by Kenneth Baker
Stephen DeStaebler, a Bay Area sculptor of international renown, died at his Berkeley home Friday from complications of cancer. He was 78.
Mr. DeStaebler, like his mentor Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), helped to reposition ceramic materials and techniques from the critical abjection of "mere craft" to media of major ambition in contemporary sculpture. Mr. De Staebler later extended his formal innovations into the more durable medium of cast bronze, which suited his many public commissions.
The M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco will honor Mr. DeStaebler with a retrospective, in whose planning he was intensely involved, in January.
Mr. DeStaebler evolved a style of fragmented figuration - at once assembling and disassembling human forms - that produces finished works suggestive of ruins, both physically and metaphorically.
His academic study of religion at Princeton University gave him a philosophical grounding in the existentialist perspective on life to which he was temperamentally inclined. "We are all wounded survivors," he told an interviewer recently, "alive but devastated selves, fragmented, isolated - the condition of modern man. Art tries to restructure reality so that we can live with the suffering."
Although Mr. De Staebler maintained a career-long commitment to the human figure, like many of his Bay Area contemporaries, his work also puts strong emphasis on the processes that generate it, securing its place within the context of process-conscious sculpture more characteristic of post-1960s sculpture in New York and Europe.
Mr. De Staebler was born in St. Louis, and took an active interest in the visual arts from an early age. His parents sponsored his early training in art and travels to Mexico and Europe that deepened his commitment to creative pursuits.
Mr. De Staebler chose religious studies at Princeton University when he found the nascent studio-art program there unsatisfactory.
Like several of the most innovative American artists of his generation, Mr. De Staebler took part as a student in the radical, short-lived educational experiment known as Black Mountain College in North Carolina.
After a stint in the Army, and his marriage to Dona Merced Curley (who died in 1996), Mr. De Staebler settled in the Bay Area and earned a master's degree in fine art at UC Berkeley in 1961.
Mr. De Staebler joined the art faculty at San Francisco State University in 1967 and taught there until his retirement in 1995.In addition to teaching at SF State, Stephen also taught as San Francisco Art Institute between 1961 and 1967.
Mr. De Staebler received numerous gallery shows around the United States, including one in January-February 2010 at the Dolby Chadwick Gallery in San Francisco. His works have entered collections of major museums in Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; and Los Angeles, as well as those of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum of California, the San Jose Museum of Art and the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento.
Mr. De Staebler received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation and an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, among others.
Mr. De Staebler is survived by his second wife, Danae Lynn Mattes, their daughter, Arianne Seraphine, and his sons, Jordan Lucas and David Conrad De Staebler.
A memorial is planned for late July, details to be announced later, at the Newman Hall, Holy Spirit Parish, Berkeley. The family requests that any donations in Mr. Staebler's memory be made to Doctors Without Borders or Amnesty International.