The compleat artisan : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

The compleat artisan

by Neill Archer Roan     I thought I knew Jeff Gracik. I met him when he was still in graduate school and just starting out as a pipemaker. I’ve bought pipes from him over the years, shared meals with him and watched his development. But nearly twelve hours together convinced me I was mistaken. Not only have experience and maturity wrought their expected changes, his beginnings were different than I assumed.

Gracik’s wicked skills have long been in evidence in his handcrafted J. Alan pipes. So has his intelligence. I expected that these traits would fuel growth, but I didn’t expect transformation. I didn’t expect to feel like I was talking to someone else, someone who had shed as much as he had added.

There is an apt word that describes what Gracik has become: compleat. Though compleat is a dusty, somewhat archaic word meaning “highly skilled and accomplished in all aspects,” it fits Gracik as comfortably as his coffee-colored, canvas workshop apron.

When I interviewed Jeff three years ago he described himself as “screaming through the briar.” He confessed that he was trying to find his voice in a world he didn’t fully understand. “I had to very consciously tame myself.”

Just a glance at Jeff’s work three years ago revealed exuberant virtuosity. Adept hands, a keen eye and no little ambition combined to dazzling effect. Jeff was capable of making nearly anything he could imagine, but as a self-aware artisan, Jeff also knew that he had to rein himself in and “speak in softer and different tones at a lower volume.”

As I perused the pipes on Jeff’s workbench, it was obvious that his efforts had borne fruit. His work remains virtuosic, but the dimensions of that virtuosity are quieter and more self-assured. His work reflects restraint, suggesting that, where beauty is concerned, there’s more where that came from. Here is an artisan who is no longer pushing limits; if limits are there, they are nowhere to be seen.

Clearly his skills have grown over the last several years, and he maintains a healthy awareness of that. “I’m less timid. I feel more confident. I’m no longer nervous or uncertain when I have to make choices.”

If there is a crueler, more fickle medium than briar, it is hard to imagine what it might be. The most beautiful of blocks can reveal a constellation of pits and flaws when it is sawn, shaped or sanded, spoiling plans and frustrating choices. Gracik has a drawer half-full of beautifully shaped pipes he was forced to abandon.

Watching Jeff at the shaping wheel, trying to prevail over this uncooperative wood, underscores how quickly shaping choices have to be made with a wheel spinning at 1500 revolutions per minute. In the past, briar’s random acts of cruelty occasionally intimidated Gracik. “When you put off your choices, it doesn’t change what they are,” he mused. “When I have a decision to make, I just make it.”

At a time when so many other pipemakers seem to be ratcheting up the complexity of their compositions, Gracik increasingly pursues simplicity. His aesthetic orbits essence. His exploration of classicism in the design and crafting of pipes has shaped him, and while he still makes avant garde pipes, they, too, seem simpler and less self-conscious than they once were.

“When I started doing avant garde work, I didn’t have that classical background. Now you can see the classical shape influence. I’m honing my design standards outside the classical form. Classical pipes are very influential, even in my avant garde work. I love making very classical pipes. I like to cut loose and make less classical pipes as well.”

Gracik feels particularly blessed by the mentors he had. “When I first started, I was most influenced by Cornelius Mänz, then Jody Davis, Todd Johnson and Tonni Nielsen. Jody’s classical work really influenced me.”

“Todd was the first pipemaker with whom I worked. When I went and worked with Todd, I learned a lot of technical things. Stylistically, somewhat, I looked to Todd, but it was Tonni who was most influential early on in developing my eye.”

“With Cornelius, I had a relationship through email and phone. He would send me things and give me advice over the phone. His advice has remained quite influential. I think of him frequently.”

Gracik’s exploration of classics—particularly his belief that the Scandinavian school of pipemaking has resulted in an extension of the classical vocabulary—has shifted who he now names as his principal influences: Lars Ivarsson, Jess Chonowitsch, Ulf Noltensmeier, Per Hansen and Bo Nordh.

“When I hold a Bo Nordh, I’m introduced to a new way to approach the same shape. Bo did it one way. Cornelius does it one way. Bang does it another way. Each has a unique approach to the same shape—the same basic idea.”

“To study these things is to find out what gives a pipe its unique spirit. It invites me to examine my own work and ask, ‘What is the spirit of my own work? What do I want to change? What do I want to adopt? Which ideas do I wish to incorporate? How will that shift the way that I shift or interpret a shape?’”

“If there’s an effect that someone achieves—and I’m intrigued by that—I want to figure out how they achieve that. Sometimes, an effect can be created by the single swipe of a file.”

While Jeff Gracik has been blessed by working with some great artisan-mentors, there’s another group that has significantly stimulated his development: those pipe collectors for whom he creates his work.

