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Inside the Collection: Dorothy Sturm

“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.” -- Dorothy Sturm (1)

Dorothy Sturm (1910-1988) was born right here in Memphis, Tennessee. Even at an early age, she was interested in art, so much so that her sixth-grade teacher asked her to illustrate a school publication. At 19, she left Memphis and moved to New York City, where she studied at the Grand Central School of Art, the Art Students League, and Columbia University.

“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.” -- Dorothy Sturm (2)

During her time in New York, Sturm developed an interest in biology. It was there she met Dr. Florence Sabin, the renown medical scientist, who at the time was studying blood cells. This interest in biology eventually grew into a lifelong career as a medical illustrator, and Sturm was even asked to draw all the illustrations for the book The Morphology of Human Blood Cells (1956).

Sturm moved back home in 1934, and the next year she became a founding faculty member at the Memphis Academy of Art (now Memphis College of Art). In her early career, Strum focused on creating collages, drawings, and mixed media paintings on paper, and she taught classes on the same subjects. To supplement her teaching and illustrator income, she also began working for the Binswanger Glass Company in the mid-1950s. At Binswanger, Sturm learned the basics of stained-glass construction, and it was also during this time that she began experimenting with enameling.

“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.” -- Dorothy Sturm (3)

At the time, enameling was a dying art, and Sturm had no formal training in traditional methods. However, she used her background in collage art and stained glass to form her own enameling practices. In her enameled work, she used both powered glass and chunks of found glass from broken cups, fiberglass, and chunks of hobnail glass. She then fired her pieces at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, a much higher temperature than other enamelists used. As a result, her work cracked and crazed but produced colorful, abstract designs. She eventually caught the eye of Betty Parsons in New York, who helped Sturm exhibit her work not just in Memphis but also across the nation. At the time, she was one of a few Tennessee artists to be represented by a New York gallery. Six of her pieces were even included in the seminal 1959 exhibition Enamels at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York. For the next 20 years, Sturm continued experimenting with the medium and became a pioneer of abstract expressionism.

In 1975, Sturm retired from Memphis Academy of Art as a Professor Emeritus after building one of the finest metal-enameling programs in the country. In addition to her teaching, she was also a founding member of Art Today, an organization committed to the appreciation of contemporary art and expanding the modern and contemporary collection at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. She played a crucial role in the development and advancement of contemporary art in Memphis for more than 50 years. Her work is in many private and public collections, including the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, the Arkansas Art Center, and the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art. For a full C.V. of Sturm’s career, see her page at David Lusk Gallery.

The Metal Museum currently has nine works by Dorothy Sturm in our Permanent Collection, including enameled wall pieces, a drawing, jewelry, and some other enameling experiments. Most of these works show her practice of including found glass with the enamel. The “Plique-a-Jour Brooch & Earrings” have a stained-glass affect and look best with light shining through them. Three of her pieces in our collection are some of her “Enamel Studies,” experiments Sturm did to practice different enameling techniques. Two of her larger wall pieces are on display in our Learning Space, and most of the smaller works are permanently installed in our Visible Storage Gallery. The Museum is happy we can preserve the legacy of this beloved Memphis artist.


2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

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