Nostalgia Interrupted: The Works of Dauma Stirbyte

Cans of Worms (2022). Cone 6 handbuilt porcelain, glaze, mixed media. Collection of the Benz Gallery.

A playful bundle of worms leap from the confines of colourful cans, their mouths open as though to greet you with a friendly “Hello!”. Vibrant ants, often unwanted guests at the family picnic, scurry across plates of ceramic delights that almost look too good to eat. A mischievous pair of felines delight in their vandalism of a sofa chair that could have just as well belonged in your grandparents’ home. These pieces are part of a bizarre and somehow familiar world constructed by emerging artist Dauma Stirbyte.

Stirbyte has been making waves in the contemporary ceramic scene. Originally from Lithuania, Stirbyte currently lives and works in London, Ontario. In 2022, Stirbyte was a finalist for the highly regarded Winifred Shantz Award for Ceramics, and followed that with a solo exhibition at The Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery titled, The Familiar Ways. In the artist’s own words, ‘escapism’ is at the heart of her work, expressing her feelings, memories and perceptions through clay creations of objects ranging from the mundane and familiar, to the extraordinary and uncanny1.

Beetles (2020). Cone 6 handbuilt porcelain, glaze, 24k gold luster. Private collection. Photo by Daumante Stirbyte.

One of Stirbyte’s ongoing projects that remains intriguing and endearing is her Beetle series, which began in 2017 after moving into a new apartment that was frequented by uninvited insect guests. Each beetle by Stirbyte is entirely unique in form and design. While their core qualities remain consistent – amorphous, blobby critters with weaving antennae and a lack of eyes – each one has its own whimsical and unique presence. There is an uncanny familiarity to them – your brain recognizes them as the artist intended: insect-like creatures that crawl along your walls, minding their own business. However, their alien-like markings, and vibrant patterns push them into the realm of make-belief. Often displayed by the artist in swarming clusters, your instinct is to reach out and cup the creatures into your palm with childlike curiosity. They harken back to the amazement and wonder of childhood exploration of nature – encountering strange, new creatures that broaden your horizons of knowledge and encourage imagination. Many of these beetles also reference other areas of Stirbyte’s interests, including botany and tales of myth. You can see blooming flora emerging from the backs of several beetles, making them akin to a friendly critter you might encounter while wandering through the open world of a video game.

Tiny Tim (2022). Cone 6 handbuilt porcelain, glaze, mixed media. Collection of the artist.

Featured in The Familiar Ways, Stirbyte’s Worms series is a delightful, visual treat, despite the artist’s intentional use of colours and textures to create an unsettling atmosphere. While simplistic in form, each sculpted worm is expressive—their bold, black eyes and often-agape mouths give them an animated sense of life and movement. One piece in particular, Tiny Tim (2022), is a delightful, visual homage to the ‘earworm’ figure of speech. Protruding from a larger-than-life ear canal, Tiny Tim appears to be pushing out gooey, green globs of sickly wax from within. Despite this visually-upsetting display of disgusting subject matter, the endearing caricature of the tiny worm gives the air of a familiar friend as opposed to a pest. He sports a decorative, polka dot party hat on his head, and above him is a ceramic speech bubble which reads: “Get in loser, we’re having a party!”. Surrounding him are squiggles and lines of party streamers and confetti. This earworm is ready to have a great time! Yet, Stirbyte’s use of colour theory adds a sense of anxiety to the otherwise playful work. The pale, green hue of the worm creates a sickly atmosphere. Faded colours akin to old, stop-motion animated films, whose visual quality and vibrancy have been lost to time, suggest an uncanny discomfort alongside a strange and joyful friend. What we remember is not always vibrant, but there is still some joy to be found.

