Through the smoking glass
Brothers Justin and Ryan Maddux forge functional pieces through the art of glass blowing
A jet stream of bright light emanates from a blazing torch as Ryan Maddux peers at a rod of molten glass through the black lens of his safety glasses. He carefully rotates the glass rod in circles, ensuring an even coat of heat before he lowers it from the flames and presses the rod against a paddle for a moment, shaping it flat before moving it back up to the torch to keep the piece from cooling.
As a professional glass blower, Maddux had just a few more days to finish all the pipes, bongs, chillums and bubblers that he could before the Glass Vegas Expo, an annual glass art trade show in February.
“It’s a tough medium,” Maddux says. “It’s glass and you’re heating it up, and if you don’t heat it right, it can crack and break and go in the garbage and it’s done. I’ve lost so many pieces. I’ve invested days, hours and it can really kick you in the pants.”
Ryan and his brother Justin Maddux are the owners and operators of Broham Smoke Shop on Freeport Boulevard in Sacramento. What makes this particular store unique is that around 60 percent of the glassware they sell is hand-blown by one of them.
The business hit its 10-year mark in November 2018, and the brothers say the anniversary party is still on their to-do list. They worked on their craft for nearly 20 years.
“My brother and I were musicians, so glass blowing was what we did during the day so that we could make our money and then get to band practice,” Ryan says. “When our band started to fall apart, that was when I was like ‘We should do this.'”
The brothers started their business, blowing pipes and various glass smoking devices and selling them wholesale to nearly 20 different smoke shops in Northern California.
“I’m not a very good traditional artist,” Justin says. “But I do consider myself artistic, so it was the first time I was able to actually do something with art that I was proud enough to show others and thought potentially that I could maybe support myself.”
He says he knew what he wanted to do ever since he saw his first glass pipe in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show when he was 15. In those days, the vast majority of pipes were wooden, clay or metal. He remembers visiting a friend in Fair Oaks and going to the Sunflower for a burger.
“I go on back and they’re blowing glass,” Justin says. He was blown away.
“They just had this torch going, they were like, ‘What, you wanna try?'” Justin recalls. “Super nervous, hands sweaty, I finally managed to squeak out a piece.”
He says the heat was part of the initial appeal. “It was frightening and beautiful and creative all at the same time.”
Ryan says the friends they apprenticed under originally picked up the art from a traveling glass blower they met at a party, who taught them in exchange for a room and pay.
“This was probably ‘98,” Ryan says. “It was very underground. People weren’t, you know, forthcoming with their techniques and stuff so it was hard to acquire these skills and information. You had to pay somebody. It wasn’t as common of a thing, especially the whole pipe-making thing.”
Ryan says that glass-blowing artists and pipe-makers didn’t always get along.
“If you were a glass artist and not a pipe-maker you kind of looked down on pipe makers,” he says. “Now these glass blowers have proven themselves to be these amazing, talented artists and now [there’s] artists like Robert Mickelsen, who’s a very famous glass blower. He’s now collaborating with all these young, glass-pipe artists and they’re making incredible art. Now it’s still functional art. I mean it’s still a pipe, but it’s art.”
The brothers say they watched the art of glass blowing blossom in Sacramento from 10 people to a community of as many as 60 artists. Ryan says Sacramento’s summer heat keeps the craft’s popularity in check, but the brothers both credit social media for showcasing their art to new audiences.
“Now you can watch someone go live on Instagram,” Ryan says. “There’s tons of clips on YouTube now. You can watch your favorite famous artist do his special technique. I mean, you still have to spend some time to develop the technique, but the lessons are out there. It’s more accessible than it used to be.”
Still, after nearly 20 years behind the torch, Ryan says he’s still evolving as a glass artist.
“I tell you it’s still a challenge and I love the challenge,” Ryan says. “It pushes me to be better and I’m always just in life striving to be better. I always want to be growing and glass is perfect for something like that.”