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Dominick Labino: A giant in art and technology

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    Labino’s Tall Gold Vase, left, and Harlequin Vase.

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    Baker O’Brien works in the Labino studio, which she now owns.

    <The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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    A glass sculpture from Dominick Labino’s series titled ‘Emergence.’

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    Dominick Labino in his studio in 1982.

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    Dominick Labino, left, and Baker O’Brien, who worked with him for 12 years, create a sculpture in Labino’s workshop in 1977. O’Brien calls him ‘the father I never had.’

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Dominick Labino in his studio in 1982.

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Dominick Labino covered enormous ground during his 76 years.

His work life started in a blacksmith shop in the 1920s, firing metal and beating it into shape, and nailing shoes on the feet of mules that worked in coal mines: it was his first love, he mused at the age of 70. At 19, he built an electric motor so small he tucked it into a hickory nutshell and carried it in his vest. Over decades, he learned about glass and the furnaces that melted it, fixing and improving them.

He invented glass so thin it could only be seen with a microscope, and heat-resisting insulation for the exterior tiles of space shuttles and was awarded 60 U.S. patents and hundreds more from foreign countries. He built a telescope and a camera to photograph his art glass.

He studied and wrote about ancient glass-making methods. In the 1950s, he moved to the country and built a 6,000-square-foot workshop where he worked all day and into the night, making furnaces and tools, and creating beautiful enamel jewelry, handsome paintings, and mostly, stunning glass art, always insisting he was not an artist but a craftsman.

This he knew: "Art is art and technology is technology. But technology comes before art: it's the scientist that leads the way and art is always behind."

Labino's name will come up at the Glass Art Society's annual conference in Toledo Wednesday through Saturday, remembered largely for the way he adapted a small, brick furnace so that it would melt glass, as well as the glass marbles he invented that could melt in such a kiln. That was in 1962 at an experimental workshop on the grounds of the Toledo Museum of Art attended by nine potters determined to figure out how to make art glass in one's studio as they might clay or silver or bronze. He later designed a more efficient studio kiln that was used across the country.

RELATED CONTENT: 2012 Glass Art Society Conference


A glass sculpture from Dominick Labino’s series titled ‘Emergence.’

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A good medium

Three years after helping to kick-start the American studio-glass movement, Labino took early retirement. He was 54 and ready to trade the committees and meetings of the corporate world for playing in his wizardly workshop, puttering with machines, becoming masterful at making glass, and devising new processes for imbuing it with brilliant color.

Glass was a good medium for his brilliant mind. In a 1982 interview with The Blade he explained his unquenchable thirst for knowledge: "To do something I don't know anything about; the constant need to search, to learn, and to know."

His artistic style was traditional, his use of color spectacular.

"You can do more things with glass than any other medium. There are absolutely no limits as to what you can do in the way of color with glass," he said.

For 40 years, his huge piece, Vitrana, has hung in the Toledo museum; it's now in the Glass Study Room of the Glass Pavilion. He was asked to make it for the entrance to the museum's new glass gallery for its 1970 opening. He'd never made glass panels, but produced 100 colorful blocks from which Otto Wittmann, then museum director, selected 33 for the piece that's just over 7-feet-by-8-feet. To make them, he developed a new technique for casting molten glass into the squares and rectangles and built a new cooling oven.

"No other glass-craftsman has achieved such extraordinary color relationships, or subtle variations of tones. Indeed, few artists in this field are able to combine colors in their molten state for the technical reason that different colors react differently in the furnace in accordance with minor changes in temperature and oxygen. They also tend to cool at different rates, often causing inevitable breakage during the annealing process," Wittmann wrote in a 1974 booklet for an exhibit of Labino's art glass that traveled to the Pilkington Glass Museum in Lancashire, England; the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Toledo museum.

After great expense and more than a year of his labor, Labino decided Vitrana would be his gift to the museum.


Baker O’Brien works in the Labino studio, which she now owns.

The Blade/Dave Zapotosky
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The handsome man with thick white hair brushed back from his forehead, often peering over his glasses, and smoking a pipe, was dad to Mary Kay Garn, who lives in Sylvania with her husband, John Garn, both retired educators. He was a workaholic; driven, competitive in a good way, loved music, dogs, technology, history, traveling, and people.

"He was always reading technical books," she said. "He would not let us have television until the mid-1950s because he thought we wouldn't read."

When she got a C on a chemistry assignment at Notre Dame Academy, she dropped the class lest he find out.

Known as Nick, he was born in 1910 to immigrants from the Turino area in Italy who moved to Clarion County, Pennsylvania, 80 miles north of Pittsburgh. His father mined coal; his mother, said to be a skilled weaver, raised three children. They saved money and bought a grocery store and a farm.

Young Dominick worked for a blacksmith, a trade he revered, attended high school in Pittsburgh, and found employment as an instrument maker. Wanting to be an electrician, he attended night classes at Carnegie Institute of Technology. At 19, having read about a walnut-sized electric motor thought to be the world's smallest, he set out to do one better. Ten months of tinkering with jewelers' tools and small files and saws resulted in his mini-motor: ⅜-inch by 1/2-inch that generated 1/2 gnat power.

