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Wednesday, February 20 , 2019, 4:09 am | Fair 41º


Gals & Garages: Sculptor Francine Kirsch Discovers Her Garage Works for Art

Inspiration for the artist's ceramics comes to life in an inner sanctum with space for her family, too

“We call it a studio” artist Francine Kirsch said of her home workspace. “Everyone else says it’s a garage but we say, ‘No, it’s a studio.’

“It’s a family joke, really, because the ‘studio’ is full of books and sports equipment and lots of other things besides my artwork,” Kirsch explained as she opened her kitchen door, stepped into the garage, negotiated a couple of tight turns around book shelves and stacked boxes, and finally entered an inner space filled with sculpture — her studio.

“This is Victoria,” said Kirsch, introducing a large, voluptuous nude sculpture that’s a grand example of her signature style. Female forms in various states of sculptural completeness and incompleteness crowd the shelves of her studio. There are pieces in clay, bronze and wax. Outside, under a covered space by the garage back door, figures emerge from stone.

The sculpture that Francine Kirsch calls 'Victoria' features a ceramic process she perfected that produces its lustrous metallic look.
The sculpture that Francine Kirsch calls “Victoria” features a ceramic process she perfected that produces its lustrous metallic look. (Helena Day Breese photo)

“I always wanted to work in stone,” said Kirsch, “but I didn’t think power tools were for me. Then, 10 years ago I tried it at a sculpting symposium in Cambria and I was hooked.”

Kirsch described a studio routine that is anything but routine.

“A perfect day,” she said, “is to get up and get dressed and go straight to the studio. I have lots of projects going on and I move from one place to another. At the end of the day I don’t remember what I did, but progress is made. Sculpture is slow. It is not like painting where you see progress, but it is satisfying.”

And how did a French woman become a contented sculptress in Santa Barbara?

“I had badly broken a leg skiing and the long recovery at home made me re-evaluate my life” Kirsch explained. “My best friend had been on a vacation to Santa Barbara and was going back there with the intention of staying, and I decided to join her.

“It was my 25th birthday, and I was very sure about this decision. I came here and fell in love with the sun. You know the feeling? And I didn’t want to go back home.”

Then fate obligingly played its hand in the form of a charming young American who had once lived in France.

“I went to a party with my girlfriend and when I got there, the host introduced me to a young man who was looking for an opportunity to practice his French,” she said.

The resulting happy conversation is still going ...

“Thirty years of marriage, two sons and eventually a dream home here in Santa Barbara — I was right about that decision!” Kirsch said with a big smile.

“The irony is that the friend who had intended to stay, fell in love just before we left France and went back, got married and is still living there,” she continued. “I’m the one who stayed here.”

Kirsch not only found sunshine and happiness in Santa Barbara, she also found her passion in life.

“By chance I took a ceramics class and found my love for art and particularly sculpture,” she said. “After that class I decided to pursue an art degree at Santa Barbara City College.”

And, as luck would have it, when Kirsch and her young family moved to Japan for five years, it just so happened that they moved to a region where everyone was working in ceramics.

“There were big factories with automated machines making plates and bowls and cups, and small Mom-and-Pop businesses turning out bird dishes and master potters making national treasures,” she said. “Everywhere you turned you saw a studio.”

While her husband taught English, Kirsch went to work, too, learning about ceramics.

“I felt right at home and I learned so much!” she exclaimed. “I did my first baby feet and hands impression in Japan, and I am still doing them for new parents today.”

Kirsch eventually perfected a ceramic process of her own that produces the lustrous metallic looking pieces like Victoria.

“I let the clay dry to leather-hard and then I burnish it with a stone,” she explained. “After that it is fired in an electric kiln on very low heat. I use a smoke kiln, a simple brick structure that is closed off. Organic material like pine needles or manure is packed around the clay piece and then set alight. The smoke goes into the clay and turns it black. I then add metallic paints to the surface to give the piece color and luster.”

Some years later, Kirsch and her family returned to Santa Barbara and looked for a house with space outside — “Space for the kids, space for a brick kiln and space for my stone sculpture,” she said.

Looking around her space within the garage, Kirsch smiled.

“This is a good studio,” she said. “I used to dream of a house and garden but never thought this would happen in Santa Barbara. I knew what I wanted and my dream has come true.”

Click here to view Kirsch’s work, or to contact her.

— Noozhawk columnist Helena Day Breese is a freelance writer and photographer, and author of Guys and Garages. Click here to contact her.

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