Ben's Lens: An Interview with Taffy the Grey

Ben's Lens: An Interview with Taffy the Grey

April 30, 2020

I have so many conversations going on with so many artists, that sometimes I am unable to bring to life all of the collaborations and projects that I'm aiming for. I know this, and I cast a wide net knowing that factors come up on both ends. At the end of the day, every product you see on my website is the culmination of many hours back and forth between artists and myself, their time into making the piece after sourcing the materials and making sure the studio has gas. It is about the time it takes to ship an order, the hours of prep, getting to the post office, sourcing packing materials, and remembering to sign each piece. It is about having the tools and materials in place to reproduce consistently selling products as well as innovating new ideas and designs.

Amidst the chaos, I get direct messages on Instagram and other platforms daily from artists around the world discussing plans for them to get their work to me to list on the site. After we spend twenty to thirty minutes discussing the details and the conversation concludes, I typically leave it to the artist to do their part and contact me about shipping info when the time is ready. I follow up with as many artists as I can, but ultimately it has gotten to be more than I can keep track of myself. I just do the best I can, and I am working on making more notes on my dry erase board. Nikolai is one of those people I have had ongoing messages with back and forth for over a year but between the two of us and life we just haven’t connected the dots until now. I end up meeting many artists through my travels and industry events, but Nikolai and I have not yet crossed paths which makes it more difficult to really get things going as two “internet strangers.” Recently it all came together when I got a message saying that cups were almost ready to ship after a few months of virtually no contact due to how busy I got producing the Vail Cup Collectors Club.


BB: Give us a little background about yourself please.
TTG: My name is Nikolai. I am a son of a Witch/Physical Therapist and a Musician/Social Worker. I was born and raised in DC and Virginia, lived and learned in California, Colorado, Delaware and I'm now based in St. Petersburg, FL. I am an artist thanks to my Grandmother who was an art history teacher and an amateur ceramic sculptor. Thankfully she saturated my childhood with art galleries, cathedrals and wet clay. My intention is to explore this material and to grow into an effective teacher.

We just got our first batch of your cups, but you and I have been talking for a while about doing a drop. How did you first find out about Drinking Vessels?
I'm not sure when I first came across Drinking Vessels on Instagram. I've been following for while and greatly appreciate the platform and the focus on our relationship to cups! The level of cohesion and curation is an outlier in our industry. Thank you for supporting my practice and elevating the experience.

My pleasure! You work in a hot shop and also flamework borosilicate glass. Tell us about your background and how you got into it. Who are your teachers?
I stumbled across a rudimentary hot shop in college that was built by a cheerful old ceramic teacher. Signed up for the class and day one we lined up for our first gather; I took mine and I've been hooked ever since. The next semester a retiring production glass artist named Joe Morel took over. He taught me about the language of glass and so much more. How to learn from glass itself really. I left undergrad and went straight to grad school (which I do not recommend, though I am still glad I did) to study under Joe Cariati (@joecariati) who is a brilliant teacher and craftsman. Towards the end of grad school a pipemaker friend told me about boro furnaces and furnace tubing being a big, new and very useful thing for pipemakers. He convinced me to check out DFO in 2014. I think it was where I was floored by the glass and the community. I watched Marcel and friends work boro hot shop style and thought "damn, this is the edge of the glass world." So I started Taffy Tubes as a way to learn boro at a furnace scale, intending to provide quality colored tubing while transitioning my soft glass skill set into boro, so I could get myself to that edge and push it further.

How often are you flame working and how often are you in the hot shop?
It fluctuates quite a bit. I am mostly torch working these days but I still gaff production or custom orders a few times a month in the hot shop. I had the opportunity to do a month long emerging artist, soft glass residency at Duncan McClellen (@duncanmcclellengallery) in 2018, which made me realize that furnace tubing was taking more than it was giving, and that I needed to focus more on art, teaching and on bridging the gap between soft glass and boro.

You no longer have your color tubing company Taffy Tubes, but that was a thing for a while. You told me that you enjoy pulling tubing from a crucible, but have no interest in “making” color from scratch, leaving that to the color companies. Is it a hot shop thing to want to pull molten boro out of a crucible?
I have a terrible memory, except for muscle memory and I am a completely kinetic learner. Making good glass that is compatible with the rest of our palette and that is easy to work is an extremely daunting task. Just melting already good glass down and working the bubbles out is tricky to do consistently well, so my focus went towards my strengths which is pretty much learning a color's viscosity and setup time through my hands and pulling even walled bubbles out of the furnace. Furnace tubing is the hardest job I have had in the glass world and it taught me a whole lot. It also opened quite a few doors to the studios of artists who I look up to. I do miss it and I will pull tubing again one day.

