Stephen De Staebler, an internationally recognized sculptor whose mesmerizing bronze and clay works stretched the boundaries of contemporary figurative art, died May 13 at his home in Berkeley. He was 78.
Best known for subtly shimmering fragmented clay and metal bodies, often with wings which seem to simultaneously emerge and dissolve from large slab-like forms, De Staebler remained dedicated to keeping the human figure visible in 20th century art.
The body is "the most loaded of all forms because we live in one. ... It's our prison," he said in a recent interview. "It's what gives us life and also gives us death."
"He deserves a lot of credit for sustaining the figurative tradition in post-World War II decades when the relevance and even possibility of embracing the human figure seemed problematic at best," said Timothy Anglin Burgard, curator-in-charge of American Art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
De Staebler, who kept working until two months before his death from complications of cancer, was absorbed in the organization of a retrospective, titled "Matter + Spirit: Stephen De Staebler," which will open in January at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
That exhibit follows a decades of solo and group shows in galleries and institutions across the United States. His art was the subject of surveys at the Richmond Art Center, Palo Alto Art Center, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and the Hearst Art Gallery at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, among others.
His haunting oeuvre, which is as much about the strength of the human spirit as the fragility of the body, includes a small number of paintings, drawings and monotype prints. His sculptures are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Bay Area's major museums.
Stephen Lucas De Staebler was born in 1933 in St. Louis, Mo., to Herbert Conrad and Juliette Hoiles De Staebler. He parents supported his childhood interest in art and as a teen he traveled throughout Mexico and Europe.
He attended Black Mountain College, working with noted painter Ben Shahn, and studied religion at Princeton University. After serving briefly in the Army, he attended UC Berkeley where he received his teaching credential in 1959 and worked in the dynamic UC Berkeley "pot shop" of master ceramist Peter Voulkos before obtaining a master's degree in art in 1961. He taught at the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University from which he retired in 1995.
De Staebler is survived by his wife, Danae Lynn Mattes, of Berkeley; daughter Arianne Seraphine; and sons Jordan Lucas and David Conrad De Staebler. He was predeceased by his first wife, Dona Merced Curley De Staebler, a brother and a sister.
A memorial service will be held in late July at Newman Hall, Holy Spirit Parish, Berkeley, the site of one of De Staebler's most important commissions completed in 1967-68.
De Staebler created the chapel's altar, tabernacle, lectern, celebrant's chair and crucifix from his beloved medium humble, primal clay.