What's the Matter: Conserving the Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler

Matter + Spirit: The Sculpture of Stephen De Staebler presents the work of an artist who used a variety of materials ranging from metal to clay to create lasting works of art. Working with stoneware and sometimes porcelain, De Staebler built monumental sculptures that pushed the limits of the media and extended the boundaries of how these materials had been used in the past.

Standing Woman and Standing Man, 1975

Stephen De Staebler, Standing Woman and Standing Man, 1975. Pigmented stoneware and porcelain with surface oxides. Courtesy of Paul Thiebaud Gallery, San Francisco. Artwork © Estate of Stephen De Staebler.

Although De Staebler’s sculptures were often conceived as a single entity, the limitations imposed by firing and the size of the available kilns required him to cut the sculptures down into manageable chunks. This technique, although responsible for De Staebler’s aesthetic language, presents interesting challenges from a conservation perspective.

Segments

The segmentation was done using a wire cutter made of either nylon fishing line or flexible steel wire with two hard wood handles attached to either end–picture a wire cheese cutter. The wire was then placed across the back of the sculpture and pulled forward, cleanly cutting through the maleable clay. Distortion is caused when damp clay sections are removed from the overall body as well as during the drying process. These distortions can create challenges during reassembly since the segments don’t necessarily fit together perfectly again.

Uneven joins

Upon arrival at the museum, the sculptures were assembled to check for mounting issues that may have resulted from the firing distortions visible at the joins. In a seismic zone such as San Francisco it is important to ensure that each join of the sculpture is stable and does not rock.

Shim

To help stabilize the gaps inherent to the joins, custom shims were made to fit neatly between two sections of the sculpture. These shims were made to remain separate from the original work.

Shim detail

De Staebler’s “chunking” technique, or the horizontal segmenting that enabled him to fire his pieces, came to function as an important aesthetic in his work. For this reason, the supportive shims had to be made invisible to the viewer. In order to achieve this effect, a shadow line was painted along the top section of the shim, which at a distance looks like a shadow.

Shim Duo

Can you see the shim?

Another unique aspect of De Staebler’s work is the way he applied color to the surface of the damp clay. He had a very subtle and nuanced vision of color. Unlike traditional potters who use color as a distinct coating or glaze, De Staebler manipulated oxide pigments and stains directly onto the surface. His approach was so nuanced that sometimes he simply blew the color onto the surface, creating blue starbursts of color over lighter shades, as seen in this example.

Color dusting

Much of De Staebler’s sculpture was meant for outdoor display, which often resulted in mold, lichens and slimes growing on the surface. On a few sculptures, these growths created visual patterns that were in direct competition with the surface’s subtle color tonalities originally intended by the artist. In consultation with the De Staebler's estate and the gallery that represents him, it was agreed that the surface of some of the sculptures should be cleaned.

Wash trio

After cleaning the dark, speckled pattern caused by the lichen has gone, leaving the eye better able to appreciate the original luminosity of the surface as well as the depth of color in the yellow pigment.

Before:

Before

After:

After

The exhibition features works that have spent their lives indoors as well as those that have lived in natural environments outside–can you tell the difference?

Matter + Spirit will be on display at the de Young through April 22.