This interview was prepared for the spring 2016 exhibition ” A Moment in Time ” at the Agora Gallery in New York
Agora : Approximately 100 words, in the first person, summarizing your artistic inclinations and technique.
Sylvie : Because nothing pleases me more than a fragment of ephemeral life, I explore the fragility and the intensity of the plant matter in collages mainly made up of leaves, barks, flowers and pigments.
My work falls within the scope of patience and duration, each picture having its own history in a place or a journey.
The elements found on a continent can be mixed with others gathered thousands of kilometers away.
The idea is to take little pieces of Nature on a journey.
My pictures are lost or imaginary gardens, appeased spaces where the mind is allowed land for a moment.
They are an attempt to approach our humanity in the echo of a benevolent energy, a draft of a generous promise in our relationship to the world.
Agora : Where do you currently reside/work?
Sylvie : I have lived in French Guyana since 1993. But in the last few years I have been feeling a growing sense of insecurity in the river area where I live due to the surge of clandestine gold mining and the arrival of many traffickers. I have thus decided to spend some time in France.
Agora : Where did you go to school? What did you study ?
Sylvie : I studied art history in high-school in Brittany, and then I attended a training school in Nantes to become a weaver. I created many original fabrics on traditional “basse lisse”, low warp weaving looms for clothing, tapestry and decoration.
I went on studying at the school of Fine Arts in Marseille in the “textile sculpture” department and worked on several projects that lead to exhibitions in Marseille.
I taught weaving and “haute lisse”, high warp tapestry for about twelve years in one of the best training schools in France, as well as techniques related to wool spinning and vegetal dyeing, using dye plants collected in the Mercantour mountains.
Agora : If you have another occupation aside from your artistic career, what is it ?
Sylvie : I am a photographer, specialized in vegetal macrophotography. A portfolio was published in the August 2015 edition of the magazine “Nat’images”, that you can see on my website.
Another portfolio for the same magazine “Nat’images” is currently being prepared.
Aside from your artwork, what interests/hobbies do you have ? A very deep attraction for the forest and wild spaces. The taste for adventure and the unknown.
Non-organized travels, preferably improvised, most of the time alone.
The unexpected, unforeseen encounters, active contemplation as a source of inspiration and of understanding of the world.
Amazement with the vegetal kingdom, its shapes, colors, volumes and textures.
Insatiable curiosity to discover new varieties of leaves and to explore their mysteries. Empathy with our personal fights and our ambivalence in an increasingly complex and unequal world.
Agora : What personal experiences have affected your artwork and/or process ?
Sylvie : In 1996, I had the chance to realize a childhood dream that had seemed inaccessible: living in the heart of the Amazonian forest, often alone, far from all villages and modern conveniences (hot water and electricity), in a carbet (a traditional South American hut, open on all sides) which could only be reached on a dugout canoe on the Mana river, in the West part of French Guyana.
The ten years I spent in the depth of the Amazonian forest were fundamental, both for my artistic journey and my personal evolution.
I was idealistic, it was a project I devoted a lot thought to, even though its consequences were, at times, difficult to live with. There were moments of gentleness, of great happiness; a privileged relationship with Nature and a strong determination to not let myself be affected by negative influences. Well, as far as possible!
I benefited from Amerindian ancestral knowledge, learned the use of plants in accordance with their own way of life. I took part in enthralling botanical and scientific missions; I restored an overgrown garden only to realize that after years of efforts, the little paradise where I had put down roots had been invaded by clandestine gold miners and turned into a garbage dump. I was always in awe of the bursting life of the tropical fauna and flora, the inventiveness of Wild Nature in bypassing obstacles, I seized the beauty and the force exuding from what has been broken, damaged, altered by chaos, time and bad weather – metaphors of our life paths, of our sufferings and of our capacity for resilience.
Living in an isolated and occasionally hostile environment – because of natural dangers and the presence of man (gold miners, traffickers, illegal migrants etc.) – required constant adaptation and offered a gamut of learning experiences, the possibility for reappraisal and awareness.
