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Sonoma artist profile: Cynthia Hipkiss

There are times when Cynthia Hipkiss can’t help herself. Her wild sense of humor takes over and her talents instinctively go into gear, with the ceramicist turning slabs of clay into quirky and comical works of art.

Known for her humorous figures of plump women and portly men, the award-winning Sonoma Valley artist highlights celebrities and everyday people alike, eliciting laughter at art shows and sales wherever she goes.

Sometimes, her humor is a bit dark, but never mean-spirited or entirely X-rated. Although she usually shies away from politics, she couldn’t resist a few jabs at President Donald Trump when he was in office.

One piece, titled “On Loan from the Guggenheim,” shows Trump seated on a golden toilet, pants down, a hefty In-N-Out cheeseburger in hand and McDonald’s French fries tucked into his coat pocket. It’s a spoof of his reported request to borrow a Vincent van Gogh painting from the Guggenheim Museum for the Trumps’ living quarters in the White House; the museum rejected the inquiry but offered an 18-karat gold toilet titled “America.”

Hipkiss, 72, couldn’t overlook the opportunity to turn Trump into a piece of work. The large-scale sculpture features gold luster, at a cost of $450 for the authentic-looking gilded toilet.

She and her husband of 53 years, retired middle-school teacher Karl Hipkiss, often team up for inspiration. “He helps me a lot with the ideas,” she said. “We bounce things back and forth.”

But, notes her husband, “Sometimes she asks me what I think, but it doesn’t matter.” He’s approving anyway, and is her No. 1 fan. The couple have four children and three grandchildren.

Former presidents aside, Cynthia Hipkiss has clay creations of newsmakers from all walks of life. There’s Michael Jackson holding a blanket over the head of his son, Blanket; Julia Child with a plucked, headless turkey in her hands; and everyone from famed televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker to Trump’s senior counselor Kellyanne Conway and notorious sex offender Harvey Weinstein.

Local notables are included, too. There’s horticulturist Luther Burbank, Sonoma’s founder Gen. Mariano Vallejo and a “World’s Ugliest Dog” contestant.

In some 50 years working with clay, Hipkiss figures she’s made thousands of the eclectic pieces, “and I love doing it,” she said. Chefs, with aprons circling their big bellies, are top sellers. The ever-popular pieces often include trays of food hoisted overhead. “I’ve done tons of chefs,” she said. “I’ve made chefs that look like people’s husbands or who look like people’s wives and dogs.”

She hasn’t yet sculpted Santa Rosa chef and Food Network star Guy Fieri but hopes to do so before too long. She’s been invited to participate in an exhibit with a chef theme at the Archival Gallery in Sacramento in August — and just may include a Fieri look-alike.

Her pieces are humorous, hand-painted in bright colors and celebrating everyday life. Some consider her works “whimsical,” Hipkiss said, alluding to their playful nature. One scene called “Hen House” features four women in various stages of nudity engaged in a game of strip poker, along with “a whole slew of bras and panties.” Others showcase women with big smiles holding up plates of baked goods; friends gathered for tea; a woman in a floral dress proudly holding two cats, while another walks her spotted dog.

All her works are full-figured — some could be considered morbidly obese — simply because clay lends itself to the style. Some are so tall they’re crafted in two pieces so they can fit in a kiln and then are stacked together. While many are tabletop sized, other pieces stand about 4 feet high.

Hipkiss, a native New Yorker, makes utilitarian pieces as well, especially porcelain bowls hand-thrown by one of her sons and decorated with her smaller sculptures, including chickens, cats and fanciful women lounging on their sides. They’re priced starting at $28; her larger sculptures range from $400 to $1,000. Her “Cut the Cheese” platter, painted with a woman passing gas, is another big seller.

Hipkiss won’t even consider the word “retire.” She enjoys her work to the point that after five days of vacation, she’s ready to return home to her artwork. “When we go on vacation, she takes a bag of clay with her,” Karl Hipkiss said. “She doesn’t do it to become rich. She does it because she loves it.”

The city of Sonoma recognized her achievements by naming her the honorary Treasure Artist of 2002. The annual award celebrates works in numerous artistic mediums; past honorees include writer M.F.K. Fisher, musician Norton Buffalo and painter Stanley Mouse.

She also was honored when Mother Jones magazine chose to photograph her artwork for its first color cover.

Hipkiss often stays up into the wee hours, immersed in her work. She does the painting, glazing and firing herself in her home studio, a 900-square-foot space that doubles as her showroom.

It’s a world away from her long-ago first show, where she displayed her pieces from atop towels and produce crates at the Berkeley Arts Festival. She borrowed the $8 entry fee from her father and used her two-day proceeds to buy her first kiln.

Hipkiss had a gallery for more than a decade on the Sonoma Plaza, where three of her children also displayed their artwork. She closed the gallery in 2016 after a steep rent hike. Today she displays her work by appointment and at galleries, shops and art shows. Visitors to Corrick’s Stationery, Gallery and Gifts on Fourth Street in Santa Rosa will find her works on display there.

She’s also been a vendor at farmers markets in the North Bay but hasn’t resumed that since the coronavirus pandemic.

And, she said, “People just happen to find me.”

She’s “adored clay” since she was introduced to the medium while studying at the California College of Arts and Crafts (now called California College of the Arts) in Oakland. “It was like a dream,” she said. “It was everything I needed.” She earned a bachelor of arts degree in art from Sonoma State University, where she spent hours developing her skills.

For as long as she can remember, she’s created people (and animals) of robust size. “It’s the way the clay slumps. I’ve always done that,” she said. “It’s the way the clay flops.” A few people have taken offense, even though Hipkiss, who isn’t overweight, means no disrespect to full-figured people.

Inspiration is everywhere. “It’s just from looking at people you pass on the street, people getting their hair done at the beauty salon,” she said. And don’t overlook old National Enquirer tabloids: “There are lots of ideas there.”

Television provides prompts as well. One sculpture is of Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo in the iconic “I Love Lucy” episode where she tries grape stomping during a visit to Italy. Hipkiss captured the scene in clay. The televised Miss America pageant featuring contestants from across the country ended up in clay, too, with Hipkiss creating women from all 50 states, each with something specific to their home state. Her Miss Universe holds a bouquet of red roses and wears a gown with stars and planets, Uranus on her posterior.

Hipkiss, it seems, rarely misses an opportunity for a laugh, a smile, or even a raised eyebrow.

“I like people who hate it, too. It’s just cool,” she said. “For every person who doesn’t like something, there’s going to be someone who really loves it.”

For more information, visit cindyhipkiss.com.

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