Stephen De Staebler, noted Bay Area sculptor, passed away at home in Berkeley, California, in the early morning of May 13, 2011, with family by his side. De Staebler, 78, is survived by his wife of 14 years, Danae Lynn Mattes; their daughter Arianne Seraphine; and by his sons Jordan Lucas and David Conrad De Staebler. He was predeceased in 1996 by his wife of 39 years, Dona Merced Curley De Staebler. He was the son of the late Herbert Conrad and Juliette Hoiles De Staebler; and was predeceased by his brother Herbert (Hobey) De Staebler and sister Jan Angel. The cause of death was complications from cancer.
Stephen De Staebler is known for his fractured, fragmented figurative sculptures in fired clay colored with powdered oxides, and for cast bronze sculptures colored with patinas and pigments. "The human figure is the most loaded of all forms because we live in one," he said in a recent interview. "The figure obsesses not just artists, but human beings. It's our prison. It's what gives us life and also gives us death."
Stephen Lucas De Staebler was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1933. Encouraged by his parents from an early age to pursue his artistic interests, Stephen De Staebler studied art as a child, taking classes in painting and clay modeling. In his teens, he traveled throughout Mexico and Europe. He entered Princeton University in 1950, where he continued his art studies while earning a degree in religious studies (A.B. 1954). He spent the summer of 1951 studying at Black Mountain College with Ben Shahn and others. After graduation from Princeton, he joined the U.S. Army and spent his military service stationed in Germany (1954-56).
In 1958, De Staebler entered the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a General Secondary Teaching Credential (1959), and entered the Masters program in art (M.A., 1961). At Berkeley, De Staebler was influenced by the revolutionary clay work of Peter Voulkos. Clay provided the perfect vehicle for De Staebler’s ideas about the suffering of humanity and the transcendence of the human spirit. "We are all wounded survivors,” he said, “alive but devastated selves, fragmented, isolated—the condition of modern man. Art tries to restructure reality so that we can live with the suffering."
De Staebler taught at San Francisco State University (1961-62), and San Francisco Art Institute (1961-67). In 1967 he joined the art faculty at San Francisco State University, where he taught sculpture until his retirement in 1995.
"For more than fifty years, Stephen De Staebler devoted his sculptural practice to engaging the universal aspects of the human condition, including struggle, suffering, and the search for meaning," said Timothy Anglin Burgard, The Ednah Root Curator-in-Charge of American Art, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. "In the process, he has helped to resurrect the human figure as a vessel for humanity and spirituality in an increasingly existential age. Using clay as a metaphor both for the earth and for human flesh, his disintegrating or incomplete figures not only convey their materiality and mortality, but also reveal their transcendent inner spirit."
The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco has organized a retrospective exhibition, Matter + Spirit: Stephen De Staebler, to open in January 2012 at the De Young (January 14–April 22, 2012). A major monograph will accompany the exhibition with an essay by Timothy Anglin Burgard, biographical essay by Rick Newby, a personal reflection by Dore Ashton, and an illustrated chronology of the artist’s life (UC Press, 240 pages, January 2012).
Stephen De Staebler’s work has been featured in museum and gallery exhibitions for five decades. Other important exhibitions include a survey exhibition at The Oakland Museum (1974); a traveling survey exhibition organized by Emily Carr College of Art and Design, Vancouver, BC, and the Art Museum Association of America, San Francisco (1983); a survey exhibition organized by Saddleback College Art Gallery, Mission Viejo, California, which traveled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (1988); and Master Artist Tribute VI, a thirty-year survey at Hearst Gallery, Saint Mary’s College, Moraga, California (2003).
Museums with works by Stephen De Staebler include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; New Orleans Museum of Art; Philbrook Museum, Tulsa OK; Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; UC Berkeley Art Museum; The Oakland Museum; San Jose Museum of Art; Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento; and numerous others throughout the U.S.
His sculptures were widely commissioned, beginning with his first commission in 1963 for a monumental clay work in Salt Lake City. Subsequent commissions included Newman Center, Berkeley, 1968; U.C. Berkeley Art Museum, 1970; Bay Area Rapid Transit, Concord Station, 1972, and San Francisco Embarcadero Station, 1977; San Francisco Art Commission, Moscone Parking Garage, 1985-86; Iowa State University, Ames, 1986; Old St. Louis Post Office, MO, 1985-87; New Harmony Inn and Convention Center, New Harmony, IN, 1986-98; Geary-Market Investment Company, San Francisco, 1989; Portman Building, Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, 1990; San Jose Convention Center, 1993; Graduate Theological Union, U.C. Berkeley, 1993; City Center Garage/Amphitheatre, Oakland, 1993; Chiron Corporation, Emeryville, 1998; and more.
Stephen De Staebler was honored with awards that included Zellerbach Memorial Prize in Sculpture, 1965; National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, 1979 and 1981; Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 1983; American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Art, 1989; Nobukata-Shikanai Special Prize, 4th Rodin Grand Prize Exhibition, Utsukushi-ga-hari Open Air Museum, Japan, 1992; American Craft Council Fellow, 1994; and others.
Stephen De Staebler’s work is represented by Dolby Chadwick Gallery, San Francisco, and Zolla Lieberman Gallery, Chicago.
A memorial service will be held in late July at the Newman Hall, Holy Spirit Parish, Berkeley (details TBA). The family requests that donations in Stephen De Staebler’s memory may be made to Doctors without Borders or Amnesty International.