Scrolling through the crude Pikachu and smiley face-emblazoned bongs that populate the @superchillandcool420 Instagram feed, you'd never guess the artist behind the wares is classically trained. Despite his BFA in ceramics from the Kansas City Art Institute, Dean Roper gets inspired by channelling "a shithead high school kid"—the kind of kid who might make "a vase that looks like a vase but is actually a bong" in ceramics class. Roper, who's opening an e-shop for his 4/20-friendly paraphernalia soon, finds joy in re-imagining the glossy (and overpriced) pipes that typically reside in the glass cases of Midwestern head shops. Below, he explains why.
Are you from Kansas City originally? I grew up in St. Louis, but my mom moved out to Colorado while I was in high school, so I spent a ton of time there. I chose Kansas City for its ceramics department. There's a really rich history of ceramics here that got me interested into making these subversive vessels.
What is Kansas City weed culture like? It's really strange. The city has West coast and East coast vibes. There's a big range. You have the Greek Life people who have gone to colleges around here and now live in Kansas City. They're frat guys, smoker bros. There's also a large hippie culture: people who go to music festivals and and go to see Grateful Dead cover bands. Then there are people who aren't involved in the culture really, but still use. There's a lot of people who smoke hash oil. The head shops carry a lot of specialized gear for smoking concentrates.
How has head shop culture influenced you? As a millennial, bongs were just part of being a teenager. But spending time in Colorado, it was a culture I was exposed to quite a bit. Head shop culture was always funny to me, like there'd be high-end glass pipes that will run for 10 grand—it's just insane. Now, I have the opportunity to use it as an influence and make fun of it in a way. A lot of my source imagery comes from visiting different head shops and seeing these hilarious pieces that are actually being produced and sold that are completely genuine. I'm mocking it, but it's also where I derive a lot of inspiration from.
How did you start making bongs? I just graduated a few years ago from the Art Institute, and I got a degree in art history and ceramics. I've been working with clay since 2009. Being in an institution setting, you're typically not allowed to make bongs or ashtrays. After I graduated, it was kind of fun to start making things I couldn't get away with in school. I started making these bongs with the intention of them only really existing as art objects. I try to make the wackiest, craziest bongs that I can think of so people are like, 'What the fuck is this?' I worked in Maine for a while at a ceramic art residency in the woods and was digging this beautiful red clay from the ground with my hands. At that point I was like, "I'm living in the woods and I want to smoke weed out of these things." So I did.
What's the purpose of a non-functional bong? I started off making as many bongs as I could. While some were purely art objects and didn't work intentionally, some I just couldn't make work. I made this Alf bong where the nostrils are two bowls, and it had this really intricate interior system of chambers and bubblers. It was a complete failure. For some people, it's meaningful for an object to operate the way it's meant to, but some appreciate the object just as an object. I've been focusing on functional bongs more lately because I feel like that's just kind of what people want. I want make things that exist as more than just an object. That utility is what brings them to life.
Do you see your work in line with other ceramicists who make irreverent but utilitarian objects? Maia Ruth Lee and Aine Vonnegut [of TROLL] are super rad; their tongue pipes are awesome. Isaac [of Group Partner] is dope too. I would like to think I'm doing my own thing, although such a big part of ceramics is community. Being in the studio and being in school, you're constantly around other people and feeding off of that. It feels good to be a part of something larger, to be aligned with these artists who are using clay in similar ways. In some ways, it makes me feel validated.
Are people surprised that the dude behind superchillandcool420 is classically trained? It's funny, when people see my work they're like, 'Wait, you went to school for... ceramics?' I once read this thing ceramic artist Grouppartner said, like, "The worse you are as a craftsman, the more the response is like, 'I can clearly see the mark of your hand on this!'" I thought that was hilarious. Being in school and having all these rules and regimens was strange. Now, I'm just trying to do something that makes me happy. I get so much enjoyment out of going into the studio and pinching them out all shitty and just laughing. It's so much fun for me.