Leafy Sea Dragon by Tonni Nielsen

While there are many notable pipe collections in our pipe community, Richard Friedman’s Sea Creature collection is unique among them. Taking its inspiration from Richard’s life at sea, his collection is populated with a vast array of ocean creatures—some so exotic and other-worldly that it boggles the mind that their essential shapes or natures could be imagined, let alone rendered, in briar.

Leafy Sea DragonWhile some shapes, like the blowfish, fugu, and whale, have made their way into the mainstream, others like the manta ray, the sea horse, the squid or the octopus will almost certainly never become commonplace. Among these rarities, one in particular stands out: a Leafy Sea Dragon by Tonni Nielsen that Richard acquired at the last Richmond Pipe Show.

Sea Creature collector Richard FriedmanI was present when Richard first saw this pipe. When he handed it to me for my inspection, I was astonished. I did not so much examine the pipe as try to keep it from wriggling from my grasp. Most of all, I was struck by its dynamism. I have never seen such a complex shape that made such masterful use of the medium from which it was crafted. Tonni’s placement of plateau, planes, ridges, and curves simultaneously reveals the best of what the block had to offer while endowing the shape with such flexing muscularity that the pipe seems more than organically inspired. It seems alive. It’s contours suggest that DNA made it, not Tonni Nielsen.

Attending as many pipe shows and visiting as many collectors as I do, I see a lot of pipes. This is a good thing and a bad thing. It is good because comparison and contrast with a large array of work trains the eye and hones the sensibilities. It is bad because one sees far more middling than excellent work. This cannot help but be the case because not every artisan is equally gifted.

As the artisan population has grown, there are more and more very skilled wood-crafters out there. As the overall technical level has risen, the fit and finish levels of what is offered has made it difficult to differentiate one artisan from another, especially in technical terms.

What matters to me most, however, is aesthetics. I am jaded because I have seen far too many perfect pipes lacking in beauty. I have seen very few pipes that approach the mastery evidenced in this creation. This is among the two or three most exquisite creations in briar I have ever seen. It fulfills all the criteria I ascribe to a masterpiece, and I do not use this word lightly. I examined this pipe for five days—including photographing it— and I never ceased marveling. Not for one second.

The most remarkable quality of the pipe concerns its movement dynamics. Depending on one’s angle-of-view, the pipe seems variously moving or at rest. From one vantage point, the leafy sea dragon seems asleep, camouflaged by the ocean flora in which it had nestled itself. From other perspectives, it seems captured mid-dart, avoiding some peckish predator.

I can imagine the inner musings of some of you as you read this. You are billiard or dublin smokers. Your idea of an adventurous shape is a bulldog. “That’s weird,” or “That’s not a pipe, that’s a sculpture,” is riffing through your thoughts now, assuming you’ve even read this far. I can relate. I possess fairly conservative pipe-shape preferences, myself. One’s tastes, however, are beside the point. Like Bo Nordh’s ballerina or Ramses, this pipe inverts the landscape. I will never see innovations in shaping the same way again after having interacted with this Leafy Sea Dragon.

Artisan Tonni NielsenBecause I spent so much time with Tonni at the show, I also had hours to talk with him about the pipe: why he made it, what he tried to accomplish, what his challenges were, and how he went about trying to solve them.

I will be frank with you here. Having visually scrubbed this pipe for hours for any flaws or deficits, it became increasingly apparent to me that the principal quality required of this pipe’s creator had to have been insanity. Just the finish-sanding—don’t even consider the shape-sanding—had to have required tens of hours, something that Tonni confirmed. “I thought I was in sanding purgatory,” he quipped in his understated Danish humor.

This pipe was made on spec. As Tonni sweated through its creation, he had no buyer. While he made the pipe with Richard in mind, there were no guarantees. And as the hours mounted while Tonni pushed the envelope—challenging his own limitations as well as the briar’s—the entire effort could have come to nothing with the emergence of a flaw. This sort of endeavor is a high-wire walk in a place where the wind can suddenly gust without warning. It is not for the inexperienced, the gutless, or the artisan who values cost-efficiencies over making great work.