“There are some who are really interested in my interpretations of classic work—whether we’re talking Lars or Dunhill. They are interested in my interpretation of things other people have done. There are others,” Gracik explains, “who are interested in what I create. They say, ‘I love your eye. I love your hands. Make me something.’”

“These two kinds of collectors illustrate the two extremes of influential collectors—those who invite me to explore new territory, and those who invite me to go over well-worn ground. Both are extremely valuable. Exploring new things? That’s how new shapes are made. The most beautiful art came into being because someone said, ‘Make me something new.’”

“Making something new is a unique challenge—especially for connoisseurs. People who spend a thousand dollars for a pipe are connoisseurs. They know what it is. That is a challenge for me because I know it is something that will be seen and appreciated.”

Friend and collector Rick Newcombe has tried to help Gracik by periodically loaning him pipes for study. Newcombe told him, “Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Don’t be crazy for crazy’s sake.”

“When Jeff looked at my collection,” Newcombe said, “he could see a great many variations on the classical shapes. That’s what I have encouraged him to do. When he asked, my big advice to Jeff was to create his own interpretation of masterpiece pipe shapes. He’s taken that advice and created his own Swedish Tomato.”

As someone who has bought a number of Jeff’s pipes for my own collection, I particularly appreciate their marriage of form and function. They are beautiful, but they are also pipes that my hand loves. They are practical. Practicality even came into consideration when Jeff decided upon the name he would use to brand his pipes: J. Alan.

“I thought ‘Gracik’ would be hard to pronounce as a product name,” Jeff said. “So, I went with my first initial and middle name—J. Alan. Of course, this was before I’d heard of Jess Chonowitsch or Hiroyuki Tokutomi!”

Gracik strongly believes in studying the work of the great makers, legends like Lars Ivarsson, Jess Chonowitsch and Bo Nordh. “Reinterpreting the old means being able to reinterpret that which has been done. You can’t make something new if you don’t know what is old. You can’t break the rules if you don’t know what the rules are.”

“Deviating from a pattern with flexibility to express myself is important. At the end of the day, one looks at a pipe and says, ‘That’s a billiard or a Dublin or whatever.’”

Collector Brad McCluskey was attracted to Gracik’s work because of its aesthetic diversity and precision. McCluskey has added a half-dozen J. Alan pipes to his collection since he was introduced to Jeff’s work last May at the Chicago Show.

“Not only does Jeff have an eye for the European Danish work,” McCluskey opined, “but he also has an eye for the classics—billiards, apples, Canadians—your classic, tried-and-true shapes.”

“Most of Jeff’s pipes are a bit smaller,” said McCluskey. “I like bigger pipes. I saw his classics and thought, ‘If he can make them grow, that would be great!’”

As one of relatively few North American artisans who command more than $2,500 for his highest-grade pipes (the Wave grade), Jeff Gracik has crossed the chasm from up-and-comer to someone taken seriously by both peers and collectors alike. At 32 years old, he is hardly old guard, but with eight years of pipemaking under his belt, he’s no newbie, either.

“He’s become one of the greats in a very short period of time,” observed In Search of Pipe Dreams author and collector Rick Newcombe.

Although Jeff is self-effacing and easygoing, he also radiates the confidence that a large backlog of orders confers. Jeff currently makes about 100 pipes per year.

“It used to be I got an order for every pipe I made,” said Jeff. “Now I get two to three orders for every pipe I publish on my Web site. It’s liberating because I have the freedom to be confident artistically,” he observed. “When you’re a starving artist, you don’t have a choice between ‘Will I make something the market will accept?’ or ‘Will I make something that is artistically challenging?’”

“Do you ever worry that you might be the flavor of the month?” I inquired. “That your popularity might wane when the next big thing comes along? There are a lot of very talented young artisans out there.”

“Sure,” Jeff replied. “The market is fragile. You can soar one minute and run into a tree the next. You can’t control the market. I think that the abundance of new and talented makers is great for pipemakers too, if you’re up to the challenge because what they’re doing is challenging you as an established pipemaker to do even more—to explore new territory, to do your work better.”

Gracik walks his talk. It was only a few years ago when he was a protégé. Now, a steady stream of new pipemakers seeks him out, asking if they can visit, observe and learn from him. It is a rare week that Jeff works alone.

Ernie Markle, a notable new Arizona pipemaker, is one such example. Last May, Rad Davis introduced Markle to me as a promising young pipemaker in the Chicago pipemaker’s seminar. A few months later Markle was added to the Smokingpipes roster. Markle has come a very long way very quickly.