What is your current setup like? What kind of torch do you run and what are your favorite tools?
I recently upgraded to a delta mag which has been fun. I started using dual rollers while prepping blowpipes to dip in the furnace and found the motion was just like working soft glass at the bench. So I set out to incorporate as much hot shop turning as I could into my boro practice. That led me to create my rollers which are unique in that they allow for the more advanced hot shop turning styles like the crawl. I have since built my practice around my rollers and I don't go anywhere without them (though I still make stuff freehand to make sure I sorta can). I don't use jacks in boro, even though my Maruko jacks are probably my single favorite tool I own. I prefer graphite for boro so big paddles and straight reamers and my newly acquired Mickelson egg tool are what I use when making boro cups.

I’m told those rollers will be available on your website in the next few weeks so anyone interested should follow your Instagram @taffythegrey for updates. What does a day in the life look like for you?
They are also available through Scott Griffin (@griffintools). 

On most days it's a good while of taking stock of old injuries and drinking lots of water first thing. Followed by some yoga and breakfast. Then I turn my kiln on and try to not let the fear win.

Fuck the fear! It’s real though and I know it all to well. Where does your name come from?
Taffy came from that process of making tubing and how much it resembles candy making. The Grey came from a longstanding obsession with wizards and much of the spirituality taught to me by my dad via Tolkein. Always wanted to be a wizard when I grew up. My actual name: Nikolai comes from a book called Shibumi; I'm not actually Russian though I am bit Lithuanian. Funny story, apparently there exists a Christian fiction series called the End Times about Revelations and the anti-christ who happens to be named Nikolai. I was banished from my friends evangelical home at eleven years old because my name matched this fictional anti-christ. Good thing they didn't know my mom was a witch haha.

Wild! I also have some Lithuanian heritage, but no background in wizardry besides my skills in the kitchen and keeping myself alive. Who are your favorite cup makers?
Ooof, that's a tough one. Adam Childress (@egonglass) is one for sure. Julian Maturino (@manosdelfuego) has a great eye and hands and can use just about any coefficient, much like Adam. Jeff Ballard can make a mean cup when he's not making soft glass rigs. Adam Holtzinger and Boyd Sugiki are wonderful to watch and learn from in the hot shop. Beau Barrett (@evolvingcreations) I also really enjoy in the world of boro. 

We have a bunch of new cups from Adam Childress, and I am also working on a blog interview with him I think you’ll enjoy. How’s your cup collection?
Seriously lacking at the moment as I downsized my life a lot recently. But a few gems and very sentimental pieces from friends are still around. 

Hot dogs or hamburgers?

Classic! With ketchup or mustard?
Spicy Mustard

I’m a mustard man myself. Ketchup is gross. What kind of music do you like to listen to in the studio? Is that different from the music you listen to outside of the studio?
I like to start my day with upbeat Celtic music or some bluegrass; It gets my blood flowing. I’ve been on a mandolin kick too lately, and all over the place otherwise. I play hand drums and guitar myself. I’ve enjoyed lots of audiobooks lately too, which helps me to stay lost in the work.

I can dig it. I play bass and guitar although I haven’t had much time the last few years. I actually picked up my guitar the other night and had a blast. Any up and comers in the cup game standing out to you that should be on my radar?
Can't say enough about Jared Reed Vai (@reedglass) and his skill set. I mean he has more followers than me so I can't call him an up and comer, but he is a brilliant shaper and his drawings are on another level. I am really liking @et_glass and @xanderdamglass and what they are both up to. Thinking outside the box. Lastly but by no means least, I have been enjoying the work of Bryan Randa (@randaglass).

Absolutely spot on with all those guys! Now, onto your sculpting. Will we ever see that side of your work incorporated into drinkware?
Cupmaking is mainly a form of meditation for me. It is fun and generally relaxing to me and I love to provide something simple and useful. Sculpting I don't feel the same way about at all. It's like pulling a tooth that needs to come out, or an exorcism at times. It is not always fun but certainly rewarding in its own ways. Hopefully you'll see some more playful (or serious) crossovers from me in the near future. I have a few in the vaults you would probably get a kick out of.

