Stephen De Staebler (1933–2011) was an internationally celebrated sculptor and a pivotal figure in the Bay Area Figurative and California clay movements. Over the course of a career that spanned five decades, the artist created powerful, deeply symbolic sculptures in clay and bronze that merged ancient and modern vocabularies while capturing the physical and spiritual struggles inherent to the human condition. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, De Staebler studied religion at Princeton University and spent time at Black Mountain College before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1950s. There, he studied with the renowned ceramicist Peter Voulkos at UC Berkeley, earning a master’s degree in fine art.
His personal experiences and education profoundly shaped his interest in the human form, which he presented as fragmented and deconstructed, whittled down and built back up through creative exploration and perseverance. A series of clay masks, begun in the mid-1960s, suggest mummification and mortality as well as a raw ruggedness. By exploring the slippages between body and earth, these elegiac forms underscore their inextricable and cyclical relationship. Later in his career, De Staebler started casting figurative sculptures in bronze, a material strong enough to allow him to augment scale while preserving the geological aesthetic central to his art. These monumental sculptures include a mix of winged and totemic figure columns (elements of which were rescued from the clay “boneyard” behind his studio) that are at once otherworldly and startlingly familiar in their ascending and descending qualities.