Monstrosities : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Monstrosities

These are not your grandfather’s pipes

by Chuck Stanion

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When a classically trained artist possesses an innate love for pipes, it’s inevitable that the two interests will collide in interesting ways. However, not even Nostrodamus could have predicted Olie Sylvester’s Monstrosity pipes. Only Edgar Allen Poe or H.P. Lovecraft in their most fevered night terrors could have glimpsed pipes like these.

Sylvester is a soft-spoken and captivating gentleman with a melodious, hypnotizing voice that doesn’t entirely camouflage the consistent sparkle of mirth in its undertones. He moves with the confidence of a man supremely comfortable in his own skin and keenly observes the world around him from a slight distance, as if imperceptibly out of phase with this dimension of existence. At pipe shows, he watches people pass, attentively gauging their responses to the Monstrosities on his table. He willingly engages anyone with the curiosity to inquire and becomes animated when talking about the concept. Some people don’t understand them and don’t care to, walking past with no more than a raised eyebrow. Others shrug and move on. But, occasionally, someone will see these pipes from a moderate distance and become curious, then enthusiastic. You can see the process reflected in their expressions as they approach the pipes and become more excited. “Oh, my God!” they say. “These are amazing!” That’s what Sylvester waits for.

“When people see my pipes for the first time at a pipe show,” he says, “they either get really excited or they shake their head and keep walking. It’s the two monster1basic dichotomies. When you look at something that’s on the fringe and you’ve never seen it before, sometimes it’s really hard to accept it. I understand that and that’s totally fine and I get it. It is really difficult to enjoy abstract art sometimes, depending on who you are and what your background is.

“Personally I think whatever it is I do, whether it’s painting or pipes, I would like for everyone to be able to come to the table and enjoy that feast without having to know anything else. You just look at it, enjoy it, have fun with it; it’s a pleasurable experience. And there are a lot of folks who just can’t do that, and that’s OK if they’re not interested. What’s important is that they do find what they like and what they’re interested in. What’s impressive to me, though, is that the pipe community has graciously found a spot for me and allowed me to have a cozy little corner. If somebody cracks a smile, my work is done. It’s not a problem that my strange guys don’t fit into an easy category. What’s really awesome is that they’re allowed in the door. My ugly dudes, they hang out and have fun, they’re just happy to exist and to exude the humanity that they are.”

Sylvester’s wife, Venessa, was the prime mover behind these pipes. She saw her husband’s interest and suggested he start doing podcasts, interviewing people in the pipe world and making those interviews available online. She just didn’t know at the time that it would lead to such an unusual genre of pipemaking.

“I had never listened to podcasts and didn’t know what they were,” says Sylvester, “but she kept bringing it up. So I thought about an upcoming Atlanta pipe club meeting that Bjarne Nielsen was attending. He brought some beautiful pipes with him. I asked if I could record him talking about whatever he wanted to talk about. So at that meeting, in early 2008, I recorded him, and monster3it’s full of really interesting history. I told my wife it was a good idea; there’s no way I would have gotten that kind of information just chatting one-on-one with him. But if you tell someone, hey, this is going out to the world, it’s different—and you’re allowed to ask a lot more questions. It’s been great for me; I’ve met so many people and I’ve been able to record some wonderful chunks of pipe history that would never have been recorded otherwise. Unfortunately, Bjarne Nielsen died just a few weeks after that interview went live, and that further emphasized that I needed to keep doing this.”

Currently, 49 podcasts reside on OomPaul.com. They provide unique, detailed insights into the backgrounds and philosophies of many of the most interesting people in the pipe world. “When the podcasts first started, I didn’t expect a big following. I just couldn’t imagine people all over the world being that interested. But it’s grown to be pretty huge. Every time a new podcast comes out, new listeners tune in. The new listeners are stepping into a library and will go back and listen to previous podcasts. It’s very popular.” Thousands of listeners visit every time a new podcast goes out. Still, Sylvester considers it a service to the hobby and doesn’t try to make the site pay. “It’s not a monetized site. I have a couple of sponsors, but it doesn’t make money. It’s really there just to be a library that people can access and enjoy.”

