Entering the enameling studio, one is struck by its openness. Light fills the space. Shelves are lined with organic vessel forms and dense architectural silhouettes. Glass and pools of color illuminate the density of these shapes, creating a light of their own. Dominating the room is a woman,large in stature, with shocking white hair and a cigarette always at her lips.
Her meticulous work table is arranged with fragments of glass, bottles and jars of powdered frit. Dorothy Sturm verbalizes her visual symbols in a stream of words, signs and universal wisdom that can be generated only from a person of genius.
Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, Sturm left home at the age of 19 with a small legacy and lit out for New York City. Intending to become a book designer, she took courses at Grand Central School of Art and the Art Students League. Interested in biology, she accompanied a friend to the laboratory of Dr. Florence Sabin, who was doing outstanding medical research on blood at the Rockefeller Institute. Through Dr. Sabin’s specially developed microscope, Sturm had her first look at her own blood cells. Stimulated by the microcosmic world, she arranged to take courses at Columbia in biology and went on to become a prominent medical illustrator.
Sturm’s sensitive, accurate style led to commissions for blood cell research, which included visual studies for sickle cell anemia and medications for the control of malaria during World War II by the Rockefeller Foundation. Her work culminated in visual designs for the book The Morphology of Human Blood Cells. A classic of its kind, it has been translated into eight languages and is used by medical students throughout the world. The link that connects the world of art and science throughout her work was established.
“If I can reach far into the past or beyond the moon or into the levels of bloodstream, into sort of hidden areas, then I capture them, or try to, and put them down in a form that is within a visible perspective. There is some elaborate, wonderful thing that is a common denominator between all forms, whether it be flowers or people, planets or mineral crystals. This is what the earth is made of.”
Sturm’s passion for understanding the molecular, cellular world, coupled with the enrichment she found in the art world in New York in the early 1930’s, generated her symbols and imagery. Yet, discovering that she was victim to a genetic defect that was causing health problems, she returned to Memphis for treatment. Despite her physical limitations she continued to work, achieving a greater understanding of a life—death perspective.
Her readings of Abstract Expressionist painters—such as Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky and Suzanne Langor—led her to an understanding of the abstract. “The child struggles, conscious of things and uses these things as its props. I think the young artist, throughout the history of art, is very conscious of things in the world as he knows them. They are his props. As time goes on it’s natural that one approaches the abstractions. It is perfectly natural then, that Abstract Expressionism is not a probing backward or regressing, but a pushing forward into a higher understanding of relationships.”
Her curiosity and driving energy have motivated experiments with many different media: enamel, glass, fabric and paint. No matter what the medium, she feels that there is some sort of universal master pattern of design. It is one realized in her intensive studies of the masters of the Renaissance. Just as the human body is aware of its organic rhythms, Sturm’s awareness of the beats and rhythms that exist in the pictorial space of the masters follows the master pattern of design that we call universal.
Initially, she conveyed this through watercolors, drawings and enamels. Throughout this period she began to teach drawing part time at The Memphis Academy of Arts in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1950 her small watercolors were accepted into Weyhe Gallery in New York City, where they were exhibited for the following six years. Discovering a small box of enamels in the attic of the old Academy, formerly a 19th-century residence and private art school, Sturm collaborated with students and began to teach herself the unorthodox and nontraditional techniques for which she is recognized today. Finding enamels a challenging and untamed medium, she began fusing different fragments of found glass, such as broken cups, fiberglass and chunks of hobnail glass onto a flat copper base. She allowed it to crack and craze, causing random, uncontrolled effects.
Not being restricted by formal training in enameling, she created a body of work that was free and dynamic. At this point the pieces were becoming larger, and the influence of Abstract Expressionism created a more sophisticated format within her work. New York gallery owner Betty Parsons, known for first showing the works of Jackson Pollack and Mark Rothko, accepted Sturm’s first enamels with enthusiasm. This led to the publication of her works in Vogue and Craft Horizons magazines and to an invitation to be included in the International Survey of Enamels Exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York. Attempts by Parsons to place her work in museums and other shows was limited due to the rigid distinctions made between arts and crafts. Any use of traditional craft media—such as enamels, glass or clay—eliminated such work from the art forum. Sturm was to keep bumping into these boundaries for the next 20 years.
Influenced by New York artists working in assemblage, Sturm became interested in the found object in collage. She searched for media that would lend themselves to the nostalgia of memory. “The found object bears the world; all of the violence, the tenderness, the uses.” Because of their accessibility, she turned first to fabrics. Spawned by her grandmother’s appliqués and sewing, her fascination with textiles extended to the different tactile densities of woven materials, their color and personalities. A drama was enacted by stitching together fragments of the discarded world, such as old stockings, shreds of an overworked dishrag or a sweater worn beyond repair. These found objects meshed with more pristine fragments. The scale of the first fabric collages was small, but over the years has grown; her most recent work spans over eight feet.