I was confronted with extreme situations and imminent fear: aggressions, hostage takings involving firearms. I acted and reacted with the instinct of a tracked animal fleeing to escape death. I was once bitten by one of the most poisonous snakes in South America, the golden lancehead (bothrops atrox), and saved by the mystico-religious rituals of a Bushinengue shaman. I landed on the shores of irrationality, perceived the cosmic dimension that lives within each one of us and induces all things. I wept before destruction, pollution and the looting of untouched forests by the hands of worn out men whose own survival was hanging by a thread. I soaked up solitude and the minute perceptions that occur over time, attended the birth of a sixth sense, of a slow metamorphosis, of the subtle alchemy that dilutes and recycles violence to return it as humility and poetry.
It is the power of these emotions that I try to express in my artwork.
Agora : What cultural and/or historical influences have affected your artwork and/or process ?
Sylvie : Women and child abuse. Destitution and poverty. Human exploitation in all areas. Ecological disasters related to industrialization.
Deforestation. The impact of finance at the highest levels of state. The oppression of minorities. Injustice and bribery.
Since my arrival France, I have been able to access national and international news.
After so many years without any means of telecommunication, without access to the media, it is a new, destabilizing and often traumatic situation for me. Not a day goes by without my experiencing helplessness, disgust or anger when faced the news.
I would not hesitate for a moment if the time came to stand up, to set off on a march with other millions of people and even move mountains if this could change the state of the world.
But some dreams are nothing but illusions that we carry from decade to decade without a shadow of a hope.
Ever since childhood wherever I travelled, I have seen men satisfy their thirst for power by means of threats, betrayal, lies and manipulation.
I have built my personality in opposition to what in my opinion embodies the worst aspect of human nature; the capacity to destroy, plunder or sack for personal gains, to kill, humiliate or torture in order to justify an urge or an idea.
I understood from an early age that no freedom can be gained on the ashes of the suffering we inflict on others.
I have wanted to travel the world as if it were an initiatory journey. What can be done with our disappointments, with our failures?
How can we reconcile our contradictions, our weaknesses and our imperfections with the idealized vision of ourselves in such an unfair world?
What is the usefulness of a painting, however expressive it may be, compared to poverty, war and deprivation?
The answer sometimes seems so tenuous, so fragile to me. Would it not be better if we tried and save even just one person? We the wealthy, this tiny minority of privileged people in spite of our misery and afflictions.
I have long asked myself about the resources I could implement to respond to the violence I have witnessed.
Depicting it in whatever form, materializing it in an elaborate pictorial expression was in my view not sufficient.
I like to convey the idea of progression, from devastating chaos and pure emotion toward the promise of a remedial and placatory message. An act of resistance, of uprising.
Agora : Do you now, or have you ever worked with / belonged to any noteworthy organizations? Charities, artistic groups, special interests, etc ?
Sylvie : I have worked over about fifteen years in French Guyana with several associations deeply committed to environmental protection:
With Jacques Fretey, world authority on marine turtles and task officer at the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), on the Kawana and Kwata campaigns for survey and protection of the leatherback turtles, integrated to the programs of the French Ministry of Environment.
In conjunction with WWF Traffic International, the ONF (French Forests National Agency), and the ONC (French Hunting National Agency) on the setting up of a database relating to the traffic of Psittaciforms in French Guyana, protected by the Washington Convention (Annex 1 for the Anodorhynchus glaucus and Ara macao, and Annex 2 for the Ara ararauna, Ara chloropterus,and Ara manilata etc).
With the LPO (French Bird Protection Society), that considers the respect of wildlife as essential to the development of human societies. Its programs contribute to a sustainable management of natural resources, and act in order to preserve the related fauna and flora.
In 1998 I created the non-profit association MAALAN (Movement for Accompanying to Art and Nature) whose purpose is the layout and development of a botanical garden on the Mana river in French Guyana as well as the setting up of an artist’s residence and environmental education programs for school students.
