PORTLAND, Maine — In an anonymous storefront in Bayside, doughnuts are made around the clock.
Phish music blares, chocolate frosting drizzles. Brian Owoc grabs a hot doughnut with an oven mitt. It resembles a real bakery, except instead of flour and sugar, there’s glass and fire. You won’t see these doughnuts sold by the dozen, but if Portland votes yes on Question 1 Tuesday, this unusual smoking paraphernalia might become more ubiquitous.
“It’s just like coloring or painting and the heat and flame is what makes it,” said Owoc, melting a brown rod onto a red-hot glass disc.
He goes by the name KGB Glass and his doughnut pipes, in flavors from maple bacon to chocolate and strawberry-frosted, are popular worldwide.
No longer stashed out of sight or relegated to head shops on the outskirts of town, glass pipes have gained a newfound cachet worthy of the mantle or coffee table. Emerging artists such as KGB, whose stealth identity is yielding to public acclaim, are leading the way.
In the last few years, Portland has become a hotbed for this heretofore underground art. There are roughly 20 flame workers who blow, twist and turn glass into water pipes and bowls that reflect pop culture. Four galleries now showcase their work in the city.
The pipes, which can be simple, gothic or inspired by renowned American glass sculptor Dale Chihuly, can fetch anywhere from $10 to $5,000.
With the state’s pot laws loosening, the industry could expand dramatically.
In 2009, Maine approved medical dispensaries, the fifth state to do so. That kicked open the door for glass artists, who moved their craft from the fringe to the marketplace.
Tuesday Portlanders head to the polls to decide whether small amounts of marijuana can be legal for recreational use. If Question 1 passes, these artists, who are already making a decent living, could see more green.
For glassblower Danny Camp, “the job security is good.”
He moved to Portland from Queens, New York, a few years ago and this summer spent several thousand dollars to open a glass-blowing studio in industrial Bayside.
He says his trade is flourishing because the laws make people feel safe.
Seven days a week he straps on protective shades and the alchemy begins. Turning tubes and rods into mummy and Pac-Man water pipes. In January, he will bring his wares to a glass trade show in Las Vegas. So far, the full-time artist is surviving in the Pine Tree state.
“Knowing that customers are not worried when they leave here allows us to develop our craft,” said Camp, 27. “Even police officers have asked me ‘how does it work?’ They can see it’s more of a sculpture than a bong.”
It’s no secret that many artists have a hard time making a living in Maine. Instead of juggling several jobs, Owoc and his peers are going full-tilt and bucking the trend.
So far this year, KGB Glass has sold $60,000 worth of pastry pipes. And Owoc has a two-month backlog. In addition to pipes, he makes doughnut pendants and paperweights.
“Doughnuts are popular now, it blows my mind. I wasn’t doing it to be cool,” he said.
He has come a long way since 2007.
The former doughnut-maker, who worked at Dunkin’ Donuts in Portland and The Cookie Jar Pastry Shop in Cape Elizabeth, had a steep learning curve when he switched materials.
After his first few attempts at glass doughnuts, “people said ‘what is that?,’” he recalled.
Now, he is a rock star.
“People go crazy for the doughnuts,” said Micaela Kimball, a clerk at The Higher Concept Glass Gallery on Congress Street, where well-lit shelves are dedicated to the top artists on the Portland scene.
In the five months the gallery has been open it’s attracted day trippers and cruise ship tourists.
“They look around and don’t know who we are,” said Kimball. “First it was kind of fun, but now people are realizing what’s going on in the functional art world.”
Getting to the level of stardom takes dedication. Many point to Mr. Gray Glass, also known as Scott Rosinski, who apprenticed the second wave of Maine glass artists.
The master glassblower worked at Royal River Glass Studios when it was in Yarmouth and inspired the new crop of artists who are largely in their 20s and early-30s. He has since moved to California, but casts a long shadow.
“It’s a hand-me-down tradition. It finds a home and it spreads,” said Marty Preston, whose pipes sell at Headies Glass Gallery in Bangor and across Portland. “You have to learn the craft before you can learn the art.”
And even then you are not in the clear.
“So many things can go wrong at any point. You do it because you want to, not to make money. It’s ungodly hours,” said Preston.
But it’s an art form whose time has come.
“You could smoke out of an apple for free if you wanted,” said Owoc. “It’s about the art.”
Pierce Riley, 22, stopped at Higher Concept on Thursday with no intention of lighting up.
The AmeriCorps volunteer, who recently moved to Portland, says he doesn’t smoke marijuana. Still, the intricate pipes attracted him.
“Having a $500-$600 piece of glass would be great,” he said browsing the colorful array. “This is beautiful.”