Message in a Beaker

Glass artist’s passion was born in a laboratory

Out of the laboratory, into the light: glassblower Jason Probstein.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Fine art and laboratory science usually follow divergent paths. But in the hands of Asheville’s Jason Probstein, they perform an intimate tango — often in front of an enthralled live audience. 

Probstein grew up in Newark, Delaware, and attended Salem Community College in New Jersey, earning an unusual degree in the techniques of scientific glassblowing. “It was such a small program when I did it,” he says, “that it was almost word of mouth.” The curriculum involved learning to make the beakers and flasks used in industrial and commercial laboratories, as well as vital healthcare equipment such as ventilator splitters. That kind of glassware is made from blueprints and demands precise, challenging specifications with no room for creative deviation or human error. “It was very hard,” Probstein admits. “But my teacher changed my life — he showed me where to put my passion.” (He also credits his strong ambition to growing up with a supportive, hardworking mother.)

One day, something odd happened. “These guys in black suits and ties and sunglasses, who looked like they were straight out of the Blue Brothers movie, came,” Probstein recalls. “They took our fingerprints, a blood sample, and scanned our retinas. I was 22 years old and was like, ‘What’s going on here?’” His teacher then confessed: “The skills I’ve been teaching you can be used for very good or very bad things.” Probstein learned that sometimes the glass that came out of this “rare, small place” went into bombs — his instructor had once worked on the Manhattan Project — and thus “the government needed to track us.”

Custom seasonal ornaments and air-plant vases are among Probstein’s signature pieces. 

Things got lighter when Probstein landed a job at Epcot, where he dressed in period attire and did live demonstrations of glassblowing. “I showed them the whole creative process from beginning to end, in just seven minutes.” The crowds reciprocated by showing Probstein that his best-selling items were handmade Christmas ornaments. He later attended local Penland School of Craft and, about 20 years ago, settled in Asheville, where he took a Venetian-glass class. 

A member of the Southern Highland Craft Guild, Probstein sells his wares in around 60 galleries in North America. But he still derives the most satisfaction from live glasswork performances like those he’s done at Biltmore House and Gardens and, more recently, at Mountain Made Gallery in the Grove Arcade. Working with a torch, he deftly spins molten glass into delightfully intricate patterns of color, fusing traditional shapes into one-of-a-kind keepsakes, including goblets and vases. His exquisite ornaments are thin and lightweight, so they won’t bend tree branches. But they’re also surprisingly durable, because he makes them from the same Pyrex used in scientific glass. “I’ll say to people, ‘You know that Pyrex measuring cup you’ve used in your kitchen for the last 40 years? It’s the exact same material.”

Despite his uncommon talent and expertise, Probstein believes that Asheville is the key ingredient to his success. “People coming with their families to watch me demonstrate, the support from the community, and the appreciation for art in this town — that’s the reason why I can be successful.”

Jason Probstein, Asheville. For more information, visit the artist’s website, probsteinstudios.com, or e-mail him at jasonprob@att.net. Every Friday, Saturday, and Monday from 10am-4pm through Dec. 21, Probstein will host live demonstrations at Mountain Made Gallery in downtown Asheville’s Grove Arcade. His work is sold locally at Mountain Made, New Morning Gallery (7 Boston Way in Biltmore Village, newmorninggallerync.com), Miya Gallery (20 North Main St. in Weaverville, miyagallery.com) and Allanstand Craft Shop inside the Folk Art Center, Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway (southernhighlandguild.org).