I am dying to see. Moons and faces, and faces on moons. Tell us about those choices.
The crescent moon image is a trigger for nostalgia. At least for me. My mom used to read Tarot when I was young. She would say that the magic isn't in the cards but in our minds ability to project and reflect meaning. That magic in general is our ability to discern what we will to be, and the tools and images that help us focus our will to manifest our intentions. The crescent moon face represents awakening consciousness or blissfully fading away from it. I am fascinated by the divine marriage of the self… The disembodied faces are another story for another time. It was the subject of my thesis in grad school and I could blather about that for hours so I will spare your readers for now.

Sounds like we need to do a follow up! If you could pick any cup off my website for your personal collection, which cup and why?
Probably any Tazza by Stephan Pierce (@stephan_peirce) because of the dedication to craft that they exhibit, their ultra-pleasing shape and the flawless execution. Or one of those nifty vacuum-sealed double walled cups by Adam (@egonglass) because they are so badass!

It is only a matter of time before I am able to retire the SALT x Stephan Tazza to my personal collection. Do you have a favorite cup you have seen on my page that might not still be available? Any standouts?
I loved seeing the Eric Goldschmidt collabs and the Harold Cooney/Stephen Pierce collabs in particular. 

You recently had Covid-19 and fortunately you have mostly recovered. Can you share first hand what that was like? It is so hard to know what the truth is with the current state of things, so I figure this is as close as we can get. 
It was pretty unnerving because of all the fear built up around it. But that was the worst part really, just not knowing how bad it was going to get. The head and body aches got pretty bad, like the worst hangover ever kinda bad. My skin felt like I had a sunburn. The loss of taste and smell was weird. The most disconcerting of all was the sorta sick flavor coming from every breath out. Like there was an electrical fire in my lungs or something. I am all back to normal now as are all my family members that got it thankfully. 

Thanks for sharing. After that we need to lighten it up. What’s your favorite drink?
It's toss up between a Paper Plane and a Vieux Carre. Both Rye Whiskey based cocktails. I also like good whiskey or tequila straight, and generally beers in the pilsner style though I rarely drink alcohol these days. I heard once that in Czech Bohemia when clear drinking glasses were first produced in a way that made them affordable for common folks, the beer at the time was all unfiltered. The need arose to make a clean crisp looking beer and Pilsner Urquell was the first. (I don't know the validity of that story but I like it anyway).

Since you snowboard, the most important question of this interview is will you be coming out to Minturn next winter to blow glass and ride Vail? I know you travel much of the year.

What kind of setup do you ride?
Haven't had my own setup in years but I ride regular, prefer a duck stance and I like my boards short, wide and flexible despite being tall and lanky. I am really a skimboarder at heart.

Any cup collaborations on your agenda?
Definitely gotta do something with Eric Goldschmidt at Corning this summer. Definitely more with Mr. Cooney's wild zanfirico prep. I'd love to get one in with the venerable Ryan Tanner (@ryeglass) but nothing promised yet. Hopefully I'll catch Dosh (@doshworld) in the ether this summer. Oh and I'll be at the Starship for a good chunk this year helping out with coin pulls and hopefully doing some offhand cups out of Draco with Marcel (@marcelglass) and the crew.

Anything else we should know about you? Any other hobbies or interests?
Hmmm... I guess I am pretty boring outside of glass. I play some music (mainly Djembe and Cajon drums) and I love to jam with people. I'm trying to get back into Ice Hockey but my travels make it hard. I play disc golf whenever I can. I surf and skimboard, and I read a lot.

What was the last book you read?
I just finished the First Law series by Joe Abercrombie. Currently rereading Dune before the new movie comes out. I have an affinity for Fantasy and Sci-fi. 

Last question. Favorite film. Thanks for being a part of this project!
The Man Who Would Be King. Thanks for having me Ben!


Well I know I’ll need to save up for at least one pair of Nikolai’s rollers, but he did gift me one of his cups which saves me from the temptation to need to buy one from the batch for my personal collection. I used my green money tumbler for water at the studio the day it arrived and my face lit up when I read the invoice and saw “GIFT” written next to that one. My goal in my personal collection is to bring together a body of work that embodies an artist’s contributions to the material. In this case, to feature a color combination that Nikolai came up with years ago in a shape not far off from that of his passion of making cleanly prepped color tubing I feel like I have really nailed it with this one. It has been nice to connect with Taffy over the internet and hopefully 2020 is the year that we can connect in person.

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