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The Dartmouth
June 23, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Heistad keeps Dartmouth's best-kept secret running smoothly

Erling Heistad, director of the Hopkins Center's arts jewelry shop, has a commitment to students that is apparent from a quick glance his office.

Photos of students' work, postcards and pictures adorn the walls. The piles of paper on his desk attest to the fact that Heistad spends his time in the jewelry shop, helping students and getting to know them.

"My goal is to allow you to come in and challenge yourself beyond your capabilities. Jewelry is just the medium," Heistad said. "If you can do that, you are constantly expanding."

It is as though Heistad knows that the shop he runs -- and mostly built with his own hands --remains one of the best kept secrets tucked away in the basement of the Hopkins Center.

Pushing students to the limit

The work students do in the jewelry shop forces them to take risks, Heistad said.

"Think about an engagement ring. That ring is going to be judged by the girl's father or her grandmother," he said. "There is a big leap of faith. You are putting yourself on the line to say, 'You're special.' It is the fact that you made something and made someone number one in your life."

"I am constantly impressed by the faith of people who say that they are going to make a ring that is better than what's out there," he continued.

The skills learned in the jewelry shop are often skills students keep for life.

In a letter to Heistad, Nader Hebela '96 wrote, "I learned as much in the shop as I have in almost all of my classes combined. Besides the actual skills involved to solder a ring, raise a cup, cut and set a stone ... there is something I took from the shop that I did not expect."

Heistad said jewelry making forces students to focus and pay attention to detail.

"Before I ever really learned anything about metals, I used to tackle a problem from the perspective of a person used to rigorous education," Hebela wrote. "Now, when I approach a problem, I am able to tackle it from more than one perspective ... It almost like having two different brains. My education in the shop has complemented and enhanced my education in classes."

Heistad said working in the shop is not easy.

"You must have the ability to work hard and demand of yourself," Heistad said. "My role is to push you over the edge. The nice thing is that when you start to go down, someone is there to hold your hand."

Other past students wrote to Heistad about the influence the jewelry shop had on their lives.

"I've learned so much over the 4 years now that I've worked there -- I'll never forget the first term I worked, when I was a freshman. I was terrified. There was so much to learn all at once; I remember my first project was a simple silver band, and for the life of me I couldn't get it to solder," wrote Suzanne Fromer, '93.

"I tried like 3 times, and it kept coming apart -- I was almost ready to quit, because I thought I was just clearly not cut out for the job. But I didn't quit. I kept trying, and I finally soldered the ring. I slowly started to gain the confidence I needed not only to make jewelry, but more importantly, to feel that I was equipped/skilled/competent enough to help someone else make jewelry," Fromer wrote.

Heistad praised his teaching assistants.

"We have a well organized, committed staff. If I could disappear and not be part of the operation, I would have succeeded," he said.

Assistant Lisa O'Brien '98 said "Erling is a mentor for many of us, and we look to him as a source, not only of technical expertise, but also of wisdom about how life should be lived."

"What I have to offer is a secure environment," Heistad said. "Sometimes all you are is an ear," he added.

"I once had a student's mother call me. She said to me, 'Susie is coming back because she has found you.' It was the early days of coeducation and it was hard," Heistad said.

Making history at Dartmouth

The present day Hop workshops were actually the brainchild of Vergil Poling, the first student workshop craftsman who started them in 1941.

Heistad's father was close friends with Poling. "As a little kid, I spent time here, hanging around Bissel Hall," Heistad said.

Bissel Hall, which was located where the Hop now stands, contained student workshops on the second and third floors.

"This meant that all the lumber and machinery had to be carried up flights of stairs to the shops and the projects carried down," Heistad said.

"In 1961, Poling started a move to build a new student center. Rumor got out to Warner Bentley, who never had a theater." Heistad said.

Then a drama professor, Bentley gave his support to the new building and he later became the first director of the Hop.

"From those humble beginnings to get the workshops off the second and third floors, the Hopkins Center evolved," Heistad said.

There was a small space available in the Hop for a shop tucked in among where they made kayaks, Heistad said.

"Walker Weed, who was director of the student workshops at the time, said to me that the place was pretty small, but that we could do a jewelry shop," Heistad said.

Heistad was contracted by the College in the fall of 1964 while a graduate student at Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Michigan. He came to the Hop in September of 1966. Last week marked the 30th anniversary of Heistad's career at the College.

He instructed pottery making in his studio at home and even taught students pottery in the hallways of the Hop until the mid 1970s when he started the Davidson Pottery Shop in Norwich, Vt. Heistad also created a place to cast metals with his personal equipment in 1969. From 1976 to 1977, Heistad ran both the jewelry and the pottery shops.

Beyond Dartmouth

Heistad's commitment to the arts extends beyond the Dartmouth community.

"From 1966 to '68, I was teaching the student workshops and I also was the Assistant Director of Project Arise, which was a program that brought the arts to over 16,000 students in over one-third of the state of New Hampshire," Heistad said.

At that time there was only about one full-time art teacher in the entire northern third of the state, Heistad added.

In 1969, Heistad founded the Hinckley School of Crafts in Maine.

"It was a competitive school -- the students had to get professional references. We accepted students from all continents to get a diverse student population," Heistad said.

The Hinckley students learned skills such as photography, weaving, sculpture, glassblowing and foundry.

Heistad actually started out in the sciences.

"I was a physics major at [the University of New Hampshire] and in my senior year I switched to art," Heistad said.

"I started out making jewelry in high school and at UNH I ran a commission. I started out using the art shop because I had a business. I realized that I enjoyed working with my hands and moving from one detail to the next detail," Heistad said.

"Every man in my Dad's family was an engineer and they did not understand me switching to art. My Dad called my uncle and asked him if he ever knew an artist that didn't starve," Heistad said.

Other interests

Heistad said he was on skis as soon as he could stand up. Heistad skied for UNH, the National Circuit and other national races. He ran the skiing facility at Storrs Hill in Lebanon for years and coached junior racing.

As the captain of the U.S. Telemark Team, Heistad organized and coordinated the activities of the team.

Heistad was also a rock climbing instructor at UNH and he set up a forest rescue team with the National forest service.

This past summer, Heistad sailed a 38 ft. cutter from Nova Scotia to Maine. Heistad's father ran the Dartmouth Sailing Club in the 1950s. Heistad is vice commodore, facilities chairman of the Dartmouth Sailing Club.