Chicago resident Jason Niehoff is a freelance bass player for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra.
He has a unique tradition: After joining a new orchestra, he goes out and buys a pipe.
“I’ll go try to see if there’s a local pipe shop and go get pipe just as kind of a souvenir,” he says.
Niehoff has about 50 tobacco pipes, including a few Meerschaum pipes. Meerschaum is a rare material almost exclusively mined in Turkey.
“And it’s basically coral and stuff fossilized and they take it out and they carve it into very ornate pipes,” Niehoff explains.
They’re so detailed you might mistake them for palm-sized Baroque statues.
As a younger guy with an older gentleman’s hobby, it can be hard for Niehoff to find artisan pipes. There just aren’t many fine pipe makers left anymore. When he got to Kalamazoo, Niehoff didn’t expect to spoil himself with a fancy pipe.
But then he met RobE Bartholomew, the scene shop foreman at Western Michigan University in the Gilmore Theatre Complex who just happens to be a pipe maker. It was fate.
What makes Bartholomew’s pipes unique is the different textures, colors, and shapes. One of Bartholomew’s pipes looks like a pickaxe, with a pointed tip on the bottom of the bowl. Another is more like a wild mushroom with a gnarled edge.
Bartholomew uses different types of wood in his pieces, but almost all of the pipe bowls are made of briar.
“Briar comes from the burl on the root system of a heath tree in the Mediterranean. It doesn’t actually burn. It will char, but it will not burn," he says. "So a well-maintained briar pipe will last a couple of lifetimes. So like it could be handed down as an heirloom type of a piece of art.”
Bartholomew says if the pieces of the pipe don’t fit together just right, moisture will collect on the inside of the pipe.
“And as you’re puffing on it, it will start to gurgle almost like a really teeny tiny hookah, if you will. And it’s not really a favorable thing, especially if you happen to have your pipe in your mouth and you look up to see a star, or a bird, or a plane, or Superman…and then you get a mouthful of juice," he says. "That’s usually very ocky.”
Bartholomew says he would never make a pipe he wouldn’t use himself. In fact, he only made them for himself until his wife encouraged him to sell his ever-growing collection.
Bartholomew says he was ecstatic to find a customer that appreciates his art. And Jason Niehoff says he’s pretty happy too.
“Hopefully I have it for quite a long time and it will just get better with use. And it is just a nice kind of memento of being in Kalamazoo and being in the symphony and that whole new experience," says Niehoof. "It’s kind of a way to solidify the experience in your hand, you know?”