ART NO MATTER WHAT by Ellen Kahaner
The inner and outer lives of the artist Sybil Archibald
Sybil Archibald is sitting on her bed at St. Barnabas Hospital wearing a standard issue cotton gown. On her head is one of her signature fascinators – a small fancy hat. Ink stains her hands. As she is busy creating her daily print, a nurse comes into the room and checks her I.V. “She didn’t even ask what I was doing!” Archibald says after she leaves.
“Waiting Pool” is the monotype of the day from this unstoppable South Orange artist. Like the monotypes for each of the 241 days before, it’s a unique image, created in ink on a plate and posted on Facebook and Instagram once it is printed. From her bed, Archibald works through her hospital stay in her makeshift printing studio.
Shortly after graduating from college in 1992, Archibald was diagnosed with scleroderma, a rare chronic autoimmune disease that causes the hardening of connective tissue in the body. She has outlived her prognosis by more than twenty-five years. And although her hands have become fists, and her mobility and energy are limited, even when she rests she is actively engaged in her work – using her thumbs to type entries to her blog, selecting poems to complement her monotype series, and thinking about her next project. Archibald has processed her disease through her work but not on a conscious level. “My life is my work, and my work is my life, but I try not to overthink or obsess when I’m working because that blocks the creative flow,” she says.
The monotype series is called “The Inner Life of the Artist.” Explains Archibald, “It is a conversation between the artist with a small a, the archetype for the physical creator, and The Artist with a capital A, the source of creativity. And it’s also about what’s going on day to day, with my health and with everything else that gets wrapped up in the greater story, which includes the outside world. Continuity is key. To be an artist, you have to show up, whether you feel inspired or not.”
Monotype prints are so named because the painting or drawing on the plate is only reproduced once. Archibald transfers the image from plate to paper with the pressure of her fist. Sometimes she creates a “ghost image” by using the remaining ink on the plate as the base layer for a new print. Other times, she employs stencils and printing paper on the plate to block ink transfer. She can wipe away ink to create different effects. “The possibilities are endless!” Archibald exclaims.
Archibald’s earliest memory is of a pet parrot, who was a biter. She recalls looking down from a window in her Southside Chicago apartment, as the bird was taken away in a truck. Years later, her first painting at age 13 included a parrot on her shoulder. Birds, as well as fish and the moon, are part of the iconography of her work, as symbols of change and light. This symbology is influenced by her study of medieval spirituality and her extensive training in traditional sacred arts, from Russian icon painting to manuscript illumination. Poets such as Rumi, Tagore, Hafiz, and Mary Oliver are frequent reference points.
Archibald’s daily monotype prints on Facebook and Instagram are prefaced by her commentary on the fluxes of her creative process. She often chooses a poem that adds resonance to both the process and the printed image, reflecting the spiritual and workaday aspects of the artist’s life. Her creative journey has become a conversation with online followers, who, judging from their comments, use her posts to kick off their own creative pursuits or just to start their journeys of the day. “The best thing on my social media is your page,” comments Judy High, from Florida. “You transform my social media time into a meditation beyond anything I expect,” posts designer Elyse Carter.
On the 365th day of “The Inner Life of the Artist,” July 14, at 2:42 a.m., Archibald posts, “One year of prints every day without fail through all my ups and downs, through hospital stays, grumpiness. It feels like a big occasion. But I’m treating it like any other day, a chance to get down to work and see what will happen.” The image is a hopeful one: the sun just rising above a dark sea. Underneath is an empty rowboat, and next to it, steps in the sand. And the series continues, into its second year.
While a discussion of Archibald’s work must include references to metaphysics and philosophy, the artist has a sense of fashion and fun that also infuses her life and her work.
“It’s funny. When I was young, I only wore navy blue so no one would notice me,” Archibald says. Now she can be seen around town displaying her inimitable fashion sense, a corollary to her singular artistic style. In addition to holding weekly salons for local artists in her home and managing the website for the yearly SOMA Artists Studio Tour, she loves to attend openings when she is up to it. On a recent Sunday afternoon en route to Clerestory Fine Arts Gallery in Montclair, she wears a fascinator and a heavily embroidered coat, a one-of-a-kind piece from fellow artist Malcolm Navias’ shop and gallery, Heaven Art Gallery, in Asbury Park. When she walks into a room, people know Archibald has arrived.
Archibald’s parties are notoriously creative, and she expects everyone to get into the spirit. She worked as an event planner at Columbia University before she got ill, and that experience, plus her love of games and puzzles, results in soirees that come together like carefully designed performance art pieces. There’s the sixtieth birthday for a friend who loves the show “Top Chef,” featuring team competitions with measured bowls of exotic ingredients. Or the New Year’s Eve celebration, with invitations dropped in mail slots mysteriously after dusk, reading: “You’re Invited to Machine Gun Eddie and Spats Mcgee’s Speakeasy.” Families dress in 1920s garb and enter with a secret password through the basement of Archibald and her husband Barry Echtman’s house. Each person assumes another identity before ascending to the transformed first floor gambling den, where mug shots are taken. “I was Gunslinger Sal,” recalls Maplewood resident Wendy Bellermann.
After years of persistence as a working artist, Archibald has earned a place on a larger platform for her captivating signature vision. Last spring, nine of her works were transported to a sound stage in Queens, to be featured on the HBO series “Mrs. Fletcher,” starring Kathryn Hahn and debuting this fall. And her first solo show opening – January 16, 2020 at the high-end Clerestory Fine Art Gallery in Montclair – will exhibit her fearless progression from full-size paintings with sculptural elements, to sculptures that sit atop large painted wooden boxes, to the monotypes.
As fine artist and illustrator Liz Munro, an Australian native who met Archibald in a critique group at the South Orange Maplewood Adult School seven years ago, said in a recent interview, “Sybil has serious work to do, and she lets very little get in the way.”
For monotype-of-the-day postings follow her at facebook.com/sybil.archibald or instagram.com/artofthesybil.Archibald’s blog is sybilarchibald.com/blog.
In addition to writing for numerous publications, Ellen Kahaner is a professional developer for Children’s Literacy Initiative, coaching elementary school teachers on best practices for teaching reading and writing.