To subsidize her income in the mid-50’s, she freelanced through the art department at Benswanger Glass Company. As a designer of stained glass windows, she became fascinated by the reflective and transparent qualities and the great beauty of cathedral and hand blown glass. She continued this interest through designing major church windows for Laukhuff Stained Glass Studios. Thinking in terms of liberating the glass from all traditional support elements, she began experimenting with the lamination of glass on glass in collage. Sturm’s involvement with the found object dovetailed with these new works. Fragments such as smashed automobile windshields, broken bottlenecks and the backs of old mirrors constituted the elements of a past world. The present world was evoked through new glass, whose shape she would alter by cutting. The excitement conveyed by light transmitted through layered glass with varying transparencies led her to eliminate the opaque metal ground; to suspend the pieces in space with clear plastic thread.
Plate glass was used as the ground, on which fine wires, coils of hair and ink painting were laminated, sandwiched between the plates. The next step was to find an adhesive strong enough to hold these coefficients of glass together. Insisting upon a continued use of found objects, as well, she finally discovered a clear plastic epoxy bond that provided a successful bond despite its toxicity. The size of the work was not as large as the fabric collage because the glass could not support its own weight. The works ranged in size from three to four feet. Sometimes their size suggested early model car windows, which indeed some were. Color played an important role in the beginning, but as Sturm’s awareness of light and shadow intensified, her use of colored glass diminished. The element of light in the room where the pieces were suspended played a major role.
The ultimate is understanding the language of symbolism—the universal language in diagram form. This is the symbolism by which we learn to speak in all ways, whether we dance, sing, play a musical instrument, or paint. This is art. Art is the diagram or the symbol of a reality, not the reality itself but the symbol of it.
The works were dynamic in medium and concept. This phase was to culminate with a major exhibition at Betty Parsons Gallery in the late 50’s. Shipped by railway, the entire collection of glass-on-glass collages arrived in New York shattered. The destruction of these fragile works, as well as Sturm’s allergic reactions to the epoxy bond, dramatically shifted her focus.
She devoted herself next to developing a means of fusing glass on metal with the use of enamels. As head of the Metals Department at the Memphis Academy of Arts, Sturm continued to build one of the finest metal-enameling programs in the country until her retirement in 1975. In 1972 she curated an invitational enamels exhibition at the Academy, which featured eight of the nation’s top enamelists, including William Harper, Paul Hultberg and June Schwarcz. The show was selected for documentation by the American Crafts Council of New York, the second time in the council’s history that it had requested documentation of a show outside of New York City.
In the first series of glass enamels, Sturm had concentrated on the esthetic to the exclusion of technique. Because she was forced to impose a discipline on herself, she began guiding her materials. “The spirit of the artist searches for the life in his materials, but he has to command these materials sufficiently to keep his own concepts and the imagery that symbolizes his dreams and fantasies. In realizing this, I had to pioneer my own vision so that others could see it.”
Her initial problem of excessive warpage led her to use a thicker gauge copper with heavier enamel backing. Despite struggles with metal, she continued working with it, drawn to its vital, and defiant, properties. To Sturm there was more than technology involved. Silver became her prima donna, and copper a kind of “Atlas” or “Hercules.” Copper represented the godfather—masculine, malleable and tough. Tormented, tortured and heated, it would nevertheless respond generously.
Her later works led her away from the flat copper panels toward the use of shallow, welded copper box forms. By thoroughly testing the melting points, she discovered the different properties of the batches of glass. By neither overlapping the fragments nor placing them too closely, she eliminated crazing on the surfaces. Textures made by engraved words and phrases and welded beaded patterns appeared beneath the fused transparent glass. The heavy firescale on the copper surrounding the focal areas of glass and enamel was scratched away, exposing copper as well as linear patterns of oxidation.
Dorothy Sturm’s enamels are firmly controlled, and her formal composition is tight and precise. Her emotion in color is unrestrained. The values of color in each piece are significant, conveying motion or stillness. Associations of color create mood and sentiment. Her color has a way of playing with you, or hurting, stabbing you. Red represents the “hot of the blood” and blue the “cold of the waters.”
Sturm defines her art by the symbolism, the message, the spirit of the thing. This has been maintained in all of her works, be it fabric collage, watercolor, enamel or glass. Reflected in her later works, are such universal symbols as the sun, light, birth and death. The dialect of symbol has been taken from her own life. “The ultimate is understanding the language of symbolism, (the universal language in diagram form). This is the symbolism by which we learn to speak in all ways, whether we dance, sing, play a musical instrument, or paint. This is art. Art is the diagram or the symbol of a reality, not the reality itself but the symbol of it.”
As copper represents a godfather to Sturm, she represents a godmother to us, constantly evoking both gentle strength and humble brilliance. Dorothy Sturm has been carving at a stone to find the shapes and symbols within. Through her art, her use of symbol integrating feeling and belief she has made significant not only her own life, but also many others. As a teacher, she guides us, constantly sharing her inner vision and absolute thoughts. “In art there is inevitably a seepage from your life. Finally,I believe that what happens in my work is there because it wanted to happen.” This spiritual belief, that art is life is the constant through all of Sturm’s work. It is one which enables the viewer to share the presence of this dynamic artist.
Karen Blockman, painter and enamelist, now lives and works in New York City. Kathleen Doyle is resident metalsmith at Penland School of Crafts, Penland, North Carolina.
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