Contemplating Briar

Briar pipes have always been objects to look at as well as to smoke. For a long while standards of beauty for pipes have focused on the regularity and visibility of grain and the overall attractiveness of shape as it reflected or enhanced certain familiar pipe forms. I derived much pleasure from these principles myself and never thought to question or enlarge upon them. Then I saw some of Tokutomiís pipes, and to my surprise, I found myself engaging with briar carvings in a new way and experiencing new kinds of enjoyment.

Tokutomiís work challenged and fascinated me. Though his shapes often suggested forms found in Danish pipes, the Japanese carver frequently pushed his compositions in directions that contradicted my familiar Western sense of balance, equilibrium, and order. My first look at a Tokutomi pipe often left me perplexed and uncertain; yet the more I studied the composition, the more I was able to see through its unfamiliar contours and discover new insights and understanding. My initial confusion gave way to the kind of rich emotional response that I usually associate with looking at a painting or a piece of sculpture. More than this, I felt a distinct sense of purpose, a recognizable personality, emerging from the briar carving Ė in a word, I heard the clear voice of the pipe-maker, Hiroyuki Tokutomi. When I looked closely at his work, I sensed that I was engaging with a unique creativity, an imaginative point of view with which I felt extraordinary sympathy, and which seemed to open up new possibilities for how I looked at and wrote briar pipes.

Lest this all sounds a bit overwrought, I should say that the "voice" I hear in Tokuís pipes speaks playfully and without pretension. It is filled with a sense of humor, joyfulness, and fun. Tokutomiís briars do not look to me as if they are trying to be works or art or "sculptures for the hand." They are always objects to be smoked as well as to be looked at. Yet Tokutomiís particular mixture of "art and craft" strikes me as brilliantly original: he seems to inhabit with gracefulness and ease that fascinating middle ground between aesthetics and functionality Ė and to do so with a distinctively Japanese flair. ...

... Tokutomiís artistry and the careful, patient observation with eye and hand that his compositions inspire, have led me to regard his pipes as OBJECTS FOR CONTEMPLATION  as well as tools for smoking.

And my experience with Tokuís aesthetic has forever changed the pleasures and insights I derive from the work of other pipe-makers. I feel encouraged to open my sensibilities to the creative vision that any talented carver imparts to the briar he or she shapes. A pipe then becomes an occasion not only for a pleasing smoke but equally for a contemplation of the artisanís imagination as it engages with that mysterious human impulse to make what is useful into what is also beautiful.

From Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine, Summer 2006,


The Improvisatory Carvings of Hiroyuki Tokutomi

by Thomas Looker

All contents © 2006 by Thomas Looker. 

Please do not quote or reproduce without permission of the author.

Read the full text of CONTEMPLATING BRIAR along with an expanded version of the complete article, in  The Briar Gallery's PIPE NOTES section.