Beyond Baking

Using ceramic cupcakes, artist Kristen Cliffel gives a whole new meaning to bake sales.
For years, Cleveland artist Kristen Cliffel had participated in bake sales at her children’s school. But as the married mother of two produced pan after pan of beautifully decorated treats, she was aware that she and other mothers were fulfilling an obligation men weren’t expected to fulfill.

“They don’t really ask the married father or the single dad, ‘Please, could you whip up some cupcakes or Rice Krispies treats?’ ” she observes. “The bake sales got a little overwhelming.”

One night in 2005, the artist decided to take a sabbatical from producing her line of dress-shaped cups and teapots depicting women at various stages and “do a bake sale for myself.”

The result was “Bake Sale for the Sweet Life,” a series of whimsical ceramic sculptures that examine everything from fairy tales to domestic stereotypes, myths and less-than-appetizing realities. Although her work encompasses castles, homes and toys, the 41-year-old Cleveland Institute of Art graduate’s most captivating pieces are arguably her ceramic baked goods. Her subject of choice is the cupcake, which she considers a symbol of supreme pampering.

“I came from a large family, so we never had cupcakes — it was always a cake,” she explains. “To get your own personal decadence, not just a piece of the whole, was even more indulgent. It seems almost selfish in its nature.”

Baked goods first found their way into Cliffel’s work in 1999, when she produced a teapot in the shape of a bride with a cake for a head. “When you are the bride, that’s where your head is,” she explains. She then began making ceramic pies, each topped with a 1940s pinup-style image of a woman and a provocative line such as “No matter where I serve my guests, they always like my kitchen best.” The pieces humorously illustrated the vast gap between the wholesome-wife-and-mother and sex-kitten roles women have long been expected to play simultaneously.

The commentary can be even more biting. One of her favorites pieces isSay I Do, a giant engagement ring set with a cupcake. “There’s just a whole slew of questions that go along with, ‘Why is there a fluffy cupcake where the rock is supposed to be? — Is that what I’m after? Is it the fluff?’ ” she notes. Another cupcake sculpture calledHome Sweet Home is topped by a picture-perfect cottage with a giant plume of beautifully colored smoke rising from the chimney — the result of toxic chemicals burning. The structure is surrounded by a picket fence with no gate.

“There’s a whole slew of possibilities inside that house that we really can’t see,” she explains.

Cliffel’s feminist views are rooted in a childhood shared with six siblings in Little Italy. She credits her mother, still happily married after 40-plus years, with providing a more realistic view of domestic life than that depicted in a typical Disney classic. As a result, Cliffel was ambivalent about tying the knot a mere two years after her 1990 college graduation and becoming pregnant with her first child seven years later. Motherhood, she knew, would bring “a screeching halt” to “traveling around, teaching workshops and showing my work all over the country” — at least temporarily.

Some people may never see beyond the beauty and humor Cliffel uses to explore these deep-dish issues when they view her works at the William Busta Gallery or by appointment at her Lakewood studio. That’s OK with her — she shares a craving for frivolity as well, both in art and life.

“I don’t want just cake,” she says. “I want lots and lots of icing.”
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