Many national and regional partners contributed to the promotion of this project:
The Fondation de France (Foundation of France)
The Museum d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris (Paris Natural History Museum)
The Versailles National School for Landscapes
The DIREN (Regional Direction of Environment)
The DRAC (Regional Direction of Culture)
The IRD (Institute of Research for Development)
The Ministry of National Education
The ONF (Forests National Agency)
The Ministry of Overseas
The Area Council
The Departmental Council
For reasons related to illegal gold mining in French Guyana and the insecurity that worsened since 2004, this project is currently on standby.
Since 2009, I am a member of MAG (Mines Advisory Group) and AVAAZ.org. Has your art ever won any awards ? Have you ever donated or sold to a notable person/group/company ? Please list.
Some of my pictures were sold to lawyers as well as to administrations such as the DRAC (Regional Direction of Culture) and the city hall of Saint Laurent du Maroni in French Guyana.
I won the first prize of the contest organized for the commemoration of slavery in 2001 in Cayenne with the picture “Tout haricot est potentiellement magique” (Every bean is potentially magical) that you can see on my website.
Thanks to this prize I was selected to represent French Guyana at the “Overseas Painters and Sculptors Show” held in Paris in 2001.
The DRAC also gave me a prize of 50.000 Franch Francs.
I sold original handmade fabrics woven on “basse lisse” low warp weaving looms to well-known personalities who came to to Quiberon in Brittany in winter for thalassotherapy sessions.
These people, who came incognito to rest by the ocean really appreciated my weaving workshops and especially the countless varieties of wool with which I would create unique designs. I recall that among the buyers were actors and representatives from the “Christian Dior ” high fashion house.
Agora : What obstacles have you encountered in life ?
Sylvie : Obstacles? Oh yes, I am lucky, there have been many!
At a certain time in my life, I even prompted them unconsciously. It was presumably the only way to make room in my personality for what had been, so far, inaccessible.
Some made me miserable or made me lose confidence in myself, others strengthened my choices and enabled me to cultivate qualities that I am glad to possess today.
As a child, I deliberately exposed myself to danger; the very notion of safety did not exist in my mind. I was a shy little girl who was aware of violence in events but could not identify it, yet. But the imaginary world where I used to escape fed my curiosity and desire to create a life for myself worthy of my dreams.
Very soon, I fled and seized the opportunity to travel abroad.
I was attracted to Adventure. I was naive and optimistic; I was convinced that away from my family environment, the world was nothing but a gift whose beauty I was on my way discover. The encounter with reality was obviously full of pitfalls.
What a waste! The world’s beauty was indeed there if you bothered get near it.
But the path to reach it and absorb its resonance was eventful. Just like a treasure, well-hidden within ourselves, overgrown with brambles and traps, our accomplished acts are dissolved in our memory and works of art testify to their existence, drawing up their furtive imprints.
Agora : What was the most gratifying experience for you as an artist ?
Sylvie : You may think the story I have chosen doesn’t answer your question. It is quite likely.
I could mention how proud I felt when at the end of the “Overseas Painters and Sculptors Show” in 2001 I received an invitation to present my artwork at the Universal Exhibition of 2005 in Aichi, Japan. Back in French Guyana, the momentum and the motivation of this new project marked a change in my pictorial research. My pictures became more minimalist, more sober in their design, more technical in the way I made them, using almost exclusively tropical plant material and natural pigments.
Unfortunately, after a car accident, I was shipped to Martinique and then to mainland France for a long period of rehabilitation. And the pictures I had made for the Japan exhibition were all destroyed before even being photographed – an ordinary malicious act typical of the human presence in Amazonia.
Mountains, primary forests, oceans, pure air are tremendously fulfilling environments. I do not dissociate my relationship to Nature from my artistic work: action and thought, pertain to the same energy.
The most enriching, the happiest and the most radiant experience of my artistic life was crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a small sailboat with my two sons, aged 6 and 7. We took off after my 2 years studying fine arts in Marseille.
