Dorothy Sturm was born in 1910 in Memphis. At an early age she became such an accomplished artist that her sixth-grade teacher sought her help in illustrating a school publication. She moved to New York in 1929 to further her artistic education. She attended the Grand Central School of Art and the Art Students League in New York. While in New York, she developed an interest in the work of Dr. Florence Sabin, who was studying blood cells. This led to further studies in biology and a career as a medical illustrator. Throughout her life, her main area of specialization was medical illustration. She provided all the drawings for the book The Morphology of Human Blood Cells
In 1934 Sturm returned to Memphis, and in 1935 she started teaching at the Memphis Academy of Arts. Her early work, which was primarily in tempera on paper, focused on social issues and depicted the plight of low-income African Americans in the South. By 1950 she started experimenting with paper collage and developed a more abstract style. The work was received with great enthusiasm, and she had her first exhibition of watercolor and collages at the Weyhe Gallery in New York. The relationship lasted for six years. The paper collage work led to experimental work in cloth collage in the mid-1950s.
At this time Sturm started working for the Benswanger Glass Company, creating stained-glass windows for the art department. A chance discovery of enamel powder prompted the artist to start experimenting with the medium. Not content to follow the traditional processes of enameling, she devised her own techniques, using her training as a collage artist and a stained-glass artisan. She quickly developed a style that was unique. Working with the powdered form of enamel, Sturm used chunks of glass along with pieces of stained glass to build up her work, much like a collage. She fired the works at 1800 degrees Fahrenheit, higher than the temperature normally used by enamelists. This caused her glass to crack and craze, which became part of her desired effect. The works, abstract and nonrepresentational, were a dazzling feast of color and design. In a short period, she gained recognition. Oppi Untracht published an example of her early work in his book Enameling on Metal
(1957). Two years later, six of her Compositions were included in the seminal 1959 exhibition Enamels
at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.
Betty Parsons, who was among the first dealers to promote the work of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Jackson Pollock, embraced Sturm’s work and started exhibiting it in her gallery in New York. With further experimentation and refinement, she was able to produce larger panels that could withstand the weight of additional layered glass. She eventually created large, multicomponent works that could be displayed in multiple arrangements. These works, with titles such as Dark Side of the Moon
and Egg of Happiness
reflected Sturm’s emotional connectedness to the world at large and her deep concern with finding greater meaning to life.