2012 Rakow Commission: Steffen Dam

Steffen Dam (2012)

Flower Block by Steffen Dam, 2012 Rakow Commission

Flower Block
Steffen Dam (Danish, b. 1961)
Denmark, Ebeltoft, 2012
Blown, cast, and fused glass, engraved, cut, drilled, ground, polished
H: 28 cm, W: 58 cm
2012.3.36, the 27th Rakow Commission

Soft, muted, seemingly organic forms stacked in columns and rows appear categorized and ready to be studied. The glass blocks invoke fossilized biological and botanical slides used in scientific research, but the function of the ambiguous specimens trapped in Steffen Dam’s glass blocks, panels and jars is aesthetic, not scholarly.

Born in Denmark in 1961, Dam learned about the natural world from his paternal grandfather, a dedicated reader of natural history, whose library was filled with illustrated volumes on biology, natural sciences, and flora and fauna.

In 1982, after a four-year apprenticeship in technical engineering, Dam became a qualified toolmaker and began working for a %%plastic%% molding company. Dam would eventually use this knowledge of mechanical construction, the qualities of different metals, and his early exposure to the natural world, in his art.

Feeling unsatisfied with his career, Dam built a ceramics studio in Århus, Denmark in 1985. Not long after, he was introduced to the work of Finn Lynggaard (Danish, 1930-2011) through his 1975 book, The Glas-håndbogen. Dam’s career in glass began with that book, a home-made punty and melting glass in his ceramic kiln. The ceramics studio soon turned into a glass studio, and Dam quit his job as a tool and die maker to make glass full time. 

The progression from toolmaking to glassworking seems obvious upon seeing the refined craftsmanship in Dam’s cut, drilled and polished glass works. His training and experience as a toolmaker – using drill presses, belt sanders, and diamond saws – easily transferred to coldworking glass.

In 1990, Dam opened a studio with the artist Micha Karlslund, called Dam & Karlslund GLAS, also in Århus.   In 2000, they moved their studio to the Danish town of Ebeltoft.

Steffen Dam

During his first ten years working in glass, Dam studied hot- and cold-glass working techniques with the goal of establishing a studio where he could experiment and play with the material.  His work involves blowing, casting, fusing, engraving, cutting, drilling, grinding and polishing.

For the Rakow Commission, Dam has created a work in the style of his well-known series of glass panels. The grouping of 24 blocks, each containing the artist’s interpretation of parts of a flower, represents the most ambitious work by the artist yet.

“Dam’s work is very much about the exploration of process and material,” says Tina Oldknow, curator of modern glass at the Museum. “His work is a great fit for our collection which spans the full history of glassmaking. It relates to the history of botanical-inspired expressions in glass, but it’s also very contemporary.”

Dam’s sculptures have been compared to the lampworked flowers and sea creatures of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, the naturalist drawings of Ernst Haeckel, and even to the specimens collected by Ole Worm, whose 17th-century Wunderkammer is renowned.  However, unlike these well-known figures of science, Dam’s work does not imitate the natural world.  He creates his specimens in his jars and cabinets of curiosity from memory; embracing spontaneity and unexpected results.  As Dam says, “My cylinders contain nothing that exists in the ocean, my specimens are plausible but not from this world, my plants are only to be found in my compost heap, and my flowers are still unnamed.”