“Clearly, if I were worried about the new guys, I wouldn’t invite guys like Ernie into my shop. I’m proud of him. If Ernie threatens my business, it’s not Ernie’s fault. He makes good pipes. If I’m going to compete, I must make better pipes—every day better than the one before.”

In the nearly twelve hours we spent together, Jeff repeatedly expressed how grateful he is for his life as an artisan. “I do something I love and actually support my family. What a great blessing that is—to do what you love and make a life out of it.”

“Honestly, it’s scary to me—how much fell into place. That hasn’t been the case for many people. In my case, it was just dumb luck. I made some good choices, but it feels like a lot of dumb luck to me.”

To many people in the pipe community, Jeff’s persona is that of a golden boy. He’s articulate, athletic and poised. As a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, he is as comfortable discussing philosophy, psychology and art as he is pipes or surfing.

He and his equally accomplished wife, Melissa, have two beautiful young children whom they are raising in their hilltop home near San Diego’s Balboa Park. By all appearances, Jeff and Melissa live an idyllic life with few more serious inconveniences than the occasional dirty diaper. Appearances don’t do their story justice.

After graduating from Greenville College with a degree in religion and psychology, Jeff worked briefly in corporate sales for a large textile company. He hated the work. “That experience told me I never wanted to work for someone else ever again hawking something I didn’t care about.”

Jeff Gracik fell in love with pipemaking when he was a graduate student at Princeton Theological Seminary. He and Melissa had been married a couple of years. Melissa worked as a nanny to help put food on the table.

“At the time, I was working with a crappy, wobbly drill press that I used for multiple things. I used it for drilling holes. I’d lay it down on its side and use it as a sanding motor. All those machines in my shop? I used to do all that with one drill press—my chamber drill, my buffing wheel, my sanding disk, and my wax applicator—it was everything. My entire shop was that drill press, in terms of machinery.”

When Gracik went to buy that drill press, he pretended to be a business so he could get a discount. “I lied,” he admitted sheepishly. “I needed to get it cheap.

“We didn’t have two pennies to scratch together,” Jeff recalled. “Making a trip up to Yale to visit Todd (Johnson) was a big deal. It was a lot of money in gas.

“When I came back, I told Melissa I thought I could be very good at pipemaking, but I needed to borrow money from our limited funds for food and rent to buy a lathe. I thought I could pay it back by the time we would need it. She had faith in me. She’d spent hours and hours looking at my work and had been my partner. She saw me neglecting my studies so I could look at pipes and read the pipemakers forum. She saw what I was doing and what I was capable of. She said yeah, I could do it if I paid it back at a certain time. Thank God I was able to pay the money back on time.”

Soft-spoken, calm and thoughtful, Melissa Burt-Gracik possesses a buttery laugh. “I was his venture capitalist investor,” she proudly asserted, “albeit with very limited funds.”

Gracik began his pipemaking enterprise in the basement of an apartment building owned by the seminary. After about six months, when Melissa and he were two days from leaving for a summer internship in the Dominican Republic, he was kicked out of his basement shop. “The guy said, ‘You can’t do this. This is a seminary, not a workshop!’”

Through a friendship Jeff had developed with a maintenance person, he was told about an unused storage trailer where he could safely store his equipment and tools.

“It was a total godsend,” said Gracik, “but here’s the kicker. I got an email about three weeks before we were returning to the country that told me that the school was getting rid of the trailer before I got back. It was from the very same guy who had kicked me out of my basement shop. We were terrified. I would have lost the few tools I had. I would have lost my entire pipemaking investment. Thank goodness I was able to push it back to two days after I got back.”

When Gracik returned from his Dominican Republic internship, he had just two days to find a new shop and move all his equipment out of the storage trailer.

“I had a conversation with a friend of a friend who was a property manager at an apartment complex. He had a garage for rent, so I moved in there.”

“That garage,” Melissa recalled, “was far from our apartment. I would take him in the early morning. He’d have water and food. I’d come around noon and bring him lunch. Then I’d bring him dinner. Then I’d pick him up late at night. There was no bathroom there, so I’d take him to the grocery store down the road so he could go to the bathroom. It was absolutely inhumane. In the winter, there was no heat.”

“After Chicago that year, the guy who rented my first garage shop to me asked how I’d done. I told him I’d done well. Then, he tried to extort money from me. I found out later that he wasn’t legally renting the space to me. He was just pocketing the money.”

Gracik found himself moving yet again to another garage. “A friend rented a house just down the street. It had a garage, and I rented it for the last year I was there.”

