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Mother and Daughter Explore Family Life Through Art

Kristen and Martha Cliffel [Mary Fecteau / ideastream]
The daughter and mother duo explore issues of religion, domesticity and motherhood

In a studio on Cleveland’s west side, a mother and a daughter are creating two very different kinds of art.  In one room, ceramic smoke pours from the neck of a headless female form.  Next door, a large wooden fish is covered with crucifixes, religious icons and tiny baby dolls.  Their artwork is sometimes funny, sometimes unsettling, as Kristen and Martha Cliffel explore issues of religion, domesticity and motherhood. 

Their artistic roots stretch back to a creatively chaotic home in 1970s Lakewood.  It took a while for Kristen to realize how unusual her mom was compared to other parents.

“I mean, how do you know your mother was different than any other mother, until you’re eight or 10 and you see there’s nothing on the walls in their house, and there’s no castles in the basement where live mice run around and there are tunnels,” she said. 

According to Martha Cliffel, mice were a source of entertainment all over the house.

“On the third floor, there was a string that went down to the street. And the boys had a Tampax box, and they put mice in it and the mouse would go all the way up to the third floor,” she said.  “It was like a ski thing.”

There are many equally wild Cliffel family memories, some not as pleasant - like the fire that burnt the family home to the ground in 1983.  Through it all, Martha and her husband, Tom, kept their seven kids looking forward.

“She has the beautiful gift of: if you’re taking yourself too seriously, it’s just not okay,” Martha said.  “Stuff happens and you’ve just got to…”

“ …roll with it,” they said together.

Kristen focuses on a different sort of fire, these days - the fire in a kiln that hardens a piece of clay into a work of art.  Much of her art centers on the joys and terrors of motherhood.  She compares the process of molding and firing ceramics to baking, and a lot of her work has a food theme.

“I love to cook, and I love to bake, it’s such a transformative process,” Kristen said.  “The dough becomes something completely otherworldly and delicious and amazing and can really move people.  I love that, and I love the way that ceramics translates into something seductive and beautiful and delicious.” 

Although Martha was a ringmaster of creativity in the Cliffel household, she didn’t start calling herself an artist until years later, watching her daughter work.

“I liked to help her to do things and see what she was doing, and then she encouraged me,” the mother said.

“She didn’t want to draw because she felt inept, and it wasn’t something that she could master,” Kristen said.  “And so, collage became her format.” 

Martha uses objects collected from flea markets, thrift shops and friends to create eye-catching sculptures, many of them off-kilter altars, reflecting her strict Catholic upbringing.  Images of saints and stern nuns are mixed with rosary beads and confirmation veils. She’ll go rooting through her shelves of found objects and put a new creation together in less than a day.  Kristen admitted she’s a bit envious.

“I went to art school, and I’m all warped in over-thinking things, and the whole history of art, and putting this next to that is going to conjure this and is that triangle right” she said.  “She has never had any formal training.  She comes to it with this gift of openness.”

Martha smiled at her daughter, and said she admires the thoughtful way Kristen works through some personal doubts and fears in clay, often taking months to create a finished piece.

“Kristen is a baker, she’s able to crystalize something and then turn it into a piece of work,” said Martha, turning to her daughter.  “That piece that you just had in Akron has a big, fat bird sitting on the roof of a house, and it’s called ‘Heavier Than I Thought,' which is about raising children.”

"Heavier Than I Thought" [photo / Kristen Cliffel]

If the baking of food is comparable to the baking of art, then having children is also a baking process.  Kristen gestured to her stomach.

“Putting something in here and keeping it safe and warm and nurturing it until it’s ready to come out has everything to do with a family and a relationship and an artwork for both of us,” she said.

It’s a hard-fought lesson that a sometimes high-strung daughter learned from her laid-back mother.

Martha Cliffel's work is currently on exhibit at BAYarts, through November 10, and Worthington Yards, through November 24.

Kristen Cliffel's work will next be on exhibit at Riffe Gallery in Columbus, starting January 24.

Martha and Kristen Cliffel's work can also be seen on November 3rd and December 5th at Progressive Corporation.  RSVP here.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.