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Ceramicist's confections wrapped in a warning

Two rambunctious boys tore across the museum floor to stand in slack-jawed wonder at a towering tabletop sculpture.

The boys gaped at an incredible stack of sweets and confections – cakes and pastries and sweet rolls rendered in shiny ceramic.

As a docent approached quietly from one direction and a guard from another, the father warned the youngsters – yet again – not to touch.

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It is a tough command to obey, as the hyper-realistic rendering makes even grownups want to scoop two fingers into the icing.

The dad brought the boys behind the table, where they could see the cakes were but hollow shells. They responded with frowns and sad eyes. Their reaction is precisely what the artist expects from viewers.

"At first, they're overtaken by the beauty of all the surfaces of the cakes and sweets, and the lavishness of the decorations," said Dirk Staschke of Vancouver. "Then, as they get closer and realize it is a façade, there's surprise and perhaps even disappointment. In some cases, it is mixed with fear, or uneasiness. I've had some people tell me the sculpture makes them afraid."

Afraid? Of cakes rendered in ceramic?

"Because of the precarious nature of the way it balances."

Indeed, from the front, the teetering sculpture appears to be one slight bump from toppling, a precarious bounty threatening collapse, or rot. From the rear, one can see the sections have been bolted together, while the entire stack is securely mounted to the table.

The spectacular piece, titled Confectional Façade, is a highlight of the artist's solo museum exhibition – his first – at the Bellevue Arts Museum in a Seattle suburb. The ceramic artist earned the spot after winning the BAM Biennial: Clay Throwdown! in 2010.

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The pieces are inspired by Baroque-era Dutch and Flemish still-life paintings known as vanitas, from the Latin for vanity, in which objects symbolic of death are rendered in sensuous detail.

"They're about admonishing, or warning, the viewer about the pursuit of earthly desires in light of the fact you will pass away," he said. "The futility of acquiring things. A lot of the vanitas paintings were centred around religious ideas and motifs.

"My work warns against over-consumption, not for religious reasons, like the original vanitas, but more towards the idea that [our]consumption is not sustainable."

His show, titled Falling Feels a Lot Like Flying, earned a favourable note from The Stranger, an alternative newspaper, which hailed a "delicious bounty with the looming reality of decay – but Dirk Staschke's grand sculptures are imbued with a bit more cheek. Take a nibble."

The artist elegantly renders birds (symbolizing freedom) and cornucopia (plenty) in other pieces, although it is the realistic rendition of sweets – so innocent, yet a tempting lure to committing gluttony – that captures a visitor.

He needed 18 months and the help of two assistants to create the ceramics. The sections in Confectional Façade were fired in a kiln four times, a painstaking process demanding a long stretch of 12-hour days.

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Mr. Staschke, 41, moved to Vancouver five years ago. He was born in Alabama, a red-haired kid with a German name who found expression in drawing. He is the son of a NASA aerospace engineer and the grandson of master tool-and-die makers from Germany, which perhaps explains his success in constructing a towering sculpture. Only after earning a scholarship to the University of Montevallo in his home state did he abandon the two-dimensional restrictions of painting for ceramics, a medium that "could be, or do, anything."

His Vancouver studio is in a semi-industrial Main Street neighbourhood, where he found assistance in completing the pieces for the museum exhibition. Seeking a particular colour and finish for a ceramic rendering of ice cream, he called on nearby Jetway Auto Body to provide a "real glossy surface."

If his cakes and goodies seem familiar, perhaps you are a patron of the Swiss Bakery on East Second Avenue, which he scouted, surreptitiously snapping photographs of the treats in the display case.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Dirk Staschke's Falling Feels a Lot Like Flying will be shown at the Bellevue Arts Museum near Seattle until May 27. On May 4, the artist will discuss his work in a free lecture. A spot can be reserved online at bellevuearts.org.

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