Remembering Norm

Just one day before his 61st birthday and a day before he was scheduled to teach at The Awards & Custom Gift Show in Fort Worth, Texas (Norm was in his 22nd year of teaching for National Business Media, Inc.), Norm Dobbins was trying to land the big one with a friend at Lake Powell in New Mexico.

Intent on the task at hand, Dobbins probably didn’t realize the length of friendly ribbing he’d receive for celebrating his birthday at the show, instead of taking time off. In fact, he’d never missed a single show; he was constantly sharing his talents and enthusiasm for glass.

“He loved teaching, and when you talked to him about what he was doing, he would light up,” recalls Robert H. (Bob) Wieber, Jr., President and CEO of National Business Media, Inc., who launched Glass Art magazine in 1985 and the first NBM show in 1986. “Who knows how many hundreds—or maybe thousands of people he’s taught over the years who are keeping his legacy?”

Wieber continues: “I remember our first show just like yesterday. When I called Norm and asked him to be an instructor for a new class, he said yes. We didn’t know that we would get more than 100 registrants. I kept calling Norm each time registration numbers went up, and asked, ‘Can you handle it?’ Each time he said yes, and at the show he said, ‘Let’s go teach.’ He made sure everyone got to do what they came for. Right from the beginning, he was gracious and enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge.”

A Rare Gem

Norm was a kaleidoscope a rare breed of teacher, artist, craftsman, inventor, author, writer, partner, and mentor—whose facets shone brightly to all those around him in the decorative glass arts industry. He succumbed to a fatal heart attack May 6 while relaxing at his favorite sport, fishing.

Like slumped glass, his work and life were one. For Norm, life’s work could never be finished. There was always someone to teach, mentor or advise at The Awards & Custom Gift Shows, at the Dobbins’ world-renowned Aliento Glass School in Santa Fe, and at other educational venues in 30 countries, where he taught with his wife, Ruth. There was his work, a combination of teaching craft and creating art. There was another technique to try, refine or invent. There were his beloved dogs to care for. There were fish to catch and new varieties of sushi to sample.

Dobbins reflected his philosophies to those who were fortunate enough to take a class from “the Etch Master,” who valued failure as much as success as a learning tool.

“His technique was the best in the world,” says Sue Hueg, who was for many years the Trade Show Director for National Business Media, Inc. (she’s now Executive Director of the Decorative Arts group at NBM) and whose husband, Bill, is an instructor at the Aliento Glass School. “It was rare that he wasn’t thinking or working on ways to make the classes better. He was the catalyst of teaching people the fine points of glass etching. He so loved the industry he wanted to make sure it wasn’t an art or a craft that gets lost. He really believed that anyone interested in the art of etched glass could learn it.”

When a “cancelled” sign was posted outside Dobbins’ classroom at the Fort Worth show in May, word about Norm’s passing spread, and the sadness overshadowed the normal sparkle and excitement of the show. For more than two decades, Dobbins was a fixture—and the reason—that folks flocked to his demonstrations and classes to absorb his enthusiastic teaching style and passion for glass, learn sandblasting, carving and etching techniques and share in his vast knowledge, skill and artisanship.

Art Instigates Life

As an artist, teacher and inventor, Dobbins engineered a sandblasting cabinet that became an industry standard, helped companies refine and develop new technologies and methods, developed groundbreaking glass art techniques with internationally renowned artist Judy Chicago, and authored definitive guidebooks on etching and sandblasting methods as well as hundreds of how-to articles—much of this with his life/work partner Ruth.

Ruth and Norm met in the glass movement in the 1980s. Ruth was running a wholesale/retail glass supply business with a partner in her native Germany and had met Norm through industry contacts in the United States.

“The arts glass business is a small business worldwide, and everyone knows everyone,” said Ruth, who holds a master’s degree in printmaking and art history. “There were just a few trade shows, and I met Norm at the shows. We also had an extensive seminar program where we invited many glass artists to Europe to teach. When we invited Norm to teach, it was just something that was meant to be.”

Their romance blossomed, and Ruth sold her interest in the business, which had become focused on importing, to join Norm in the United States in 1989. Like Norm, she wanted to focus her passion and interest in the art and craft end rather than the supply and business angle of the spectrum.

Norm, who was living in New Mexico, had created a blasting cabinet that had become so popular he was making the cabinet for others in the industry nearly full-time. He met Jerry Howard, who had invented the first personal stained glass grinder and started a business called Glastar Corp. Norm decided to sell the blasting business to Howard and moved to California for a couple of years to get that division up and running. Glastar still makes “Norm’s” cabinet as well as a full line of glass supplies, cabinets and products.