Sylvester started producing pipes in 2008 as companions to the podcasts. Those who supported the podcasts with a $100 donation would receive a Monstrosity pipe. “They were basically butchered kit pipes,” says Sylvester. “I didn’t know how to make pipes at that point, but I wanted something to give people, so I thought, what would I want? Well, I would want a pipe, but I can’t make pipes, so how do I bridge that gap and still put something interesting and creative (because I’m an artist) into people’s hands? I thought about what kind of pipe I would want, and I’d want something artistic but something masculine, monster4something that goes beyond masculine and into some other realm. So that was the beginning of the Monstrosities—pipes that were something I wanted to see in the world and didn’t, and at the same time something I could offer to
contributors even though I wasn’t a pipemaker. I wanted something tough and rugged and crazy, something that looked like it had been to hell and back and was there to take you with it, kicking and screaming.”

Monstrosity pipes have two categories, or “streams,” as Sylvester calls them. “One is the Zombie stream, which is sort of creature-from-the-black-lagoon mixed with something very tough and rugged. And then I have the other stream, which is more artistic, with hand-cut stems, a little more expensive.” This second stream is simply referred to as part of the Monstrosity line, and the pipes are undifferentiated from the Zombies as far as nomenclature goes, unless they are part of a unique, limited series, which occurs frequently. Fundamentally, you know them when you see them. “The Zombie line is basically me taking pipes that were at one point supposed to get into the market and didn’t make it. So these poor souls had languished somewhere in some importer’s remainders box for who knows how long because of a pit or a broken tenon or a cracked shank, and they couldn’t be sold, so I adopted the poor, sorry souls and gave them life, hence the name Zombie. I fixed whatever was wrong but at the same time I accentuated the pits or scars or cracks—I don’t hide them, I’m allowing them to come back to life as well as show off their badges of honor, their rough ride back from where they were. I take the nomenclature off because once they’re reborn they’re in no way any part of their former brand; they’re their own beast now.”

Modifying flawed or broken pipes or kits was fine at first, but Sylvester knew that the inevitable was coming: He needed to learn how to make pipes from scratch. In 2008, he attended the pipemakers seminar at the Chicago show and made a medium-sized pot. “It had a horrible little pit in it,” he says. “I got some advice from Anne Julie and a couple of other great pipemakers. She’s a huge influence for me; she and Luigi Radice are amazing artists. What they do with pipes is just stunning. Bruce Weaver has been a great help to me over the years as well, and Jon Rinaldi took care of the bowl coatings and stamping early on. Anyway, I dug at this pit and it made a horrible gash on one side and we decided to carry that gash up the side of the bowl. It’s a Jekyll and Hyde kind of thing, because on one side it’s very nice, then you turn it over and oh, my God, what happened there. That was very appealing to me. It was my first pipe and even then it was a bit of a monstrosity.”

Next, he contacted pipemaker Todd Johnson and asked about some sort of apprenticeship. In 2010, and again in 2011, he visited Johnson’s workshop and learned more of the intricacies of true pipemaking. “Solid engineering is where you have to start,” says Sylvester, “because if you don’t understand why engineering is important, you’ll never end up with a good pipe, you’ll never end up with a good smoker, you’ll be completely lost. So even though I’m coming at this from a different angle, it was incredibly important to me to figure out and learn from somebody who knew very, very well what they were talking about. It was important for me to get that hands-on experience from someone like Todd so that I would have those fundamentals and understand why you do this and not this; how come traditional pipemaking is done this way and not that; why I need to be concerned with how big this is and how small that is and what would happen if those dimensions were changed. It was a fantastic process and I’m still learning stuff every day. I’ll forever be a student. But the fundamentals are absolutely essential.

“When I began with the Monstrosities, I knew I couldn’t make a pipe—I knew that was far beyond my abilities. There’s engineering you absolutely have to take care of if you want to have a good, solid pipe, so I let the guys who knew how to do that take care of it for me until I was ready to take care of it myself.” Many of the pipes came from Mark Tinsky, who would drill the blocks correctly, fit the stems and then ship them off to Sylvester. “And I would butcher them.”

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Category: Fall 2013, Feature Article

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