Each gesture I made was an act of creation, both intense and ephemeral, indispensable to our harmony and our survival. The sea was the canvas on which I was drawing our story. The broad movements of each manoeuvre on deck, the meals prepared in the rhythm of the waves, the chanting whispered in the mystery of phosphorescent nights, the joyful cries when we would sail amid the dolphins. The colors I had were our feelings, the brightness of the stars, the wash painting of the sea spray, the fluidity of the wind in the sails, the transparency of the air and the ink of the storms. Never a picture was more alive!
Agora : What about your art or your artistic process stands out from other artists ?
Sylvie : An eulogy to slowness! No collage could stand the test of time if I did not respect the particularity of each leaf and the necessary steps to their preparation.
Some pictures required one year of work, most of them are made in three to four months, excluding the phases of collecting and drying up. The leaves are hardened one by one before being pressed. With a few exceptions, the progression rate is one leaf per day and per picture.
In Amazonia, the height of the trees does not allow you to reach the foliage, which does not disturb me insofar as the intact leaves do not possess the qualities I am looking for.
Therefore, I hardly ever collect the directly from the branches but pick them up in the litter layer of the forest, on the banks of a creek, on the beaches and generally while strolling around.
Their form, their texture, their delicacy fascinate me. Even more so, I am overwhelmed by what they become after being trampled on, torn up, tormented by bad weather, eaten by insects or worms and thrown in a slow decomposition.
It is impossible to position them on the support if they don’t want to, all of them have their character and their sensitivity that I enjoy discovering.
Most of them allow to be tamed, some are unwilling. I will never forget these very tiny spiky leaves that were trying to injure my hands. As I was caressing them with the thumb, I could feel them relax and soften until they completely lost their aggressiveness.
The picture with them was such a success it got stolen.
Conversely, for years I have been trying to work with the European plane tree (Platanus), when you first see them, its leaves appear to be happy and sympathetic.
But all my attempts have been failures and these rebels haven’t yet revealed to me their secrets.
Some leaves are so thin or so old that it is not conceivable to manipulate them you’re your bare hands. My pictures, then, become aquatic and it is in water that I position them. I use non-toxic and non-polluting glues, which do not dry out the leaves that would end up cracking and breaking.
There can be several hundred leaves on the same support, all of them part of my story, even though by dint of superimpositions a few end up almost disappearing. It is voluntary, they participate in the notion of depth, of movement and always unveil a little bit of themselves in a search for balance.
I play with the visible and the invisible, with what exists and nobody sees. Like when you accumulate experience, construct and deconstruct your life.
I plant sparkles of light, areas of shade and small pieces that sting.
These pileups, like geological layers, symbolize the patience and time that is given to us to carry out our inner journey, to overcome our doubts and our ordeals.
Agora : If you have any personal stories or special events that have influenced your life and/or work, or any other details that you feel are important to note.
Sylvie : As I explained in the preceding paragraph, I live and work according to the rhythm of the Tropics wherever I happen to be, away from the stress that drives most of the people I have observed ever since my arrival in Europe.
Whatever the circumstance, I favor the present moment to the detriment of profusion, precipitation and production.
I am often criticised for this attitude but I have learned to deal with it even if it puts me at odds with the outside world. I have not written any scholarly work, do not know how to elaborate fine reviews backed up by philosophical or historical references.
I like discretion, simple and privileged relationships, friendship, moments of sharing and solitude.
This attitude is inseparable from my relationship to the world, born from a deep reflection over the years.
The creation of my pictures is a meticulous wandering that invites me to break up with the obvious and the effortless.
They are self-portraits, the only language I master to soothe my wounds and awaken my senses.
Each sentence of this text is sincere and tries to give meaning to my work. But how can words convey emotions?
And why would I want to freeze them into a subjective interpretation whereas we are constantly in movement?
I feel that by the time I have written this text, only what I have forgotten to put in will truly matter:
My trip to Asia over 18 months and the magnificent benevolence of its inhabitants.
The splendour of the silk materials woven in the Laos countryside,
The hummingbirds flying over my hut at daybreak when the mist comes slowly up from the river,
The thousands of fireflies dancing at nightfall while the small tamarin monkeys fly in the trees.
And so many other things
But above all, the existence of my sons, their presence as well as that of their children in my life . . .