Kirsten Stingle: The Veneer of Sweetness Over the Complicated Core

Interlaced, 19 in. (48 cm) in length, handbuilt black stoneware, slips, underglazes, stains, mixed media, 2018.

What’s the most interesting story you can tell about a girl? Is it the one about the pretty child who becomes a beautiful woman, marries the prince, and has brilliant children who love and respect their perfect mother? Or, is it the stranger, darker version where that little girl grows up to be a witch, a whore, or a wild thing? Is beauty something closer to the grotesque than the usual, sweet cliché? Humans are story-telling creatures, and for Kirsten Stingle, the story is what connects us despite our differences. To her, the most interesting story is the one told by a woman about that other woman, a story that embraces and merges the sacred and profane.

Engaging and Reinterpreting

Embedded within Stingle’s sculptures is a deeply personal vocabulary that speaks directly to issues surrounding women’s history, sexuality, and mythology. Engaging with and reinterpreting religious and mythological conceptions of female identity, her stories are open-ended; her viewers are free to encounter her images and come to their own conclusions. Her characters are on an epic journey, part of a deep narrative sweep born from the thousands of existing tales and legends about women. Stingle takes these age-old formulas involving female punishment or reward and remakes them so the message has to do with empowerment, bravery, and self-invention. Her conception of female identity and sexuality is fluid. While her characters may have been punished for their differences, they have defined themselves, moved beyond convention, and shaped their own destinies.

1 The Air We Breathe, 29 in. (74 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelaneous stoneware, slips, underglazes, stains, mixed media, 2016.

Stingle’s influences are many and diverse—before becoming an artist, her background was in theater and social welfare. She was working as a welfare analyst for a nonprofit in the city of New York when 9/11 occurred. Aside from the horror of the experience itself, the life-changing aspect for Stingle happened when Mayor Giuliani ordered the removal of all photographs, shrines, and signs that survivors had put up, as well as all of the images that families had posted to find their loved ones. Stingle says, “It was in that moment, when all those pictures were made to go away, that I became aware of the power of story-telling.” She began taking ceramics classes in New Jersey where she studied with and was mentored by Monica Litvany. For Stingle, who was born in Washington, DC, another profound change occurred when she met her husband and moved to Georgia. She has been much influenced by the South, with its history, social conventions, and what she refers to as “the veneer of sweetness over the complicated core.”

The grotesque representations of the female body seen in the fantasy narratives of fashion photography are reflected in the way Stingle dresses her characters. The performing arts—with their vocabularies of costumes, makeup, poses, and sets—have acted as a reservoir of imagery for her. Renaissance sculpture has also informed her work. Discovering Bernini electrified her, specifically the drama and narrative power of his sculptures. Yearly trips to Rome provide her with a resource for constantly changing forms and ideas. These various influences can be seen in figures that never idealize the human form. She pays attention instead to skin and the blood underneath, expressing rawness and vulnerability, emphasizing the uncanny. Through her use of found materials, Stingle considers the way objects—pieces of 19th-century flags, vintage lace, feathers, beads, and old tools—signal to memories, history, and emotions. Her sculptures are densely packed with references; they act like vehicles that pick you up somewhere and drop you off elsewhere, at some fantasy address dangerously parallel to reality.

2 Kirsten Stingle in her studio.

3 Whisper Play, 33 in. (84 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelaneous stoneware, slips, underglazes, stains, mixed media, 2016.

Spontaneous Processes

Stingle doesn’t pre-plan her work, spontaneity rules; she seeks what she calls free fall. Her work is handbuilt, combining coil and slab techniques. She occasionally uses commercial molds for objects, such as tea cups, that appear in her pieces. Working on several pieces at a time, adding or subtracting layers, she models faces, hands, and feet with a straight pin and a scalpel. In order to imply movement and gesture, she cuts and reattaches sections.

She does not bisque fire and typically uses porcelaneous stoneware or Blackstone Cassius Black clay, which she compares to porcelain because of the way it carves and accepts layered glazes. She uses underglazes, slips, and stains, and fires pieces multiple times, up to cone 2. Once the figures are fired, she uses a number of non-ceramic processes including welding, carpentry, sewing, felting, encaustic, fabric staining, and fabric manipulation.

4 Starling, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, handbuilt porcelaneous stoneware, slips, underglazes, stains, mixed media, 2016.

5 Taking Flight, 36 in. (91 cm) in width, handbuilt porcelaneous stoneware, slips, underglazes, stains, mixed media, 2017.

The Conceptual Umbrella

Stingle works serially using what she refers to as a conceptual umbrella, a body of work made within a thematic framework. These series bear evocative titles: Phantasmagoria, which she describes as an “escape from the constraints of reality; lightly tethered to fantastical historic imagery;” Warriors, Pilgrims and Courtesans ; Sacred and Profane, an “exploration not tied to religious dogma, but rather the secular idea of what it means to be human;” and Bestiole (Italian for Little Beasts). As she describes it, “Bestiole concerns the intersection of the tenderness and naive brutality so clearly demonstrated by children, but lurking within us all.”

She works at a number of different scales, ranging from life-sized to small freestanding or wall-hung pieces. Her pieces are often adorned with or augmented by a wide range of decades-old found objects.

The Air We Breathe, from the Sacred and Profane series, presents two near life-sized, handbuilt porcelain and stoneware half figures of a mother and child joined at the mouth by a kind of umbilical-cord breathing apparatus. The child caresses the mother’s breast and the mother, her head encircled by a halo of beads and wax flowers, raises her hands in a questioning gesture. It’s an image of mother/child interdependence—the most fundamental and primal of all relationships, one which can be suffocating or reviving, but cannot be escaped.

Starling, from the Bestiole series, is a half figure of a nude, young boy with hands raised in a gesture of inquiry, surrender, or confusion. He wears a crown of black ostrich feathers and black wings sprout from his back. His body is covered with scratches and striations; a sharp-beaked bird peers out from an oval hole in his chest exactly where his heart would be. This child seems poised within a tarnished innocence he is on the brink of losing.

6 Perseverance, 28 in. (71 cm) in height, handbuilt black stoneware, slips, underglazes, stains, mixed media, 2017.

7 Winter Petals, 24 in. (61 cm) in height, handbuilt black stoneware, underglazes, slips, stains, mixed media, 2017.

Perseverance, part of Stingle’s Warriors, Pilgrims and Courtesans series, is a slightly larger than life black stoneware bust of an elaborately coiffed woman. This is an updated representation of Venus, the conventional representative of love, beauty, and femininity. Stingle’s Venus is a tough girl, a warrior and protectress, a champion of interconnectedness. The triangular painting under her eyes emphasizes her hypnotic gaze; scissors symbolizing personal battles pierce her coiffure. Stingle describes her in this way, “Her existence is not a passive one but rather requires advocacy against the constant restraints and limitations that attempt to shackle greater communion with others. While each struggle leaves a mark, it becomes Venus’ armor, a symbol of the ageless perseverance for equality and harmony.”

More to Be Seen

In 2019, Stingle will co-teach a workshop with Christine Kosiba in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, focused on combining human and animal forms to create personal mythologies. For more information, visit www.sanmigueldeallendeceramicworkshops.com/2019-workshops. To learn more about Stingle’s work, and see more images, visit her website, www.kirstenstingle.com.

the author Kay Whitney, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.

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