Rob Sylvia – Artist Spotlight and Q&A
with Ellis Wilson – July 2020
Rob Sylvia is a multimedia artist and sculptor based in San Francisco, California. I first met him while majoring in fine art at Cornish College of the Arts in late-2015. He is one of the earliest members of the Unilalianism movement, having been involved with our team since the founding. For his latest series, called Melia Faces, I decided to reach out in order to catch up and also to gain a bit more insight into his practice. "Melia Faces" is inspired by the idea of paradoxes and named after the Thalia and Melpomene masks – Thalia is the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry, portrayed as a happy, cheerful young woman crowned with ivy. In contrast, Melpomene is the Muse of Tragedy and is depicted with "tragedy mask in one hand, and a knife or a club in the other".
Firstly, how've you been holding up during the pandemic?
All things considering, I am doing pretty well. I’m healthy, teaching myself new stuff like cooking and making masks, and finally being able to chill and/or make art. I used to study stoicism and teachings from Viktor Frankl when i was in “the dumps” and they’re probably what’s keeping me sane compared to others.
We wanted to talk about your process as a visual artist. What inspired you to make these faces?
My fascination with paradoxes is essentially the inspiration for my faces. “A seemingly absurd or self contradictory statement/proposition/etc that, when investigated, might be found to be true.
Both sides of every face should fit the caption, even if initially it won’t look like it.
How has the concept of paradoxes come up for you personally?
It honestly feels like i’m a living paradox, as they affect me everyday in every way. Overall, but especially in my art, I feel a lot like Sisyphus, the Greek king who’s condemned to push a boulder up a hill just for it to come crashing down for eternity. My “boulder” is essentially my color blindness, which i constantly try to push only to never get to fully appreciate my work, “crashing back down”.
How has being colorblind influenced your process?
A lot more than I like to admit, but one of the positive influences is it got me to not give up and appreciate what you have. I might not be able to see how things actually look, but at least i’m not completely blind.
What is your earliest memory hearing about Unilalia?
At the the bench [at Denny Park in Seattle, in 2016]. I actually don’t remember if everything was called Unilalia at the time but I remember exactly that y’all had this big ass plan. My official official memory of hearing Unilalia was when you were going to California College of the Arts and showed me the location.
We’ve talked in the past about institutionalized racism found in art schools and other white spaces. Can you speak at all about your experience navigating these spaces? Any challenges?
Honestly y’all were the first group i’ve been accepted in. Only recently did I notice, that growing up being mixed, I was in some type of limbo land when it came to groups. I was able to “tag along” with many but was never really allowed to actually join. My experience with white spaces as an “observer” is that all they really want you to do is be seen and not heard.
We'd like to know more about your process as a sculptor. Can you speak on this?
As a sculptor I honestly love to use recycled materials and papier-mâché to make anything out of everything. The satisfaction of being able to physically create something you thought of out of trash, breathing a whole new life into it, is honestly indescribable. I sometimes like to think it’s what God feels like in Genesis when they’re all done [creating].
Lastly, because this is related to Unilalia, how have psychedelics influenced your artist practice?
Technically you could say my designs are “influenced by psychedelics” but that’s not entirely accurate. My mentality and resolve have actually been more influenced by psychedelics, to always keep my mind open to constantly better my art.
Find Rob Sylvia here.