Undergraduates Investigate the Work of Artist Dorothy Sturm:  Reflections on Research

By the Archives

July 13, 2015

Undergraduate students from St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who recently visited the Archives of American Art reading room in Washington, DC, report on their research on Dorothy Strum.

Smcm_storage_2
Examining original Dorothy Sturm drawings in the St. Mary's College of Maryland Fine Art Collection. L to R: Dr. Joe Lucchesi, Dr. Kelly Quinn, Ellen Dahl, Rebecca Archer, Jessica Rose. Photo: Cristin Cash, used with permission.

This semester, we set out to study a series of eight charcoal drawings by Memphis artist Dorothy Sturm (1910–1988) held in St. Mary’s College of Maryland’s Fine Art Collection as part of a research seminar under the direction of art history professor Dr. Joe Lucchesi. Our initial research took us far beyond these drawings, revealing Sturm’s extraordinary breadth of artistic and professional experiences. In addition to charcoal, Sturm produced enamels, cloth collages, sculpture, and medical illustrations. While pioneering Memphis’ contemporary arts community, Sturm simultaneously maintained a presence in the modernist New York scene through representation at the Betty Parsons Gallery.

Abstract charcoal drawing, reproduction
Reproduction of an abstract charcoal drawing by Dorothy Sturm, between 1913 and 1988 / unidentified photographer. Dorothy Sturm papers, 1913-1988. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Abstract charcoal drawing, reproduction
Reproduction of an abstract charcoal drawing by Dorothy Sturm, between 1913 and 1988 / unidentified photographer. Dorothy Sturm papers, 1913-1988. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

We decided to investigate Sturm’s connection to Parsons’ gallery. The Betty Parsons Gallery records and personal papers, digitized as part of the Archives of American Art’s Terra Foundation Center for Digital Collections, include correspondence between Sturm and Parsons. Sturm often used Parsons as a sounding board to work through various conceptual issues, as in one letter from 1962 in which she exclaims, “[i]f I could only achieve this outer to inner relationship, and the relaxing of a geometry from its frozen, cubic, or mineral stage that allows life to emerge from the contained ‘dream’ of life!“ Through exchanges like these we learned significant details about Sturm’s personality, her creative process, and the practicalities of maintaining an exhibition presence in New York City. A personal dimension in their relationship also emerged—they often exchanged poems and traded stories about their health, and Sturm frequently invited Parsons to visit Memphis’ vibrant art community.

Lecture by Dorothy Sturm
Dorothy Sturm lecture on art and science, between 1938 and 1979?. Dorothy Sturm papers, 1913-1988. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

While the digital collection was an invaluable starting point, we needed to delve further into Sturm’s life and work. After discovering that the Archives also holds an undigitized, unprocessed collection of Sturm papers, we made a research trip to DC.

The collection contained an unexpectedly wide range of materials, from hours of taped interviews, to extensive exhibition histories, lesson plans, lecture notes, and even a selection of creative writing. To our surprise, her artistic output was even more diverse than we had thought; for example, we discovered photographs of previously unknown-to-us sculptures.

More importantly, we significantly advanced our understanding of her personal philosophy and perspectives regarding art and art making and began to understand the connections between her varied professional activities.

For example, in notes for a lecture on the relationship between art and science, Sturm forcefully asserts that “[i]n a healthy society, art and science must become the two brothers of the one body. If one member of the fraternity for any reason becomes alienated, then the ‘body’ which is society functions as an amputee.”

As we begin to apply our research finds from the Archives to our analysis of Sturm’s drawings in the St. Mary’s collection, our ideas about her work will continue to evolve. But some things are already clear: Sturm was never afraid to explore new ways to communicate visually, and she was a tireless advocate of progressive forms of art making. She was also interdisciplinary before it was cool, bridging the gap between art and craft and advocating for art and science as “brothers” that emerge from the same human drive for creativity.

 

Rebecca Archer is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, majoring in art history and history. This year she was the Professional Development Fellow for the Boyden Art Gallery and Fine Art Collection at the college.

Ellen Dahl is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, majoring in art history with minors in Museum Studies and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. In summer 2015, she is interning at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Jessica Rose is a 2015 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, where she majored in art history, Chinese, and French. In fall 2015, she continues her study of Mandarin at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.