"Oh, Neal? He’s a really nice guy.”
That’s what everybody says about Neal Drobnis, a soft-spoken 64-year-old with wavy hair and conspicuous height – and it only takes about five seconds in his company to see why. Niceness seems to emanate from Drobnis, along with pleasantries and avuncular chuckles.
Most mornings, you can spot Drobnis at the Alliance’s Dwares Jewish Community Center, in Providence, moving between the kitchen and social hall as he manages the Kosher Senior Café. He is the Kosher nutrition coordinator for Jewish Collaborative Services (JCS), supervising food preparation and tending to his guests.
“I serve lunch,” Drobnis says simply. “But mostly, I entertain. I’ve become a program director, kind of. I create programs for the seniors. I try to engage them.”
But there’s more to Drobnis than can be seen at the JCC. He is a seasoned alpinist and a veteran lead inspector. He has a Masters in Fine Arts from the Rhode Island School of Design. And he’s a well-known and prolific glass artist.
In the autumn and spring, when the weather is neither too hot nor too cold, Drobnis fires up an industrial-scale furnace in his house in Scituate and transforms molten sand into glass sculptures. From 2,000-degree globules, he creates a range of shapes, including birds and vessels, orbs and medallions.
“It’s like magic,” he says. “It’s this alchemy of transforming a hard material into a soft material, which then becomes a hard material again.”
Drobnis grew up in a Jewish family in Newton, Massachusetts. His parents eventually stopped going to services, and Drobnis himself was ambivalent about organized religion. Instead, he was drawn to clay: He spent much of his adolescence at a potter’s wheel.
After creating a variety of clay vessels, he would set up shop on the city’s green and sell his pieces to passersby.
“I like to say that I majored in ceramics in high school,” Drobnis says with an impish chuckle.
Post-graduation, Drobnis headed out west to climb mountains. He bounced around the Rockies for three years, ascending one peak after another. But this freewheeling lifestyle came to an end in Yellowstone National Park, when bitter cold and an ill-advised campsite left Drobnis with life-threatening frostbite.
Drobnis retired his hiking boots and enrolled at the University of Massachusetts to study ceramics. But one day, he walked into a student glass studio – and was enchanted.
“The material was so enthralling,” he said. “Glass is more of an instantaneous process [than clay]. I was more interested in the expressionist part of what glass could be.”
Drobnis then moved to Rhode Island to pursue a Master’s in Fine Arts in Glass and Sculpture at RISD.
After graduation, he remained in the state, first working at the arts co-op The Foundry. In 1992, he bought a house in Scituate.
“I was always into cutting costs,” he says. “I built the studio myself. I was always into finding and using old materials and collecting whatever I could. I used to collect bed frames and cut them and ground the paint off, in order to weld it together to build the studio. It was a gum-and-shoestrings kind of approach.”
Drobnis and his wife, Margaret, have two grown children. Margaret, who is better known as Peggy, is also a fine artist, and when the kids were young, the couple would “tag-team” parental duties, allowing Peggy to do studio work in the mornings and Drobnis in the afternoons.
Drobnis describes himself as an “expressionist,” and he identifies strongly with the abstract painter Jackson Pollock.
For nearly a decade, Drobnis specialized in individual glass pieces, many of them large and elaborate, which were best suited for decoration. Some of his pieces were used on the set of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” among other high-profile placements.
This lifestyle changed in 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks. Drobnis realized how much time he spent alone in his studio, and he wondered whether he should connect more directly with other people.
“I was making a decent living as an artist,” he says. “But 9/11 really made me reconsider what I was doing. Making things is something I can’t prevent myself from doing. Life is obviously the greatest art form, and we need to be creative in everything that we do. But I was always looking for alternatives. I felt there was an opportunity to give back.”
Drobnis tried substitute teaching, and he considered pursuing a master’s degree in education. He liked engaging with students, but found that the classroom environment could be confrontational.
Then, he attended a class called Whole House Health and Energy Auditing, hosted by the now-defunct Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living, and he became a lead inspector. He conducted lead inspections for 10 years, while his studio became quieter and quieter. During the Great Recession, demand for his glassworks all but dried up.
In 2009, a neighbor told Drobnis about the nutritionist position at Jewish Family Service, the precursor to JCS. Although Drobnis didn’t have a nutrition background, his first interview for the position turned into a full – and fulfilling – hour-long chat. Drobnis has worked for JCS ever since, spending 32 hours a week running the Kosher Senior Café at the Dwares JCC.
Working for JCS has been something of a revelation, Drobnis said. He now feels a stronger connection to his heritage and the many ways Judaism is expressed, as well as a tangible purpose and connection to the Jewish community.
“It’s just great to be part of this community,” Drobnis said. “This community is what I was looking for. I was looking for some involvement, and I found it at the Jewish Community Center. It really has been an amazing experience, and it allows me to do my artwork as well.”
Go to JewishRhody.org to see a video of Drobnis in his glass studio, where he now produces mostly functional pieces, such as drinking glasses, lawn ornaments and award trophies.
ROBERT ISENBERG (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode