Between Art and Nature: The Glass of Steffen Dam

David Revere McFadden. Chief Curator, Museum of Arts & Design, New York.

Over the course of the past decade, Steffen Dam has exploited the magical qualities of glass to capture light and color in both two and three dimensional fantasies that suggest the elusive and fragile shapes, colors, and textures of nature, specifically underwater life forms such as embryonic shellfish, jelly fish, and other invertebrates. Dam’s animal life, although they be fictional creations by an artist, not scientifically precise reproductions of true life forms, are powerfully suggestive of the real world.  The delicately tinted forms and seemingly soft organic shapes seduce one’ eye and mind into the realm of semi-belief in their reality.  Trapped in perpetuity in glass panels or cylinders replete with gently rising bubbles, Dam’s art traverses the vague territory that separates art and nature.  While Dam’s personal vision and voice, captured in hot glass, is distinctive and unique, it is also a logical continuation of a mode of observing, recording, and interpreting the world that stretches back over centuries.

Cabinet of curiosities
More than four centuries ago, an extraordinary man named Ole Worm (1588-1655) was born in Arhus in Denmark. A true son of the Enlightenment, Worm studied medicine in Basel and Copenhagen, eventually becoming physician to King Christian IV of Denmark.  As an Enlightenment polymath, Worm not only pursued medical research in embryology, but also language and literature, with a special interest in ancient runestones.  Worm’s arguably greatest contribution was the vast collection of natural history specimens collected from Europe and from the New World.  His collections were published in an engraved text, the Museum Wormianum, published just after his death in 1655.  His observations and speculations on natural history were illustrated in richly detailed engravings; the frontispiece of his volume showed the interior of his “cabinet of curiosities” with shelf after shelf filled with dried or otherwise preserved specimens, and ceiling, walls, and floor covered by dozens of stuffed animals, bones, shells, and carapaces. Although visually intriguing in their variety and complexity, these specimens were not truly collected as curiosities alone; their pedagogic value was foremost—learning to understand the systems and structures of nature was the foundation of understanding the world at large and man’s place in the expanding scientific and intellectual universe of the 17th century.

Capture and preservation
Worm was not alone in his pursuit of ways to preserve and present the panoply of natural life around us.  Similar natural history collections were being assembled throughout Europe. While early collections continued to feature dried and stuffed specimens, it was the introduction of specimens preserved in alcohol in glass vials and bottles in the second half of the 17th century that made preservation of “living” forms, in all their rich colors and forms, a reality. It was another physician, William Croone (or Croune) of London that displayed two embryonic dogs in hermetically sealed alcohol-filled glass vials. 1)
It was, however, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that lavishly illustrated volumes of natural specimens, often brilliantly colored, were published, such as those by the renowned German Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919).  Haeckel’s work, as well as that by dozens of his contemporaries was informed and inspired by the revolution in scientific thought fomented by the 1859 publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin.  While illustrated volumes of natural specimens were essential to any classroom or research laboratory, it was recognized that flat illustrations, even when brightly colored, could not truly capture the subtle colorations and surface qualities of living specimens. This need was addressed in the work of the genius father and son—Leopold (1822-1895) and Rudolph (1857-1939) Blaschka from Dresden, Germany. 2)  In the latter part of the 19th century, the Blaschka’s were commissioned to produce lampworked glass versions of flora and fauna specimens by institutions ranging from Ward’s Natural History Establishment in Rochester, New York to Harvard and Cornell Universities.

Failure and persistence
Other than being a Dane and interested in natural history specimens link Steffen Dam to this lineage?  Dam did not begin his career as a glass artist, much less as an artist at all. 3) For four years Dam served his apprenticeship in technical engineering and subsequently worked as a toolmaker for a plastics molding company. His expertise in the tool and die field taught him to “read” a drawing to extract the needed specific information. The tools he made were exceedingly precise and accordingly expensive. In the artist’s words “there was no room for a mistake.” Attention to detail and the quest for perfection, learned in the engineering laboratory, were to serve the artist well when he began working in the demanding medium of glass.
Ironically, Dam was making molds for “plastic objects he would not want in his own house, particularly since plastic is often used as a replacement for more durable materials.” Dam felt the need to find a way to satisfy his innate aesthetic needs, and toward that end he began to make pottery on the wheel. At a public workshop Dam met a girl who introduced him to glass artist Finn Lynggaard’s Glashandbogen (Glass Handbook) published in 1975. Naively enthusiastic, Dam thought it would be easy to melt some glass bottles in a ceramic kiln and make use of a hand made blowpipe. Failure stimulated persistence, and he built a tiny glass furnace and obtained usable glass from the Holmegaard factory. Shortly thereafter he was able to produce small drinking goblets and bowls, which he sold from a former bicycle shed that held his first studio in Aarhus.  Firmly set in his new direction, Dam quit his job as a tool and die maker to make glass full time.

Roadmap to understanding
In one sense, Dam was destined to bring glass and natural history together in his art. His paternal grandfather, born in 1893, was a passionate amateur in the field of natural history. His library was filled with illustrated volumes on biology, natural sciences, and all sorts of flora and fauna.  Through his grandfather, who believed in the scientific method which held that study, dissection, analysis of things permitted one to comprehend structure and meaning.  The illustrations in these volumes were road maps to understand the world at large, macrocosms suspended in microcosms. Dam’s grandfather was a 20th century inheritor of the Enlightenment spirit of his countryman Ole Worm, and this inheritance was passed on to his grandson through the medium of glass.

Immediate reality

Not surprisingly, the earliest of Dam’s quasi-natural history works took the format of flat panels—echoing the graphic design of natural history volumes in which species and variations were presented in geometric grids.  Dam’s panels look like leaves cut from one of these volumes—sometimes as grid pattern of small rectangles of glass mounted together and more frequently as large rectangles subdivided into regular chambers by drawn lines.  The stylized creatures in these panels are presented in two-dimensional cross sections, profile views that suggest specimens mounted between glass slides.
It was when Dam taught himself to cast glass, however, that these flat pages transformed into specimen bottles of solid glass, in which the artist’s exotic fauna appeared to float weightlessly.  Dam had learned Italian glassworking techniques that demanded complete control when combining transparent, translucent, and opaque glass, and was familiar with the cast glass techniques of Sweden’s Bertil Vallien.  In developing his technical skills in glass casting, Dam also learned to make use of spontaneous accidents—the sense of immediate reality conveyed by his glass cylinders is increased by his exploitation of isolated air bubbles that surround the stilled life forms within.

Nature as a mirror
Steffen Dam invites the viewer to relish the sheer beauty of his “specimens,” but also to reflect on the meaning of nature as a mirror of the human mind and spirit. Dam has “captured” nature in his work, but he assiduously avoids simple imitation of life; the artist shies away from what he refers to as “cheap tricks in glass.”  He seeks to strike a “balance between fiction and reality.” While his work is in no way intended to serve as pedagogic tools, as specimens in “cabinets of curiosities” often were, they are intended to engage the eye and stimulate the imagination.  Knowledge about the forms, structures, surfaces, and colors of true natural specimens is not to be found in Dam’s displays of crystal cylinders, but another kind of knowledge—that of the visual poetry of endlessly varied forms—is freely offered.  Dam’s little creatures, although frozen in glass, remind of how we read and feel both time and change.  Dam’s permanent and specific worlds in glass underscore our awareness of the temporal in our own lives. Ole Worm may not appreciate Dam’s form of science, but he would most certainly be moved by the beauty of the works.

1) I wish to express my gratitude to Dr. John E. Simmons, Adjunct Curator of Collections, Earth and Mineral Science Museum & Art Gallery at Penn State University, who provided valuable information on the history of specimen preservation and the contributions of Dr. Croone, and also to Dr. Linda S. Ford, Director, Collections Operations, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, for sharing her knowledge of the history of scientific specimen storage.

2) I wish to thank art historian William Warmus, who has studied the Blaschkas and their glass specimens for years for his generous assistance in providing information and his personal images of the Blaschka animals, and to Dr. Drew Harvell, Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University, for permission to illustrate one of the Cornell glass animals in her care.

3) Quotes from the artist were recorded in a phone conversation between Dam and the author in December 2008.