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Visuals: Pan the Magic Pipe Man

Meet the master of artistic pot paraphernalia

Marijuana, pipes

Marijuana pipes.

Kenny Haner/Getty

The paraphernalia involved in smoking dope has produced a vast flowering of both pop and fine art, but perhaps the finest works of all are the hashish pipes created by Pan the Magic Pipe Man.

Pan’s pipes range from small, relatively simple stems and bowls to elaborate seven-foot-high sculptures. They are fantastic assemblages of feathers, furs, shells, bones, clay and other natural objects, often crafted with simple, Stone-Age implements. Some resemble talismans, fetishes, and other ritual objects used by primitive tribes people; the larger ones look like standards that might be borne in pagan religious processions. All of the pipes project a magical, voodooistic intensity, as if they were focal points of vast, high-voltage energies and supernatural forces. And all of them are perfectly functional smoking instruments, free and easy on the draw.

Pan is a 25-year-old street people named Steve Powers, who comes from Los Angeles but speaks with a hill-country twang and a disarmingly up-front, open-faced manner that mingles fantasy, self-advertisement, put-on, mysticism, and dollars-and-cents reality in a kind of sideshow spiel with conviction.

“When they legalize marijuana, I’ll come into my kingdom. I’m going to be as famous as Picasso in my own lifetime,” Pan says, in a perfectly matter-of-fact way. But as a matter of fact he is already a kind of hippie Horatio Alger.

A ninth grade dropout and graduate of various Southern California juvenile halls and jails, Pan confesses, “I used to steal. I wanted people to love me, and to have a big home, a car and fancy clothes. I didn’t know how to manipulate energy. Now I get what I ask for. With acid and grass I found out what I really was.”

Pan came to San Francisco just before the great outburst of Flower Power in the Haight-Ashbury, and set up residence (a sleeping bag) and studio (some simple tools) on Hippie Hill in Golden Gate Park. Drawing on earlier experience in making junk sculpture, he started making costume jewelry and simple pot and hashish pipes. “People would bring me food, money, and grass everyday.”

Since then, Pan estimates he has made some 3500 pipes. To market them, he has attended every major love-in and music festival in California. “The best way to show the pipes is to demonstrate them. I passed them around so people could get high. At the Newport Pop Festival, I sold $700 worth in three days. At Altamont, I had a big seven-foot one and people sat around chainsmoking it until the bowl finally fell off. I repaired it and gave it to the Hell’s Angels.

“I’ve got more work in private collections than most artists, man,” Pan said. “I gave a pipe to George Harrison once on Haight Street. Tim Leary has one. They’re all setting in people’s homes. They treat them like family heirlooms. People have taken them all over the world.”

Pan broke into the over-ground last February with his first one-man museum show at the University of California in Berkeley. “I just wandered in, man, and they liked my things and gave me a whole gallery.” The show consisted of two or three dozen pipes and Pan himself, who assembled additional pieces while squatting on the floor behind an accumulation of feathers, shells, and other raw materials. “Everyone knew what they were for; I just kept my mouth shut.” From a financial point of view, the museum show was somewhat less successful than a music festival demonstration — some $1000 over 30 days — but it drew continuous crowds of fascinated spectators (many of them kids) and netted Pan an international museum tour under auspices of the American Federation of the Arts.

All this would scarcely be happening if Pan’s pipes were merely glorified pot sniffers, and in fact they are powerful works of ceremonial, religious art. “They’re power objects,” Pan said. “I’m not a creator, I’m just a maker. I’ve been accused of manipulating power objects. I do that, but God put the power in. God’s the only creator, man, like He made all this stuff. I just take the things He left and put it together a little different. It still has all the power God put in there when He made it.”

The resemblance of Pan’s forms and images to primitive ritual artifacts is not entirely coincidental — “I’ve looked at a lot of books on primitive peoples all over the world — it couldn’t help but affect me” — but it’s much more a spiritual kinship than a direct borrowing or imitation.