As happy as Jeff was to be able to set up in the garage shop, there were still challenges. “I ran my whole shop on just one electrical outlet. Unfortunately, the circuit breaker was in the basement of the house. I was working 18 hours a day getting ready for Chicago. Imagine. I’m working at 3 o’clock in the morning—knowing my next three months’ income depends on the work I’m doing in the next couple of days—and I’d turn too many things on at once. The circuit blew. I knew it was lights out. There was no way I could walk through his house at 3 o’clock in the morning to go down to the basement to reset the breaker. I was working frantically to finish it all up. So I’d go home and get up really early to get there at the same time my friend gets up to reset the breaker.”

That winter, Steve Morrisette came to visit Jeff. “He was the first pipemaker to ever visit me,” Gracik said. “It was so cold he couldn’t work there. We had to buy plastic drop cloths so we could shroud the space so that it would hold the heat from the one electrical heater I had.

“I have always had these schemes to save money,” Jeff admitted, “but they rarely work out. For example, I bought a lathe on eBay one time. I had it shipped to me and it got destroyed in shipment. They offered me $25 because they paid per pound. That was going to break us, so I bought another lathe and this time I borrowed an old farm truck with no radio and no air-conditioning from a church-member friend.

“I drove all the way from Princeton to Norfolk, Va., and back in this truck that got 4 miles per gallon. I ended up spending more than I intended.

“It was a noisy and scary ride home. I would have felt so much more comfortable with a radio to drown out all those creaking sounds. I knew it wasn’t my truck, and I knew that if there was a problem, I would lose both the truck and the lathe. I could afford to lose neither.

“I never thought about the fact that they loaded the lathe into the truck with a forklift. Obviously, I didn’t have one at my shop. So, I asked some friends if they would help me move the lathe. I didn’t tell them how big it was. They looked at it and said, ‘My God!’ It weighed like 800 pounds. It was huge. One of my friends threw his back out helping me. I have amazing friends.”

Reflecting on the differences between the myth and reality of Jeff Gracik’s ascent into the world’s top tier of pipemakers, I marveled at how successfully Jeff had projected such a polished, no-problems persona. “I wish you’d told me some of these stories when they were happening, Jeff,” I blurted. “I had absolutely no idea you’d struggled at all—you know, the whole Princeton, silver-spoon thing was how I saw you.”

“I’ve never told anyone these stories. I can’t believe I’ve never told anyone,” Jeff responded. “I just tried to present a good image. I didn’t want people to know about all this because they wouldn’t think I was high-class or high-grade enough. I believed that I couldn’t show weakness because that doesn’t fit into the image I’m trying to promote.

“I’ve tried to put all this out of my mind,” Jeff declared. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t sell high-grade pipes out of these places.’ One thing is for certain. The location of manufacture has little to do with what can be made there. That’s for sure.

“The Princeton pedigree? I think it paints an inaccurate picture. I’m from a small town in Pennsylvania. My dad worked in insurance, and my mom was a teacher. My dad was not passionate about what he did. I couldn’t do that to myself, but I’m grateful that my dad did because it paid for my college. That I don’t have to work at something I don’t care about is wonderful.

“Once my folks got my brother and me through school, they quit their jobs, sold everything, and moved to Asia to do nonprofit work. I had good examples in them of people who know how to prioritize and also to pursue passion. In doing so they taught me that we all have to make choices. Sometimes the best choice is the selfless one.”

“Has it ever been hard, Melissa? Has it ever been scary that Jeff abandoned what his education prepared him for to be a pipemaker?” I inquired.

“There’s the fear of having to provide for the family—to make ends meet,” she answered. “We’re rich in life, but we’ve been poor by American standards. Any crack in that edifice feels scary. I think that’s part of it. We’ve made baby steps along the way. It never felt huge. Jeff has always been able to figure things out.

“We have a great deal of empathy for people in our income bracket or lower. We don’t take it lightly when people buy. That’s why Jeff is very persnickety about his quality standards,” Melissa explained.

“When Jeff cracks open a great block with wonderful grain, he shows it to me. He also shows it to me when a flaw shows up and the block can’t be used.

“If he can’t make a living at this, then he’s not going to do it. It’s not just for fun. This is his job to provide for his family. We’re so thankful that Jeff gets to express his artistic talent. How many people get paid for their art these days?”

“If there was any thread holding it all together,” Jeff said, “it was a shoestring. It’s always been done on a shoestring until maybe the last year. So, when I say I’m grateful to the pipe community, it’s because they’ve given me the life I have. I will continue to be grateful.”

 

J. Alan pipes are available at:

United States: Smokingpipes.com

Europe: Scandpipes.com and Bisgaard-pipes.com

Russia: Pipeshop.ru

Japan: Keigai.com


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Category: Feature Article, Other Stories, Pipe Articles, Summer 2011

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