Glass beginnings

In 1934, he was hired at an Owens Illinois milk-bottle factory near the family farm and began learning the basics of glass and the heat it needs, traveling the country to fix furnaces and figure out how to design better parts. He married an Irish-American teacher, Juletta Murphy, and in 1940 moved with their two little girls to an O-I posting in Alton, Ill. They bought a small farm where, during World War II, they invited his coworkers to plant Victory Gardens.

In 1946, Juletta died following childbirth as did the infant, leaving Labino with young Mary Kay and her sister Jane (Labino Black). He arranged for them to live with close friends in Clarion, Pa., near their grandparents, sent money for their support, and visited monthly.

In 1947, a coworker left O-I to start a new business, Glass Fibers, Inc., in Waterville (currently Johns Manville), and Labino accepted his invite to be the director of research and development. He moved to Perrysburg, then Maumee. And in 1949 he married another teacher, Elizabeth "Libby" Smith, and the girls left Pennsylvania to join them.


Dominick Labino, left, and Baker O’Brien, who worked with him for 12 years, create a sculpture in Labino’s workshop in 1977. O’Brien calls him ‘the father I never had.’

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Guarding what he knew

Things were moving quickly at the new company. On the heels of World War II, military money was plentiful. Sixty days after getting a request from the U.S. Navy, his lab produced a glass-fiber filter material to replace asbestos filters used in military gas masks: the thinnest glass fiber ever made, visible microscopically. It was made into "quartz paper" intended for use as an insulating material and later used as insulation in the jet engines just coming into use in the early 1950s. When manufactured into a half-inch-thick blanket, it was placed behind the heat shield on the Apollo and other manned space capsules.

His contributions to the space shuttles gave him tremendous pride, and he carefully watched their blast-offs and reentries, said his daughter.

In 1956 he and Libby bought 150 acres a mile from Grand Rapids, putting in a garden and building a picnic house by the Beaver Creek.

When glass makers were sharing information freely and setting up programs In the 1960s, Labino was reluctant to share, said Fritz Dreisbach, an early glass artist and teacher.

"He grew up in one of the most secretive industries in the world. He guarded what he knew against somebody who might steal it and make money from it," he said. He could be irascible, unwilling to impart his knowledge to artists who hadn't done their homework on the technicalities of glass, but generous with those who did.

Dreisbach believes Labino was responsible for him becoming the first glass educator at the Toledo museum in 1967. "He set me up. He didn't want to teach it and it got him off the hook."


Labino’s Tall Gold Vase, left, and Harlequin Vase.

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While in Toledo, Dreisbach, a well-known glass artist and instructor of hundreds of workshops, took his students to the Labino workshop.

"I wanted them to meet who I thought was one of the coolest guys. He had more toys and it looked like a 19th century workshop," he said. "He always tried to embarrass me in front of my students and I played along with it. One student asked what was the hardest thing I ever made out of glass." When Dreisbach didn't furnish a quick reply, Labino jumped in.

"You want to know the hardest thing I ever made? C-sharp," said Labino.

He then demonstrated his glass armonica: glass bowls in graduated sizes that make musical tones by means of friction, usually provided by finger tips. It's similar to rubbing a wet finger around the rim of a wine goblet. Getting a true sound for C-sharp gave him the most trouble.

In the 1970s, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia had hired Labino to repair its 200-year-old armonica. Benjamin Franklin liked its sound (as did Mozart) and had invented a mechanical version of the instrument. Labino did so much research to learn how to repair it, he decided to build his own improved version: a three-octave, blue-glass carillon with stack-mounted bowls that made sounds when struck by a leather hammer via electrical relays attached with piano wire.

Father figure

The man who didn't graduate from college was bestowed with honorary doctoral degrees from the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University. And in 1996, the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured his glass on the cover of a booklet about their studio glass show.

At the suggestion of Otto Wittman, a college kid who wanted to make art from wrought iron arranged a co-op with Labino in 1975.

"I'm on Antioch College's longest co-op job," joked Baker O'Brien, who's still there. A fine apprentice, she worked with him for 12 years, learning how he was able to imbue glass with incredible colors by doing something almost nobody does today: making his own glass from sand (75 percent), soda ash (10 percent), and lime (15 percent).

"He was the father I never had," O'Brien said. "I was the kid that came along that wanted to do it."

O'Brien, 57, not only makes glass, she creates gold and silver jewelry, prints, and does some painting. She came to feel the Labinos were family.

Labino died of lung cancer in 1987; his beloved wife died in 1994. O'Brien purchased 80 of their acres and built a little house, a pond, and a 50-foot covered walkway to the workshop.

"It was really important to him that the studio go on," she said. "I really love it here."

Contact Tahree Lane at: 419-724-6075 or tlane@theblade.com.

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