An exhibition of “Animal Style Art” organized last year by the Asia Society in New York underlined common characteristics in the art of nomadic peoples from the Medes and Scythians of the second millenia B.C. to Celtic Ireland and 19th century Siberia — a concentration on animal (and bird) themes, lavish decoration, vivid color, bold, open-work silhouettes and a generally restless, asymmetric, intuitive quality. One contributor to the exhibition’s catalogue, the anthropologist C. Bruce Chatwin, described a “Nomadic Alternative” which has existed side-by-side with “civilization” throughout most of history in terms that have a remarkable resemblance to today’s nomadic counter-culture: A “simpler life in harmony with ‘nature,’ unhampered with posessions, free from the grinding bonds of technology, sinless, promiscuous, anarchic, and sometimes vegeterian.” The central religious belief of this way of life, according to Chatwin, is shamanism, often helped along by pharmacopoeia — hemp and the shamanic mushroom — and his assertion gains support by recent archeological finds of Stone Age pot-smoking equipment in Siberia.

Pan’s pipes share much in common with the far-flung examples of Animal Style art produced by nomadic tribes throughout the centuries, and they might be seen as an extension of the style to express the new nomadic culture of the 20th century. Pan describes himself as a “direct descendant of Adam” and says his images and themes all stem from the “Acostic” (Akashic) Records — (“I don’t know how you spell it, man”) which is synonomous with Jung’s collective subconscious. “There’s everything in them that’s ever happened to man. If you get high enough you get into the Acostic Records.”

Four motifs recur constantly in Pan’s works — “They’re the four Ways, man.” One is the bird image of primitive religion and magic; one is the Christian cross; one is a mushroom, usually formed of a stem with a limpet-shell cap; the last is, naturally, the pipe itself.

The magic power of Pan’s pipes derives partly from the purity of his craft — which has, incidentally, grown increasingly refined since his earlier pieces. These often incorporated elaborate pieces of found-jewelry, brightly dyed furs, and other synthetic objects.

“Now I mostly use God’s gifts,” Pan said. “Supernatural stuff — the only thing that’s real. I quit using furs; I don’t want white hunters’ trophies. I would probably take stuff from Indians and primitive peoples who kill animals in their regular trip. I take feathers that are left over.”

Some pipes are purer than others. For special ceremonial pipes — “I make ceremonial pipes for people that get real high” — Pan uses only Stone Age tools — the simplest punch, knife, and drop-spindle with which he makes his own yarns, in natural colors, to wrap around the various pieces and fasten them together.

For “regular usage,” Pan employs somewhat more sophisticated tools — but no power tools, except for a cement mixer which he rents by the day for the purpose of processing bones. Bones — vertebrae, pelvises, limbs garnered from every conceivable source — are first boiled in sea water for ten hours in a colander which Pan keeps stashed at a beach on the San Francisco coast; after bleaching, the bones are tossed around inside the cement mixer with 200 pounds of sand.

For the functional bowls of his pipes, Pan uses cone-shaped natural stones — configurations of hard and soft gravel worn away by the elements — which he adapts to the required forms.

Pan has a wife and young kid, and they maintain something of a residence in Grass Valley, but he continues to follow a largely nomadic life-style, packing around objects for making pipes, assembling them wherever he happens to be, gathering more feathers, bones, shells and other materials, often as gifts. He can assemble a pipe in anywhere from an hour for the smaller models, to two weeks for the large, sculptural versions.

Pan figures pot will be legalized within 20 years. “There’ll be another whole generation. I’ll be 45, and I’ll still have the market. I’ll be the master pipemaker. I won’t be a capitalist, either; capitalists live on another person’s labor, but it’ll all be my labor, man. I’m going to spread the name of Christ and show what really being a Christian is. I’ll buy a Rolls Royce. And I’m going to build a 30-level waterfall compressed-air marijuana sniffer. I’ll get $100,000 for it. I’ve been dreaming about that pipe for a long time.”

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