Conceptual Contraptions

By Sylvie Rosenthal.

By Sylvie Rosenthal.

Asheville artist Sylvie Rosenthal had two favorite places when she was five years old. One was in the basement of her house where, during summer visits, her grandfather taught her how to drive nails into wood. The other was the Eli Whitney Museum in Hamden, Connecticut where, along with others of her age, she built wooden toys — boats, castles, little cars powered by mouse traps — and where she was encouraged to explore and create while learning about history’s great inventors, from Da Vinci to New Haven’s own A.C Gilbert, the inventor of the Erector Set. The museum was, and still is, “the most amazing place in the world,” Sylvie says, “and has a huge hand in making who I am today.”

Sylvie’s creations reflect both the spirit of invention and the inspiration of a meticulous craftsperson supported by a long tradition of artistic exploration. Both her parents are artists (she, a multi-media artist and photographer; and he, a psychotherapist and artist) who supported their growing family during the late 1970’s with a greeting card company selling hand-inked potato print cards.

“There were always crayons and paints around, and blocks to build with,” Sylvie says of her childhood. “We played a lot with rubber stamps as kids. We would draw on magic rub erasers, and then my parents would cut them out to make our own stamps.” By the time she got to the Eli Whitney Museum, Sylvie was eagerly making spark machines, sterno cannons, rockets, miniature steamboats, robots. “It was there I learned to use my first tools, and where I really started on the path as a maker,” Sylvie says.

Sylvie’s work ranges from small, wall-mounted objects to full-sized, three-dimensional art, made from wood and other natural materials, including the small animal skulls that nestle inside works like A Hermit, an elongated wooden oval with tiny ladders leading up to the skull, resplendently isolated in its upper niche. It’s one of a series of Hermit pieces Sylvie created, all hinting at the tenuous nature of social relations and an almost existential isolation.

“The skulls are from my friend’s ranch in west Texas. Her mom collects them and sends some to me when I need them,” Sylvia says. “I collect lots of things, mostly found on walks or on the roadside. I don’t usually put them directly into my work, but my work is loosely inspired by them.”

A case in point is Sylvie’s Double Snake Mirror, a thin rectangular mirror that grows from the bodies of two entwined snakes, or a teapot that seems as if it’s been swallowed by a serpent. Looking elsewhere in the animal kingdom for inspiration, the airborne Um Passaro para o Rei Pequeno (“A Bird For A Little King”) mimics a bird’s wings using overlapping rawhide and steel pieces that can be set in graceful motion by a gentle pull on a weighted wire. “I enjoy the idea and pursuit of flight,” Sylvia says. “I employ birds as metaphors for the hunt, and the struggle of life.”

One of Sylvie’s most evocative works is The Angel Of Death, Disguised As A Park Bench, produced during her undergraduate training at the Rochester Institute for Technology, where she earned a BFA in woodworking and furniture design. Giacometti-like in its etiolated lines and austere stance, the form was inspired by one of Sylvie’s mentors, the Texas poet Albert Huffstickler, who was a regular visitor to a grocery store in Austin, where Sylvie was then living and working. Huffstickler was well along in years by the time of their meeting and the close friendship that followed. “He would read me his poems, I would read him things I had written. Many times he would sit at his typewriter and type and I would sit and paint. We could sit for hours without talking.”

Sylvie made The Angel of Death… in 2002, the year of Huffstickler’s passing, when she had already moved north to enroll at RIT. “He always sat on park benches in my neighborhood in Austin, and he used the Angel of Death in a few of his poems. So I imagined that he was sitting on the bench one day and the Angel of Death came up behind him and said ‘Old man, you come with me today,’ that it was peaceful and he was ready.” The chair’s framework is crafted from sheet steel, welding being another skill Sylvie acquired along her creative path. The wooden slats recall Huffstickler’s favorite park benches, while the tall back suggests some mysterious being towering over anyone seated before it.

Equally introspective is Sylvie’s more recent The Chase, a mirrored creation framed by two encircling snakes and crowned by a scale. Hidden on the inner side of the mirror’s frame are 18 cherry wood niches, each containing a steel weight engraved with the name of an emotion. “Instead of weighing your physical weight, you can attempt to balance your emotions,” Sylvie says of the piece. “It plays with the idea of balance and control — ‘I should weigh this much, I should or shouldn’t feel like this’.”

But it’s the balance between the contemplative and the playful in Sylvie’s art that engages both the mind and the heart. “I don’t want my work to take itself too seriously,” Sylvie says. “The craft is serious, but I respond to humor — a joke that is still funny, over and over again.”

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