“As man draws nearer to the stars, why should he not also draw nearer to his neighbour?” David Packman gets to know the guy next door, French Pop Artist Sylvian Preziosa.
After moving from the city to the pristine wilderness of Australia’s Northern New South Wales coastline, I had visions of vast empty spaces beyond my own walls. That sounded ideal. I’d been more than a little unlucky over the years in terms of the neighbours that had been bestowed upon me and part of the draw to the area was a need to just get away. To be honest, I was beginning to subscribe to Satre’s view of hell being other people.
As it turned out, despite now living in a rather isolated area, a very small band of folk were, in fact, right on my doorstep, loosely thrown together by a collective love of nature, among other things.
While like-minded in many ways, we are also very different.
As such, I knew very little of Sylvian Preziosa when he arrived next door. I had just been told he was a French painter. In the early days though, I didn’t notice much painting going on. Sylvian spent most of his days sitting on the beach in front of our place staring out to sea. Contemplative. The artist’s way, I thought.
After a while, given my newfound connectedness to my surroundings, I decided to try and get to know him a little better. After all, it’s been somewhat humorously said that your neighbour is not a man, but an environment.
Days later, I was sitting on Sylvian’s deck, the ocean our backdrop, chatting in stilted English (and sometimes my horrendous French) about his art, and plenty else besides.
Sylvian grew up in the French town of Nice and began painting images of fish when he was four years old. Despite growing up on the coast, he says it is still very difficult for him to fully convey the depth of his romance with the ocean.
He spent his leisure time free diving and is clearly awestruck by the underwater world he experienced during that time. He also tells me that he nearly drowned on three separate occasions.
Perhaps these encounters with Mother Ocean created an indelible impression upon him – a love affair with a force of nature infinitely more powerful than him, exquisitely alluring and beautiful; a siren’s song that transports him beyond his earthly realm yet ultimately holds him firm.
Or perhaps it’s just due to the fact he is a Pisces.
Whatever the reason, Sylvian is hooked, so to speak, and the many hours beside the ocean begin to make sense.
Sylvian’s art is highly recognisable. An iconographic Pop Art representation of a fish, it’s origins not unlike that of Andy Warhol’s soup can, the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, or even Keith Haring’s radiant baby.
The connection to Warhol is more than just in the expression of his work. When he was a young man in Nice “just working in his gallery and living with his fish” he was visited by well-known Warhol muse, Debra Arman. She saw his work and immediately dubbed him “Sylvian the Fishman”. The name stuck.
His colours are primary and minimalist, in true appreciation of Pop Art culture. Most intriguingly, his fish are always painted facing left.
“Why?” I ask him. He shrugs his shoulders, grins in that typically French way, and tells me he doesn’t really know.
“It’s about love. Love of my form. Or maybe it’s just a representation of my craziness.”
Over the years, Sylvian began to personalise his method and, around a decade ago, he began to integrate found objects from the ocean, most notably plastic bags.
Of course, his work now carries a stark environmental message, but he doesn’t quite see it as plainly as that.
“One night I was visiting a friend at a diving club and he was telling me about all the plastic he sees in the ocean these days,” Sylvian explained.
“I just thought, why not?
“It’s not a conscious statement. I just work from the heart.”
However, while the found objects have simply become a function of his art, the process continues to develop organically and Sylvian’s work now tells a powerful story.
The passion he feels about it is clearly evident. “I cry about my love of this story,” he says, staring out to the horizon.
Last year, Sylvian and his partner Lisa were moved enough to take a trip to Brazil to meet with a group called Blue Island who are bringing the world’s attention to the issue of the mountains of plastic from Salvador de Bahia being washed ashore everyday on the island of Itaparica.
After spending a month as the artist in residence on the island, Sylvian held an exhibition of the paintings he created there using plastic from the local beaches. All proceeds went to Blue Island.
The tragedy they witnessed during their time on Itaparica only served to underscore Sylvian’s commitment to his life’s work.
Sylvian now has principle buyers from the USA, England, France, Italy, Australia, Norway and many other countries who often literally bring him plastic from their own environment to be incorporated into a commissioned piece.
I ask Sylvian about the root of his creativity. In true French fashion, he leaps from his chair almost knocking it over and points animatedly out to sea.
“Look!” he shouts.
“Look at the colours! They are my colours! It’s so very, very…it’s ninety per cent in the sea. Ten per cent in the air.”
He sits down again. Almost dejectedly, he lowers his eyes.
“It’s hard to explain in English.”
Words in any language would have done the trick. Of course I understand.
I’m starting to get caught up in the moment and I stretch myself spiritually. I’m beginning to think Sylvian is an old soul of the sea. He’s probably been on this journey before.
“Well, I know the sea is here,” he says, pointing to his heart.
“Do you think you came from the sea…even before? Maybe in a previous life?” I ask him gingerly, not even sure of the foundation of my own question.
Apparently, years ago, an old Nigerian sorcerer had told him exactly that.
“So yeah, maybe,” he says nonchalantly.
As I wander the short distance back home, I realise the next time I see my neighbour sitting in the dunes, gazing across the ocean, I will have a far greater understanding of the man and his passion, and as a result, an acute awareness of my own sense of place.
Through his words and his art, Sylvian has challenged me to live more passionately and encouraged me to see things through a different lens.
To put it mildly, how very neighbourly.
Photo by Kirra Pendergast