Pauline Stiriss was born in New York City on August 21, 1907, the child of immigrants from Vitebsk, Russia. She was a distant cousin of Marc Chagall, many of whose paintings are set in the Vitebsk ghetto. Her mother, Tatiana Murinson, was a progressive and a feminist who hosted weekly gatherings of socialists and anarchists, sometimes including Emma Goldman. A seamstress by trade, Murinson was a skilled creator who usually worked from small, home-based shops. Stiriss accompanied her and played all day with fabric scraps, making dolls and other projects, which inspired her lifelong love of creating through sewing. (She continued to make most of her own clothes by hand, until well into her 80s.) Her father, Jacob Stiriss, was an inventor of varying success who left the family when Stiriss was 12.
Stiriss's artistic talent was recognized when she was quite young. She was educated at the Pratt Institute of Commercial Art in Brooklyn, the Art Students' League in New York City, and the Corcoran Gallery School of Art in Washington DC. She married Edgar Messing, an electrical engineer, in 1928. She worked briefly in advertising in New York City, then moved to Massachusetts to follow her husband's job changes during the Depression.
During the 1930s and 1940s, Stiriss belonged to progressive groups and was involved in social action. She was quick to fight racism and sexism and, like her mother before her, was not always comfortable to be around. In later life, she was particularly outraged by the limited credibility accorded to older women. Stiriss continued to paint and draw until she was over 80. Her husband was proud of her work and contributed technical expertise and labor to many projects in silkscreening, metal work and sandcasting.
Stiriss died in 2001 in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, where she had lived for the previous 65 years.