2016 MID-CAREER PRIZE IN VISUAL ARTS
Through her rich imagination and artistic alchemy, Kristen Cliffel demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture real, daily emotions and experiences and convert them into her distinctively lyrical world of art with multiple layers beneath the surface.
Her images always deliver a strong impact on the viewer, too, opines former classmate at the Cleveland Institute of Art and glass artist, Linda Zmina. “She’ll use paradoxical imagery like a whale breaching a house to create the unexpected that draws people in,” she says. “Then, upon examining the piece a little closer, they realize she’s talking about every day things for all of us: love, tribulations, dreams, courage, fear.”
Kristen enjoyed wide exposure to the arts as a child. She did everything from taking Saturday life drawing classes at CIA to exploring the museums of New York with her mother, Martha, for several years, while her father, Tom, completed his residency in eye surgery at New York Eye and Ear before moving his practice to Lakewood.
Next, Kristen enrolled in the premed track at Skidmore College to follow her father’s footsteps into medicine. She was a talented skier, until a racing accident blew out her knee and her surgical ambitions. Kristen hadn’t enjoyed the premed track, anyway, because in her heart she was an artist. Fully aware of her predisposition and her gifts, her parents suggested that she lift herself from her doldrums by enrolling at CIA, where she truly flourished.
“When I was given the chance to actually pursue art as a career, I just completely dove in,” says Kristen, who earned her BFA in Ceramics from the CIA in 1990. “From that moment I’ve never looked back or stopped working.”
She gained several mentors in her undergraduate work from CIA and from the Anderson Ranch Arts Center in Colorado, where she spent two summers working as the studio assistant in Ceramics. Kristen was awarded a residency at the Banff Arts Center in Canada and later did a residency at the Kohler Company in Wisconsin. “I learned that you have to be willing to say ‘yes’ to great opportunities and work hard to develop your art,” she says.
Fittingly, she rented a space in the Screw Factory in Lakewood, where her two children had cribs in the studio and rode their bikes throughout the labyrinthine hallways in the winter. Kristen works hard on her pieces, sometimes taking 6 or 8 months to finish one in the studio that she now shares with her mother, who is a self-taught collage artist. Appropriate, as much of her work is inspired by her deep love of family.
“I am always doing my work, because it comes from the only place that I know, my heart,” she says. “That has been the central point of authenticity and success for me because I have always been direct and honest as a person and visually as an artist.”
As a student, Kristen realized clay was the perfect medium for her, because she is very haptic and needs to express her passion with her hands. When instructing her students at the many schools where she teaches, she tells them to treat clay like it’s their friend. “Clay will remember what you did to it, and it’s going to respond with the love and direction you give it and show you things that you never knew about yourself,” she explains.
Of course, she also believes in the “authenticity of animals,” which appear frequently in her work. Why? Because animals don’t lie. She’s currently working on a series of rabbits, inspired by the rescue rabbits her son brought home last summer. “They’re just a great metaphor for fertility and being a mother and uncontrolled propagation,” she says.
Kristen’s art appears in many public and private collections, including University Hospitals, Metro General Hospital, Lutheran Hospital, Hahn, Loeser and Parks LLP and the Dealer Tire Collection. She has been a visiting artist at many institutions, including Savannah College of Art and Design, Malone University, CIA and Kent State University. She received a Creative Workforce Fellowship, two Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowships and has been a Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant Nominee.
Last year, her work was featured in a prestigious national show, “State of the Art: Discovering American Art Now” at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Her art is now part of that collection, and you’ll find Kristen’s work in museums across the country, including the Akron and Canton art museums, San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts in Texas, and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin.