by Tim Gilmore, 11/16/2023
In one of the oldest houses in historic San Marco, between San Marco Square and Marco Lake, architect and sculptor David Engdahl makes his home and his art. I knew his house and studio shared an address, but I pictured them as separate spaces. Yet his lamelliforms inhabit, with him, his home. I see now it couldn’t be otherwise.
“I always said an artist ought to live with his work,” Dave tells me, just inside the stucco archway on Sorrento Road. His sculptures live here in the house with him like deific essences of the leaves and shells and castoff forms of wood he collects. Or perhaps the personifications of the elements of Engdahl’s own personal language.
Though every sculpture Dave’s ever made has been for sale, selling them was never the purpose. Now 83 years old, he’s created, since 1971, more than 300 lamelliforms. If they sell, they sell. And they do. If not, they live here at home. The first sculpture Dave ever created remains for sale, here in a sunroom facing Downtown.
“I enjoy living with my work,” he says. “When you first get started, you think of them, like, ‘These are my kids. I could never sell them.’” Meanwhile, his phone notifications keep binging, and he says he and his daughters, 49 and 51 years old, one of whom lives in Jacksonville and the other in Michigan, text each other every day.
Selling one’s art, Dave believes, should never be the reason for creating it, though his architectural career paid the bills. Without denigrating the value of commerce, he sees art as occupying a different value system. Creativity leans closer to spirituality than to capitalism.
Dave retired in 2007 as chief architect with Jacksonville’s Haskell Company. It was architecture that brought him from Pennsylvania to Jacksonville in 1971, when he came downcoast to work for William Morgan, whose architecture resembled sculpture if created by the earth itself. In 2008, Dave’s wife Hope died of the rare autoimmune disease Scleroderma. They’d been married for 42 years.
Since then, he’s engaged his art to remake his life, to sustain him by making him anew. Since the purpose of creating each sculpture isn’t to sell it, departing with any artwork he sells isn’t hard for him to do. Though lamelliforms stand perched all about the first floor of this century-old Mediterranean-Revival style home like sculptures of saints in niches and alcoves in Renaissance churches, David Engdahl lives not in the product but in the process of creation.
“Once one is done,” he says, “it’s on to the next one, and no two are ever alike. That’s the challenge in doing it.” That challenge is entirely intrinsic. It doesn’t come from outside. “If I did my work using other people’s criteria, I’d be a failure. I only use for criteria what I can think of and what I can do.”
The oldest sculpture here in this house is not a lamelliform. He calls it Tree in Progress. It’s yellow pine timber on a brushed steel support. Dave laughs at his early experimental clumsiness, says, “You can look and see all the tool marks on it. I did it all by hand.”
He’d picked, with dual desires, this piece of worked timber from the reaches of waves on the Jersey Shore. He wanted both to preserve it, as an artifact that clearly had its own mysterious history, and to make of it his own artwork, to imprint his creativity on the history he so deeply respected.
“It came to me out of the water,” he says, “and it’s been out of the water for 60 years now. I decided I wanted to make a sculpture out of it, but I didn’t want to destroy its integrity.” He looks back on his handiwork of the time, at the beginning of the long arc of its evolution. “I made these cuts,” he says. “You can see them. No lathe or anything like that, and it was hard to keep the wood from splitting back.”
Meanwhile, the word “lamella” seemed to arrive like bibliomancy, the use of books as divination, the folkloric art of opening a book at random to find a specific passage to explain the present or tell the future. His work with surveying at Penn State and in the U.S. Army had interested him in unfolding three-dimensional forms from those of length and width. Then he found, in an old unabridged dictionary, this word:
la·mel·la /ləˈmelə/ noun
“a thin layer, membrane, or plate of tissue, especially in bone, or a membranous fold in a chloroplast.”
Dave made his first lamelliform for William Morgan and created others for architects Robert Broward and Taylor Hardwick. Recently I felt I was bumping into Dave’s lamelliforms everywhere I went. The biggest, “Ascent” and “Descent,” which originally hovered over the escalator at Jacksonville International Airport, now hang suspended in Florida State College of Jacksonville’s South Campus Student Center. Then I encountered lamelliforms in Wacca Pilatka, the residence Broward designed for himself, and at Creative Exchange, an art gallery at the foot of the Bank of America Tower downtown.
Meanwhile Dave points to paintings that complement his sculptures in the studio he’s made of his home, including those of his mother, Nathalie Engdahl, whose “sense of color” still astounds him. She once told him, “I see a painting everywhere I look.” Her sense of impressionistic abstraction balances the abstract expressionism of a Stuart Dalzell painting across the room.
When Engdahl worked for the Haskell Company, he placed artworks in the corporate headquarters and elsewhere for the Haskell Collection. Preston Haskell had played the role of countless entities including construction magnate, interim head of the Jacksonville Electrical Authority, and art collector.
