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World-renowned Berkeley sculptor exhibits new work at the Richmond Art Center

on October 13, 2009

At first glance, it is hard to connect the large clay sculptures currently on display at the Richmond Art Center with their creator. Berkeley artist Stephen De Staebler, 76, is an unassuming silver-haired man with weathered hands.  At a recent reception for the Richmond Art Center exhibit, The Sculptor’s Way, he smiled warmly while visitors introduced themselves and commented on his work.  It is difficult to imagine the artist – who uses a wheelchair –piecing large clay blocks into imposing figures over six-feet tall.  Yet during the past two years, with the help of an assistant, De Staebler produced all of the 27 sculptures in the exhibit.

Nancy Servis, executive director of the Richmond Art Center, said De Staebler built these sculptures from smaller pieces he already had in his studio.  Servis also teaches the history of California ceramics at California College of the Arts and has written about De Staebler for many years.  In an essay accompanying the exhibit, Servis wrote, “These works are artistic apogees, serving as historical document and artistic comment.”

De Staebler’s pieces look like artifacts dug up from lost civilizations. The work on view at the Richmond Art Center resembles fragments of the human form intermingled with earthen blocks. Servis wrote that De Staebler’s figures “appear to be both emerging from and receding into the seemingly archaic clay.”

In 1954 De Staebler was working on his Bachelor of Arts degree in religion at Princeton University.  In his thesis on Saint Francis of Assisi he wrote, “The mystic’s soul is held in tension between completeness and incompleteness, or between perfection and imperfection.” Servis wrote that De Staebler once said, “We are who we are, not so much because of what we have or are endowed with but because of what we are not endowed with.”

To the untrained eye, De Staebler’s work looks more like stone than clay.  Servis said De Staebler is a sophisticated sculptor who thoroughly understands clay’s properties. She wrote that a major turning point in his work was when he accepted gravity’s influence on clay.

De Staebler hasn’t always sculpted towering figures of disparate parts.  At the beginning of his career 50 years ago, he built horizontal large-scale clay projects. However, for the past 25 years his work has been vertical.

“He really found his voice as an artist,” said Servis, “when he rotated the axis of his work.”

At the reception, Servis announced the creation of the Richmond Art Center’s Stephen De Staebler Ceramic Artist in Residency program.

“He’s such an important figure in Northern California ceramics,” said Servis.  “He treated the figure unlike any other artist ever has.”

According to Servis, artists primarily depict the human form with three dimensions. “De Staebler’s work, is also about internalization,” she wrote, referring to the intangible spiritual element many see in his work.

Amir Rauf, 63, drove all the way from Sacramento to see De Staebler’s new work.

“I’m amazed—here is this little old man and he’s still working,” Rauf said.  “It shows the inner strength that he has.”

The Sculptor’s Way will be on display at the Richmond Art Center until Oct. 24.

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