future. “It’s like a meditative trance. You’re staring into a flame for so long. Every element is represented in it. We have the glass, silica stone, which comes from the Earth, you have fire, the wind which is what we’re doing when we blow into the glass, and then a water pot to cool pieces. So everything is represented in the most simplistic, primitive form. Even our tools are basic which is cool cause it’s such an old art form. It really hasn’t been till the last decade when pipe makers took it over that you started seeing changes in technique and the colour really grew. Before pipe and bong makers were glassblowing, I think there was something like 12 colours on the palette. Now it’s like tattooing where there’s thousands of colours of glass. There’s hundreds of different shades. It’s insane how it’s evolved, even just in my 10 years. Dabs really changed the game. I never thought I’d sell a $2,000 piece but then dabs came out and a $1,000 rig is nothing to someone nowadays. They’re one-of-a-kind pieces of art. It’s insanity to think there’s this underbelly of this culture. People buying this paraphernalia. It’s cool though, I think this is one of the last true forms of true Americana Art. Like it hasn’t been bought and sold yet, but I feel like it’s close. Netflix just came out with a glass blowing show and then you have legalization. It’s like when tattooing got put on TLC. It kind of changed it. Not necessarily a bad thing but it’s been cool to grow with it and see where it is right now.”
Then Drake Wagner came in. Nothing like the Canadian rapper but an icon himself, famous for smoke offs of “dabbing the grossest shit you could ever imagine, just for fun”, which he looked at me with a wide grin and laughed as I was told this. When I asked how he got started in glassblowing he shared with me, “I saw videos on YouTube and thought it was really cool. I begged them for torch time and after trying it I was hooked. I started renting time almost everyday. Now I rent a spot here. It’s cool here because I get creative freedom to do whatever I want. And if you want to learn something all you have to do is ask. Most other shops you don’t even get to blow glass for the first year.”
I was struck by the fact that although all totally separate industries, barbering, tattooing, and glass blowing share so many similarities. All three art forms that date back hundreds of centuries. All which have evolved today into trades with interconnected cultures and communities. After spending several hours with the crew at Boxcar Studios, the only difference I saw from glass blowing to barbering and tattooing was that glass blowers don’t require others to practice their art. John told me you can be working on a piece for a long time, only to have it crack and be ruined, which can be a disappointment. Which made me think of the long unseen hours that barbers and tattoo artists put into perfecting their craft, to sometimes still be disappointed with the outcome of their creations. Although glass blowers do deal with people in distributing their products, from customers that come into the head shop – and like any industry they had their fair share of interesting stories they shared with me – to larger scale distribution companies. John told me his glass is mostly distributed in Ontario and the West Coast, where I’m from and where my next adventure is taking me. When we started discussing the culture of B.C., I mentioned Dank Mart and he told me although he hadn’t personally known co-owner Shahin Shakur, he’d always heard great things, and it’s crazy how although so far apart, from blowing to buying glass, their communities are directly related.
As if this underground community couldn’t get any cooler, John told me stories about the Great Canadian Glass Gathering, a convention for glass blowers essentially on the side of a mountain in B.C., which he described as the true grassroots of this untapped Canadian industry. On the verge of mainstream emergence from cannabis being legalized in Canada to Internet popularity, Boxcar Studios, where the name stems from the nearby train tracks and has now grown to have a more significant meaning, is pioneering the Canadian glassblowing culture and community.
John shared with me when American glass blowers come to visit they’re always amazed with the way they have their space set up. We discussed how a lot of Canadian artists have expressed feeling like they hit a ceiling in their hometown and John shared his perspective with me. “When you don’t find that support in your hometown with the power of the internet and social networking, if you put yourself out there you will find that niche group of people you flourish under. But it’s also cool when you can stay local and create that community. But I feel it’s just as hard to stay as it is to go. That’s what this place is kind of a symbol of. We could have gone and done it in Calgary or Edmonton, somewhere with more of a network. But that also created kind of a bewilderment because it’s harder to see us. We’re like these backwoods glass blowers. We never had to move out because we’re in all those stores anyways. It makes me happy because I went to school here, I was raised here, I was born in the hospital 10 minutes down the road. I lived my whole life here which is crazy. I feel truly blessed. It’s definitely not easy, I’ve seen a lot of small businesses come and go.” I questioned if the reason they’ve been able to do so is because they don’t rely on others to practice their craft and we reflected on the fact that it’s crazy to now think of industries being recession proof versus pandemic proof. Much like the 2009 recession, adapting becomes survival of the fittest, tighten up or go back underground.
And my question of the day that incited my favourite reflection, where the name Ghost Cat came from, John shared with me, “Ghost was just some stupid shit when I was a kid. I used to just write on things, I was a graffiti kid. And then Kat was a girl I knew who passed in 2009. I’d known her since I was 4 years old. When she died I wanted to honour her memory as best as I could.” After sharing my own story of my passed on loved one, who also was an artist and I feel as though I channel a lot of my creativity through him, John agreed, “it’s like they’re living through your creations and it’s more of a motivation to do this shit because you realize how precious life is.”
I began my day unsure of what I was going to encounter, tired from all the traveling I have recently been doing, and the stress of moving across the country during the middle of a nationwide pandemic. I left Olds feeling energized and realizing that everything in life is connected, and as long as you are pursuing what you truly want in life, fueled by pure intentions and passion, you will always be supported and succeed.
Photos via Thugwife