Ozner's glass art goes mainstream
LEE — The top-floor displays at Ozzie's Glass Gallery are home to more than a few creatures. In one, an elephant raises its trunk skyward, eyes wide. In another, a spiky "Stardust Warrior" cradles a shield, preparing for battle.
"I can let my imagination go wild with this type of work," Michael "Ozzie" Ozner said Wednesday at the shop located along Route 102 in Lee.
But Ozner's pieces aren't just works of art; they're elaborate pipes and other apparatuses that people can use to consume cannabis. While Ozner devotes his street-level floor to jewelry, drinking glasses and other family-friendly glass items, his upstairs offerings are exclusively the functional adult artwork known as smokeware. With dispensaries popping up throughout Berkshire County after medical and recreational marijuana's legalization in Massachusetts, Ozner's longtime pipe work is finding a more mainstream audience these days.
"It always was this underground thing that there was just this big stigma on," Ozner said. "But now, especially with glass pipes, some of these big-name galleries are hosting shows that feature pipes. The stuff I'm doing is just the tip of the iceberg."
Ozner's store opened in 2016, but he started making glass works 22 years ago. Most of his current customers are somewhere between 40 and 65 years old, he estimated. Ozner knows that his pieces' intricacies disguise their use to some degree, appealing to those who want to be discrete. He doesn't advertise his smokeware much, either.
"I didn't want a bunch of young kids hanging out here. I didn't want people to think, 'Oh, it's a pot shop or a head shop,' just because there's so much stigma about that, and I do so much more," Ozner said.
He also didn't want to put young families in awkward positions. Still, he estimates that about 90 percent of them show their children what's upstairs.
"The kids love it. They don't know what they're looking at, but they see the aliens and the cartoon characters, and they think it's so cool," Ozner said. "And then when they see me doing the stuff downstairs, it's really an experience."
Sporting sunglasses, customers can watch Ozner work in an area behind the store's front display. He uses a propane-and-oxygen-fueled torch that he bought shortly before the store's opening.
"It's oxygen-cooled, which just means you can touch the barrel, and it's going to be cold no matter what I'm working on. It's just a really fine-tune, precision torch," he said.
He applies it to borosilicate, a strong type of glass that melts at approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
"When you see beakers and test tubes and flasks in the science experiments, [it's] the same type of glass," he said.
Ozner's introduction to glass art came when he was 16. Shortly after receiving his driver's license, he happened to stop by Ed Merritt's studio in West Stockbridge. Glass blower Kimball Trump was working there at the time. The artist's apprentice was a no-show one day, so he asked Ozner to help him. Ozner agreed, signing a waiver and embarking on a period of learning from Trump that ultimately led him to arrange a work space in the basement of his Otis home. Ozner's mother and stepfather, Marcia and Vincent Lee, supported his endeavor as long he kept his grades up at Lee High School and worked in other capacities. He also had to be safe, which was the case most of the time.
"Once, a tube filled up with gas and blew back in my face, burned my eyebrows off, my eyelashes, went in my mouth," Ozner said, adding that he has never been seriously injured.
Initially, he was just making pipes, wholesaling them to stores.
"It didn't really matter the quality. As long as the price was right, stores would take them," Ozner said.
Though marijuana wasn't legal in Massachusetts back then, Ozner didn't feel guilty about his creations. Vincent, an attorney, ensured that his stepson wasn't legally liable, either.
"I was making glass work. What someone does with it is what changes it into paraphernalia. As long as I was just the maker doing whatever I was doing, it was fine," Ozner said.
After some more apprentice work and a few years at Berkshire Community College, Ozner turned his hobby into his profession.
"When I started, I wasn't thinking, 'I want to be a glass blower.' After a few years, I was like, 'I just can't see myself doing anything else.' I get to be creative, play with fire," said Ozner, who joined the Becket Volunteer Fire Department after moving to the town.
About eight years ago, Ozner grew tired of mass-producing pipes. His girlfriend, Becky Simmons, suggested that he sign up for a craft fair in Lee. They set up a booth and sold everything they brought.
"I was like, 'Holy s---, maybe this would work,'" Ozner said.
For the next handful of years, they would travel around the Northeast, attending craft fairs and art shows. Simmons was also an integral force behind the store.
"I couldn't have done it without her," Ozner said.
Upon entering the shop, visitors will find some earrings available for $75 or $90. Vases, shot glasses and hanging birds are also on sale. But Ozner's work isn't just limited to those pieces. He is inundated with custom orders. Memorial work is particularly popular. A heart-shaped earring may have a loved one's ashes blown into the glass.
"Someone's dog is in this. Someone's father is in the little vases," Ozner said, showing off a couple of works. "This is what I do the most."
The variety of colors in Ozner's pieces stem from a rainbow-like stack of rods as well as jars of frit, which is essentially crushed rod and can thus produce speckling effects. For "Stardust Warrior," Ozner coiled about a pound of green rods, generating hollow sections that form the piece's body. Durability is critical to Ozner.
"People aren't always super gentle with smokeware pieces. They smoke. They're stoned. They knock things around. So, I try to make things as beefy and strong as possible," he said.
Ozner's most expensive large-scale works cost more than $1,000. Ozner started creating them about five years ago after watching some top pipe-makers prepare for a show in Vermont.
"It totally opened my eyes," he said.
He went home and immediately made an alien warship that occupies a lower shelf in the gallery, but isn't for sale. Most of the time, people just take pictures of the big pieces anyways, which is OK with Ozner. The small pipes running in the $40 to $150 range sell like crazy. Function is of the utmost importance to their maker, but appearance is vital, too. He knows that their beauty can help change cannabis opponents' attitudes.
"I'm not making fine art, but if someone connects to it, they could have it displayed in their house as a piece," Ozner said, "and they could also use it."
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.