After years in chemistry, Reingold ’71 turns to glassblowing

by Kourtney Kawano | 5/31/15 6:01pm

David Reingold ’71 is not a typical glassblowing instructor. A chemistry student at the College, Reingold received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Oregon in 1976 and spent two years completing post-doctoral research at the University of Alberta before taking a job as a chemistry professor at Haverford College, where he first encountered scientific glassblowing. Although he continued to teach chemistry for most of his professional career, glassblowing subsequently became a valued hobby for Reingold, and through self-teaching and dedicated experimentation it has grown into his current field.

How did you first become interested in scientific glassblowing?

DR: I spent my career as a chemistry professor at a variety of small colleges and the first one, I spent one year at Haverford College in ’79. If I remember right they were on a 4-1-4 system, so in the month of January there were no serious classes. There was a glassblower who worked at Bryn Mawr College, which was just down the road, and I don’t know how it got arranged for him to come over to Haverford once a week in January and show us some stuff. We had a tiny glass shop, and he came over and showed us how to do something. And I practiced. And the next week he came over and showed us something else. And I practiced that. So we had about four weeks of little things that he showed us how to do and this is along the lines of scientific glassblowing — if you break something, this is how you fix it. And so I practiced and got to be, I wouldn’t say good, but acceptable. It’s served me well because at small colleges, and especially ones that don’t have a lot of money, chemists break stuff all the time, and if you can’t afford to buy new stuff then you’re going to go around fixing the old stuff. So I was the guy who fixed stuff.

When did you begin teaching glassblowing skills? What do you enjoy about glassblowing?

DR: After one year at Haverford, [I spent] six years at Middlebury [College], and they had a little glass shop there. Sometime then I began teaching students how to do stuff. I continued that for the rest of my career, which spans two other colleges [Lewis and Clark College and Juniata College]. And so by the time I retired, which was about three years ago, I had about 30 years of teaching students how to do stuff. And the way I did it was basically the way the glassblower taught me. The first day I showed them how to do this, then go practice for a week. The second week I showed them how to do something else. Over the years, after I showed my students how to do a variety of things and how to make stuff, I would bring in a visiting artist, a professional glassblower, and usually these guys are not going to make a condenser or a valve. They make an ornament or a pendant. I began to watch how they did that and thought, “That’s pretty cool, I think I can do that.” So I began practicing those things. Now I also make pendants and wine glasses. When you make a piece of scientific equipment, the person it’s for is happy, but that’s about it. When you make a pendant that your wife can wear around her neck, then people can see it. That’s where I got most of my recognition from.

Has it felt like a change from teaching chemistry to teaching glassblowing?

DR: Well it’s not that much of a change. I still teach scientific glassblowing at Portland State University. Every semester I have about six to 10 students who are learning how to do this. In addition to showing them the scientific stuff, I demonstrate things, like how to make a fish fork, and then I’ll bring in a visiting artist who will show them how to make something that’s a bit too fancy for me. When did this start? I don’t know, maybe 20 years ago. But I didn’t have the time to get into it until maybe 10 years ago. I guess about 10 years ago is when I started making wine glasses.

What is your favorite form to make?

DR: Right now, I’m practicing pendants, and I’ve just developed a new style of pendant that’s pretty showy. My wife likes it, and people who look at it like it. I probably would still be doing wine glasses, but I don’t have the right equipment. So I would say pendants and wine glasses are my favorite things to make right now. But if somebody brings me a piece of equipment and says I need you to make this or I need you to fix this, if it looks like something I’m capable of doing, I’ll give it a shot. Sometimes it works. But there are things that I’m not good enough to fix.

Do you use your formal chemistry background in any way when experimenting with new forms of glassblowing or fixing pieces of glass?

DR: No. My chemistry knowledge is not useful in terms of doing anything in the glass shop. In principal I should be able to explain the properties of glass or think about colored glass and what’s the chemical stuff that happens when you melt stuff and it’s colored or clear, but I don’t think about any of that. I just do it. So the chemistry knowledge and glassblowing art form are not necessarily independent, but they are for me.

But has your background as a chemistry professor helped you at all in teaching glassblowing to students?

DR: Well in the sense that yes, I know how to teach. [But] teaching people how to do something is different from teaching them an intellectual subject like chemistry. [In chemistry,] you explain something to the students, and then you have them try to solve a problem and you don’t just tell them how to do it. You don’t tell them the answer. You just sort of leave it so they can process it and get there themselves. But for a form like glassblowing, you don’t have to keep any secrets. You can show them everything. In a sense, teaching an academic subject, at the time that you’re helping someone in a one-on-one situation...you don’t just tell them everything. You have to make them come to it. That’s not the case with glassblowing. You have to show them how to do it. And then you almost have to hold their hand. You hold this thing in for this long. Okay now take it out and do this. They have to feel it and see it and experience it in order to get to the point when they can do it. But I will say that being a teacher in one area is helpful in being a teacher in another area.

Do you sell any of your projects?

DR: I haven’t yet. If I got good enough, I’d think about it. I have a wine glass that I think is sellable, but I currently can’t make it because I don’t have the right equipment. The pendant that I’m making, the one that I just developed within the past month, is quite sellable but I don’t think that I’m quite good enough at it yet and I’m not fast enough at it yet...to be able to sell it. It takes me so long to make it now, I’d have to sell it for $100! So if I got better at it and could make it in half the time, I could sell it for a more reasonable price that people are willing to pay. But you’d have to set up a spot in the Saturday market, spend your Saturday mornings there, and first of all, you’d have to have enough inventory so people will come and look at your stuff. So for the time being, I’m not really thinking about selling stuff. I give them as gifts.

What have you found so appealing about glassblowing?

DR: It’s a dying art. It used to be the case that every major chemistry department, probably Dartmouth included, but every place that had a Ph.D. in chemistry would have their own glassblower on site. If you needed something painted or repaired, you took it to the glassblower and he’d fix it. Certainly Dartmouth’s Ph.D. program is on the small side, but anyone at the University of New Hampshire or bigger would certainly have their own glassblower facility. Now, I’d say that fewer than 10 percent of the major universities in the country have their own glassblower. And those people die or retire and, all of a sudden, they’re not being replaced. There’s fewer people around who actually know how to make and repair pieces of glass. So it’s fun to be perpetuating this skill, which is useful and helpful and dying.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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