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Reader Comments (8)

One famous poet or another, not sure which, said, "A good poem is like slides on its own melting." Creativity is like that. One artist fires up the next. Tonni gets your burners roaring here, Neill, and off you fly. His mastery of his medium, briar, fuels a wordfest from you that surpasses all the blogs that have come before. Each sentence, every paragraph here is a highwire act. Nowhere do you slip. Bravo! And there is this as well. One of your blogs describes the arduous work that goes into the pipe images your share here. But what's equally astounding is the point-click-and-shoot portraits you capture of pipe people to accompany those pipe compositions. The snapshots here of both Tonni and Richard rival the best of the Leafy Sea Dragon images. My theory is this. You work at your craft, put in the hours and the sweat, and as a reward, the gods of photograph grace you with the gift of making the really hard business of capturing the human soul seem easy. Your work shines, Neill. Congrats!

ralph in jersey
February 5, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterralph in jersey
I got at least as much enjoyment from reading your essay as I did from looking at the outstanding photos you took of this remarkable piece of sculpture. The best critical commentary tends to increase one's appreciation of any artistic work. Yours certainly did that for me.
February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScott Stultz
Wow, this is an amazingly beautiful pipe! Wonderful photographs of it too, Neill, and I really enjoyed reading the post. Tonni is a fantastic pipe maker. I'm often wowed be his work, but this one is beyond stunning!
February 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterScott Thile
That pipe is certainly one of the most fluid shapes I've ever seen, and fitting for a sea creature. Having been fortunate to meet and speak with Tonni and Richard at the Richmond show, your photographs definitely captured the spirit of their character. I know you are not a professional photographer, but your pipe photos are unparalleled.
February 5, 2014 | Registered CommenterRiff Raff
On poems and melting ice, that was Robert Frost.

"What matters to me most, however, is aesthetics. I am jaded because I have seen far too many perfect pipes lacking in beauty. I have seen very few pipes that approach the mastery evidenced in this creation."

I absolutely agree. On another forum, some of us were having a similar conversation about technical excellence vs. a genuine artistic sense for shape and line. Some of the artists mentioned were Ed Burak (as designer), Elliott Nachwalter, Jess Chonowitsch and, of course, Tonni Nielsen.

I think lots of pipemakers today have artistic aspirations, but the results often tend to be more spectacle than art. Even this Eltang/Gotoh pipe, for example, is more of a technical than an artistic achievement:

Clearly made by immensely skillful craftsmen, it's an amazing piece technically, but it can't hold a candle, in my opinion, to Nielsen's Leafy Sea Dragon. That isn't to say that Eltang's pipes never have real artistic quality to them, but I hope it illustrates the point I'm trying to make. Neill articulates it better, but Nielsen's pipe is so much more than an example of technical virtuosity.
February 9, 2014 | Registered CommenterWes H.
Robert Frost it is. Damn, I was rolling along here, digging everything everybody was saying (including mysefl), and then I checked out the Eltang and it knocked me out too.. Any observation that uses that particular amazing pipe to illustrate its negative just has to lack my enthusiiasm and support. And as long as we're talking sea creatures here, I've gotta say, "there's lots a beutiful fish in that sea."

ralph in jersey
February 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterralph in jersey
I am a real dummy. I totally missed seeing Tonni's pipes at the ONE pipe show that I should be able to enjoy everything going on...and I didn't. What a loss - wth was I doing? Thank you for bringing this epic work of art to us Neill. You certainly couldn't have relied on me..

As much as I am so very glad that Tonni, and his delightful lady, come to Richmond, to be honest, I sometime avoid going to his table. It is very deep seated fear that keeps me away. That fear comes from my lack of ability to express the joy of seeing his creations, and my inability to think of the words that I wish to express my admiration. The sounds bubbling out of my mouth would likely be disturbing to that person I am desperately trying to communicate those words. How does one describe such a pipe, such craftsmanship, such instinct?
February 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLinwood
Wow! Excellent pipe
February 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlexandr Bondarev

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