“Norm would tell a cute story about how he found a large washing machine box behind Sears, and he used that for a blasting cabinet,” recalls Lori Mitchell, Howard’s daughter and President/CEO of Glastar Corp., based in Chatsworth, Calif. “Since it only lasted a short time, he decided he needed to build a better cabinet, and the rest is history. When my father bought the technology, equipment and business from Norm, Dad was happy to manufacture it. Norm was happy to be out of it and be back doing his art and teaching his art to others.”

Free to pursue their passions, Norm and Ruth moved back to the Southwest. “We like the big, wide-open spaces, the incredible landscape, and the colors of the sky,” says Ruth. “It was just a special place for us.”

In New Mexico, Norm had operated the only stained glass supply and etching glass company, known as the Stained Glass Company of New Mexico and National Sandblast Systems. Upon their return to New Mexico, Norm and Ruth chose to move to Santa Fe rather than Albuquerque, since they did not plan to open a retail shop again. Norm and Ruth traveled the world giving seminars and operating their businesses, Professional Glass Consultants, Dobbins Studio and Etchmaster, a supply house.

A founding member of the New Mexico Glass Art Society and the New Mexico Glass Alliance, Norm recognized that the applied arts and fine arts shared more in common than materials and methods, and teaching was where they converged. With that perspective, Norm was also a member of the Awards & Recognition Association, Rotary International, Glass Art Society and other business and trade associations.

“In 1999, we bought what was an original Spanish hacienda, and the concept of our school was born,” recalls Ruth. “It was welcome, as we had traveled solidly for 10 years and spent almost half of each year either teaching, consulting, or setting up companies in the business.”

An Industry Icon

In the industry, Norm was an important part of the development of PhotoBrasive Systems for Ikonics Imaging in Duluth, Minn., says Parnell Thill, Vice President of Marketing for Ikonics. “We often consulted with Norm in product-development efforts. Because Norm was so well known and respected as an industry expert and established sandcarving artist, we were proud and often relieved to get Norm’s endorsement.”

Norm’s talents were in demand with Ikonics staff, along with many other companies such as R.S. Owens, Inc., as well as with entrepreneurs eager to forge new skills. “Norm conducted our PhotoBrasive sandcarving schools here in Duluth for years,” says Thill. “It was clear that students really appreciated Norm, not only for his obvious expertise and skill as an artist, but for his encouragement and advice regarding their businesses. He was a fixture in the PhotoBrasive Systems’ NBM trade show booths, where he was such a draw.”

Glastar’s Lori Mitchell recalls an experience taking a class at Aliento Glass School in marble, granite and ceramic carving. “He really expanded my knowledge about what I could do with my equipment in a different way. I’ve had other classes where teachers don’t let the students blast. It was so cool because he let everyone be as creative as they wanted to be, and everyone felt comfortable doing what they wanted to do. The world has lost a generous, wonderful artist.”

In recent years, Norm, Ruth and internationally renowned artist Judy Chicago developed new techniques for the “Chicago in Glass” show that debuted in Santa Fe before touring the country. Their techniques, process and inspiration for the show were showcased in several publications, including Glass Craftsman magazine, and of course, in A&E.

Dobbins was born May 7, 1947 in Austin, Texas. He is a co-author of several books, including “Etched Glass Techniques and Designs,” “Surface Etching Techniques and Designs,” two editions of “Carving Techniques and Designs” as well as six DVDs and other instructional materials.

He had currently been revising “Carving Techniques and Designs” and had started work on a complete guide to sandblasting and glass etching techniques. Norm was also commissioned to create 50 windscreen panels for the new light rail system in central New Mexico, which were nearly completed. For 20 years, in addition to articles in many other art and glass industry publications, Norm and Ruth wrote a regular column, titled “Etch Masters,” for A&E Magazine, in which they supplied easy-to-follow instructional materials, tips and photos of various techniques and methods.

“Norm had a great interest in many things—from real estate and reading to glass arts and fishing,” says Sue Hueg. “He was respected internationally for his teaching skills, talent and patience. He left us way too early; we will miss him.

Says Bob Wieber, “Norm left some big shoes to fill. Thankfully, we will always remember him when we look at the beautiful mountain scene on our etched wall of windows in our conference room. Every time I walk into that room, I think of Norm and how gracious he was.”