“One day, Preston came in and said, ‘I just bought this painting in England. What should I do with it?’ I was in charge of placing the company’s artworks, so I said, ‘How about you put it in my office?’ Well, I was there for 28 years, as chief architect, then senior vice president,” and since you “can’t just cut that connection when you retire,” when “they were trying to figure out what to give me as a retirement gift,” Dave “thought about it overnight,” and the Dalzell painting came home with him.
The greatest accomplishment of Engdahl’s architectural career was probably overseeing the design and completion of the suburban corporate headquarters of AT&T’s subsidiary American TransTech in 1983, a system of three three-story W-shaped buildings, connected by walkways and a nearly 500-foot long atrium with a round three-story balcony over a pond.
Here at home, amidst lyrical contours of abstract sculptures, lamellic and earth-angelic, Dave stands between his mother’s paintings and Dalzell’s. Gentle, soft-spoken and cerebral, he comes across as intellect and intuition embodied, a wisp of a form himself, contrasted by the wings of now whitened hair that connect his more-than-half-a-century old beard to the atmosphere around him.
Beside a 2015 self-portrait, he speaks by contrast of the brawn of his friend and fellow sculptor David Ponsler, who creates art from deep earth metals manipulated by a multi-ton industrial power hammer.
Dave’s father, James Engdahl, was a tool and die maker. Dave nods his head in thought, turns and says, “I’ll show you.” He holds up something small and intricate and old, almost steampunk.
“This is a little part for a sewing machine,” Dave says. “The style changed every year, so it was a good business to be in. Mostly what my dad did for a living was people in production would bring him two pieces of a machine bit and say, ‘This broke and I need to be in production tomorrow. Can you fix it or can you make another one?’ And he had his own workshop.”
In fact, his father inherited Dave’s grandfather Walter’s workshop, while his mother learning painting from her father, J.H. Roth, who painted church murals in Pennsylvania. Furthermore, Dave says, “My dad’s grandfather was an architect in the 1890s who designed the church in York, Pennsylvania where my mother’s grandfather was the preacher — a generation before my parents were even born!”
As building gracefully contoured forms by laminating plywood began with Dave’s surveying experience, his artistic philosophy is, at base, quite practical. “I like using a system of elements to build up the whole,” he says. Like Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture, Dave says, “The material and the process and the vision are all intertwined and you can’t separate them.”
Right away, in 1971, Dave started numbering his lamelliforms. He’s glad he did, he says, because “It’s easy to keep track of them, but also because I didn’t want to put a name on them to give people a clue as to what they ought to think about them. Whatever they think about it is what they think, from their perspective, not mine.”
Engdahl’s lamelliforms are, indeed, forms in a Transcendentalist or neoplatonic sense, demonstrations of some hidden inner truth, but also ultimate purpose, as that American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his 1836 essay “Nature,” that in the natural world is “every form significant of its hidden life and final cause,” since “Nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design.”
Dave shows me the workshop behind his house, its signage an upturned U-branch holding a triangle of boscage saying, “Engdahl Open Sculpture Studio,” and I feel especially honored to see the newest lamelliform in process. “I gather shells, leaves, bark and all kinds of natural objects,” he says. “Sometimes I know where a form comes from. Other times I have no idea.” In this case, the form came from a New Yorker advertisement “for a lady’s purse.”
Again, Emerson: “Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique. A leaf, a sun-beam, a landscape, the ocean, make an analogous impression on the mind. What is common to them all, that perfectness and harmony, is beauty. The standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms – the totality of nature; which the Italians expressed by defining beauty ‘il piu nell’ uno.’ Nothing is quite beautiful alone: nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace.”
When Dave shows me a cross-section of the plywood slices he’s gelled to make a contour, I feel like I’m bending over a microscope to analyze some slice of life. While I’ve understood these forms of lamellae intellectually, I now feel I’m “under-standing” them, as though from within, or underneath, like the playgoers in Shakespeare’s time.
He may have inherited his artistic sensibility as well as that practical engineering know-how from both sides of his family, yet the work he creates lives personally, he’s very aware, inside the very specific brackets of Dave’s birth and death dates, and thus distills existence through this one individual life into the loveliest private language. He explains:
“I relate everything to the billions of years before I was born and the billions of years after I’m gone. Over my time here, I’ve created this world in my head and it’s in there and it’s my world. And so I see these works as my language from that world. And it’s things I could not communicate. I couldn’t stand here and tell you what it means.”
Indeed, a writer knows that language, the source of human difference from all other animals, always, even in its victory, fails. It cannot be exact. Language can’t say what it presumes to say, but is always an approximation. Its roots in what lies beneath it remain mysterious. Before you know how to say it, you have something to say, and how you assemble the words, you cannot know. Words “come to you,” or they don’t. Before the words come, that unspeakable something they approximate exists already. “How do I put this?” you say, looking for the words; what “this” are you trying to put?
Why not, therefore, speak one’s own language for beauty and for truth, since the poet John Keats told us nothing else exists on earth or can be known. Dave says:
“I don’t talk about what my work means because it expresses something other than what I say in words. I’ve made more than 300 of these in the last 50 years. I don’t know what it means. I can’t translate it into anything but what it is.”