I've long been a fan of both Vladimir Grechukhin and Jeff Gracik of J. Alan pipes. The two makers have worked together several times over the last few years as part of Grechukhin's International Project, an open collaboration in which the Russian Master invites other master carvers to his shop to make pipes together. While in St. Petersburg, Russia to attend the annual pipe show held there (an excellent event in its own right), I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the workshop with the two prolific pipe makers while they worked on some gorgeous collaboration pipes. I also sat down with the two artisans to discuss their collaborations, and why they work so well together.
Interview with Jeff Gracik of J. Alan Pipes
Tell me about the collaborations between you and Vladimir.
Our influences are similar, so our styles, while different, are compatible. We have very different ways of working. Grechukhin drills first and I drill after shaping. My perception was if a pipe was nice and had nice grain, then it must have been drilled second. Working with Grechukhin has made me realize that the process is irrelevant. The final result is what matters. There's a good vibe in the shop, and we have a good time.
Interview with Vladimir Grechukhin
When did the international project begin?
Six years ago. The first collaboration was with Tokutomi. He came here before the show, (and ended up visiting three years in a row) and we made a lot of pipes together. Two sets: a bamboo set, then a set of Blowfish. Some of the pipes were made in a very interesting way. It was entertaining for both of us. We exchanged pipes through the mail, going back and fourth with different ideas. It made me realize the connection between European and Japanese pipe making.
I also worked a lot with Tom Eltang. I'll soon visit him in Denmark so that I can taste the fresh Copenhagen air, and we will make some pipes together. Konstantin Shekita also has a special vision, and we have made some pipes in his style. I've also worked with Master Former on a set of pipes with silver. I've even worked with Nanna Ivarsson, so there are only two pipes in the world that wear both of our stamps. It's very interesting to work with these high-level masters. It helps all of us to move to the top, and it's better than working alone. I don't care for working alone. My student, Alexander Tupitsyn, is always close, and I've become richer by teaching and sharing my knowledge and ideas.
What about Jeff?
Jeff is my favorite American friend and we have now worked together many times. This year we were fortunate enough to work together twice. My background is in design, and for collaborations it helps because the education helps to manage more than one style at once. It's my opinion that Jeff is one of the best masters in the United States. He's young and active and he clearly understands my ideas and can add his own. And we have a lot of fun; our sense of humor is the same!
From the very beginning, the first time we met, I could see by the way that he was working that he was a true master, even as young as he is. He realizes that he needs to continue to develop his talent, and he's always climbing higher. We have both learned from each other and continue to teach each other. When you become a master, you shouldn't keep your secrets — you need to share with other masters.
When we collaborate unexpected things happen. We might plan to do something, but what we end up making can be entirely different from both of our styles. One collector who wrote about the work I did with Toku said, "When I look at this pipe it's clear that it's a Grechukhin style pipe, but looking closer there are some small nuances of Toku." When me and Jeff make pipes and I look at them, I think it's clear that it's a mix of our styles. One idea unites us. We both love working with briar. Working with Jeff is very easy and comfortable.
Are there plans for the next collaboration between you two?
We do have some plans, but I won't say because it will only make god laugh!