Family-friendly theme park performer by day, degenerate artist by night: Jason Bourgholtzer leads a double life, but he's not complaining. It's a childhood dream to work for the Big Mouse, but he has to keep his secret identity under wraps. Under the moniker J. Michael Glass, the St. Petersburg artist is one of Florida's longest-running and hardest-working functional glass blowers. He makes cool chandeliers, bracelets, and cartoon characters, but it's the pipes, bubblers, and Wyz Guy owl series that bring home the bacon.
"I've always been drawn to hand-blown glass more than sculptural stuff, the fact that it's functional," Bourgholtzer says. "Growing up as a teenager, I was always making things into pipes, so I thought, 'Hey, why not?'"
With 15 years of experience and a serious passion for the craft, J. Michael Glass has become one of the most recognizable names in the regional scene. Every day, he's thankful for the chance to do what he loves, and you can check it out for yourself when he hits Lake Worth's LSD Gallery (part of Aces High tattoo shop) for a live demonstration on Saturday, January 24.
Bourgholtzer got his start in 1999, when he found himself mesmerized by a glass blower at a local Renaissance fair. Always interested in being a professional artist, he graciously accepted an offer for apprenticeship, learning all he could.
Having run a Subway shop for years, he took those business skills and applied them to his new craft, teaching himself to make a list of 13 functional objects and scoring deals with catalog distributors. Soon after, he headed to Georgia and stayed with a friend for three months, learning the ins and outs of making pipes.
"I'm really big into the whole ceremonial aspect of it," he says. "The fact that the glass is actually a cleaner, healthier source, especially when you get into the water pipes and stuff."
Even beyond his personal interests as an entrepreneur in the glass-blowing field, making pipes is just the smarter move.
"Every time I'd make a pipe, I'd get to a point where it had a bottle shape to it, and I thought, 'I could just make a topper and make this a perfume bottle,'" he says, "but I knew if I made 50 of those, I may sell two, but if I made 50 of them that were pipes, I could sell every one of them."
Back in the early 2000s, there was no such thing as YouTube or Instagram. The world of glass blowing was small, tight-knit, and underground. There were only maybe a couple of blowers beside himself in the regional pipe business, and demand was high. Before long, Bourgholtzer had himself a proper studio, employees, a successful website, and a bunch of great distributor deals. Of course, everything changed for the industry when the feds caught on.
"Once I saw [the documentary] Degenerate Art, I was blown away to see all the guys I look up to and were part of the industry in the late '90s and early 2000s, we were all hit by Operation Pipe Dreams," he says. "The guy I was in business with was upstairs getting orders ready... and he comes flying downstairs letting me know the DEA was out in the West Coast shutting down one of the import distributors. We were all freaked out. We were like, 'All right, guys, this is it.'"
They switched up the project and tried making shot glasses, bracelets, and the like, but the market just wasn't there. Bourgholtzer still had distributors demanding his product, so he did what most blowers had to do: took the movement deeper underground and kept it alive.
"We made more money because the demand was still there and we could charge more because it was harder to get," he says. "I've always been somewhat rebellious my whole life. I've always been a kind, giving person, but I've always wanted to be off the grid if I can, so it was right up my alley."
These days, things aren't quite as hard as they used to be, but there's still a certain level of paranoia that comes with the job. Every time a local patrol car drives by his house, Bourgholtzer gets a bit nervous. He's not just some kid blowing glass anymore. He's a loving dad supporting his family, part of why he makes the trek to his socially acceptable day job every week. He knows he's fortunate to be doing what he loves, whatever form it takes.
"I try to just really enjoy every second that I'm doing it," he says. "It's a passion I've had forever. If I'm in a bad mood and I start working, as long as things go well, I get into a better one. It's almost like a meditation."
J. Michael Glass doesn't do only pipes. He's broadening his scope to do all manner of cool projects, but it's within the smoking community that he feels most comfortable. Maybe that's why, in pushing himself toward higher entrepreneurial goals, he always leaves room to take the community with him.
He has a new website going, designed to help himself and others feel more comfortable tackling custom orders. Those can be tricky, because increasingly-educated customers are just plain picky. No one wants to get done with a piece only to be told, "That's not what I want." Build your own Wyz Guy, or byowyzguy.com, allows customers to tinker with a piece online so as to see the finished product before placing their final order.
"I want to bring other artists on, because more or less, every artist has a production piece that they do," he says. "I was thinking of a way to help other artists that are up and coming [to become] established as well with their bread-and-butter piece but in a way that customers can customize."
Not trying to leave anyone out of the equation, Bourgholtzer plans to have the site run through smoke shops, because it's still easier to deal with vendors, and he knows it's the smoke shops that have laid the groundwork for what artists do.
He's also starting a podcast this summer, being such a fan of them himself, in which he wants to take the time to highlight different artists in the scene, interview them, and upload accompanying videos of their work to his site, wyzguyradio.com.
"When I started, there was probably a couple hundred of us, and now there's tens of thousands," he says. "I want to reach out to some of these guys, see what I can learn from them, and share the knowledge with the community as well as people that find it interesting."
Even if the world isn't quite ready to accept functional glass art and smoking culture, Bourgholtzer knows the tide is turning. He's been a strong part of the movement for going on two decades, and he's not about to abandon it now. He's excited to come to LSD gallery to show off his wares, do some live demos, and connect with people who support him.
"I've got a pretty good following in Florida, so it's cool to meet all these people that have been following me on Instagram," he says. "It's closed the gap between the artist and the customer, because now the artist and the customer can have relationships. To me, that's what it's all about."
J. Michael Glass live demonstration, Saturday, January 24, at LSD Gallery, 407 S. Dixie Highway, Lake Worth. Event begins at 6 p.m. and is free for all ages. Call 561-370-3940, or visit LSDGallery.com.
Follow Kat Bein on Twitter @KatSaysKill.