Sunday Blues (2022), also featured in The Familiar Ways, continues this trend of vibrancy equating to emotional states of memory. Periwinkle blue ants, larger-than-life in scale, approach a blue-hued plate of breakfast delights. Yet, these delights – while recognizable in their true-to-life accuracy of form and design – are completely devoid of the colours we expect to see. Bright orange slices and yellow yolks are washed out in shades of blue. A once-tempting strawberry, strongly associated with sweet red and pink hues, almost appears to be frozen in time as it sits in its navy-blue form. Certainly, the title of the work suggests an homage to melancholy – how these delights we once looked forward to lose their charm when the mundane monotony of life starts to creep in. Work on the horizon; a repetitive week of the same tasks again and again. Yet, these ant caricatures approach this hazy, grey meal with festive, polka-dotted party hats. Once again, Stirbyte reminds us of the whimsy of life through her use of scenarios from her own imagination. Figurative representations of childlike joy slice through an otherwise dismal scene to help shift the somber tone to one of delight and curiosity.

Daumante Stirbyte, Sunday Blues (2022). Cone 6 cast porcelain, handbuilt porcelain, stained porcelain, glaze, underglaze, mother of pearl luster, stainless steel wire, polymer clay, spray paint, wood, acrylic paint, paint marker, collection of the artist.

There is nothing quite like a work of art with hidden clues that invite the viewer to participate with their own research and interpretations. The sculptural work Chaos Theory (2022) contains a variety of charming secrets that are up to the viewer to discover. The sculpture features two cats, one of whom lounges carelessly on a defaced sofa chair next to his trusty mouse toy. The other feline, wearing an effortlessly cool beanie as he brandishes his spray paint can with pride, poses in admiration of his artistic additions to an otherwise boring seat. Perhaps these graffiti tags and splotches of paint are an unwanted modification by whoever might own the chair in the narrative Stirbyte weaves, but the visual additions are overwhelmingly amusing as an outsider looking in. A fish skeleton, an artist moniker cleverly called “Toebeanz”, and phrases such as: ‘I barfed on your shoe xoxo” are all painted on this chair in permanence for the world to see. Unapologetic and indifferent to authority – just as most cats are. However, perhaps the most wonderful hidden phrase amongst the sofa’s graffiti is one which reads: “FOR CATNIP CALL: 248-434-5508.” When called, this number entreats the caller to a recording of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up (1987) – a song which has been transformed by internet culture into an ongoing prank known as “Rick Rolling”.

Sunday Blues (2022). Cone 6 cast porcelain, handbuilt porcelain, glaze, mother of pearl luster, mixed media. Collection of the artist.

The works of Dauma Stirbyte are unified in their dichotomy – a sense of childlike nostalgia and joy, contrasted by the uneasy atmosphere of harsh reality. There is something in each of Stirbyte’s works that can appeal to any viewer who encounters them. Her use of colour theory and intentionally-appealing designs reel you in to her familiar world of make-belief. Yet, you can’t help but yearn to return to the simpler days – when these imaginative delights were a common occurrence in the mind of a creative child. There are sparks of joy in these memories – even the ones that make us cringe, or lament at what we have lost. Above all else, Stirbyte reminds us to find those little moments of joy and wonder, even when the monotony of life starts to creep in.

Cheyenne Mapplebeck

Cheyenne Mapplebeck is both an emerging artist and gallery coordinator of The Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery (Waterloo). In 2023, Cheyenne was the inaugural recipient of the John Fleming Award in Decorative Arts Writing, presented by The Canadian Society of Decorative Arts.

Dauma Stirbyte was born and raised in Lithuania. She moved to Ireland in 2007, graduating from the National College of Art and Design in 2016 with a BDes (Hons). She was an international artist in residence at the London Clay Art Centre (Canada) from 2017 to 2020, where she also taught sculpture classes. In 2018 Dauma was named Best in Show at Fusion’s Emerging Artist exhibition and in 2022 she was selected as a finalist for the Winifred Shantz Award for Ceramics. She’s represented by The Benz Gallery (London, ON), and the Wall Space Gallery (Ottawa, ON). Dauma currently works from her home studio in London, ON. For more about Dauma and her work, visit your website: Portfolio | DaumaCeramics

  1. Stirbyte, Dauma. “About: Dauma Ceramics.” DaumaCeramics. Accessed January 22, 2024. About | DaumaCeramics | Ontario

Images courtesy of the Canadian Clay & Glass Gallery, Waterloo.

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