Sculptor Stanislaw Trzebinski grew up in Kenya surrounded by art and artists. His father Tonio was a famous artist and his mother Anna is a well-known fashion designer. His work though reveals a much greater influence, that of the vast, magical wilderness, and the East African coast. Trzebinski, however, traded his enviable outdoor life for one living in an urban environment, in pursuit of his passion to sculpt.
His approach is ‘spontaneous’ without pre-sketches or storyboards, as he works meticulously in his Woodstock studio to capture near-perfect human anatomy and (e)motion. I say near-perfect not to be derogatory but because he inevitably deconstructs these figures, adding exoskeletons of intersecting coral shards and extrusions, which he describes at “anatomical in the human form, and ‘natural history’ in the abstraction”.
How have those formative years in Kenya influenced your life and work? I was exposed to the wilderness and especially the sea. My father was an avid surfer and fisherman as well as an artist, so I learnt from an early age to appreciate the beauty and the fragility of it all. My weekends were spent fishing and camping in Kenya's outdoors as far away from the city as we could get. There is a lot to be said about the benefits of a childhood spent rearing orphaned wild animals (of which we had a few over the years) and playing in the mud, over one spent in an apartment building with an iPad for entertainment. I’m forever grateful for that, it taught me to respect and care for things other than myself and to be able to reflect on our responsibility we have as humans.
What are some of your fondest memories? Some of my fondest memories were of weekend safaris with my parents. As a toddler and a small boy I was obsessed with fish. I even dragged my dad’s catch into my cot one day and had a nap with it. We’d camp next to rivers and I’d spend my entire day catching catfish. On the East African coast I waded through rock pools at low tide on the exposed reefs off Mombasa, catching reef fish with nets and on a hand line for my home aquarium while my father surfed. I also recall peering into my fathers studio from behind the door wanting to go paint with him … he was always strict about his personal studio space.
Do you think that you were gifted with natural talent or is it something honed over time? I feel the talent I have is a natural one. Most of my family are creative. But the drive that was instilled in me was one that came from losing my father at the age of nine. It’s every boys dream to grow up to be like their dad, so losing mine made that a certainty. It had to be done and I was stubborn as hell about perusing art.
Why did you choose sculpture? I chose sculpture for a number of reasons. While I was in high school in Kenya I spent a summer holiday in Simon’s Town at the Bronze Age Foundry. Otto du Plessis, now a close friend and mentor of mine, took me under his wing and let me muck around in the foundry for a couple of months. I cast my first pieces that summer and I was hooked. The whole process intrigued and appealed to the pyromaniac in me. As a medium, I think that there is something about sculpture being three-dimensional that allows you to immerse your audience in a piece and captivate them. The sculpting skill set also came much easier to me. If you ask me to draw a super realistic figure or to sculpt one, I’d be much better off sculpting it.
Do you think one needs a particular temperament to be a sculptor? Sculpting requires a lot of patience and technical know-how. You’ve got to be able to think of the second step, before you’ve even taken the first.
You appear to have such a deep connection to the natural world, why did you chose to settle in Cape Town and leave your home? My summer spent here in Cape Town at the age of 15 made me want to return. Kenya, for all its beauty and wilderness, sadly isn’t a place for a young artist to make a name for himself. I was hungry for advice, experience and for guidance, and there was little-to-none of that in Kenya. Cape Town provided me with just that, but it came at a cost. I had to trade my outdoor life for one living in an urban environment. Removing me from my wilder upbringing drove me to express my passion for it through my work so it was in a sense a blessing in disguise.
The best way to describe your work? It’s anatomical in the human form, and ‘natural history’ in the abstraction. The work comments on how the human condition and modern society has become disassociated from the natural world. We live in a world of electronics, social media and consumerism. On a finite planet, we seem to have removed ourselves as the ‘supreme being’ from the cycles that have co-existed for millennia in symbiosis and in natural balance. I hope that through abstracting my figures with natural forms, I’ll be planting seeds of curiosity especially in the younger generations to go out and protect what we’ve all forgotten we rely on to survive.
How do your sculptured forms and their stories evolve? The method in which I approach my sculptures is spontaneous. There is no planning around what the end piece will look like. No sketches, just ideas that need executing. I have a rough idea of the pose and tackle the anatomy of the piece in a meticulous manner. But the mood and the feeling of the finished piece is all decided in the final hours of the process. This is the best part because there’s no ‘wrong’ way to do it. It is intuitive and can be infuriating at times. I build a relationship with each piece and I think about its story while its being created. The mood I’m in when I sculpt also reflects in the piece. Only once I have been through these steps can I decide on a title, and a story. Sometimes, I leave the story to the viewer to decide.
Your greatest inspiration? I’m inspired most by the juxtaposition that one finds in nature. It has both random beauty that is extremely difficult to mimic, and perfect symmetry.
What informed your choice of material? When it comes to the material I sculpt in, it’s the properties that my wax-based clay and wax have that allow me to get some of the textures and effects that I use frequently in my work. But for the final product, especially in the sculpting world, bronze rises above all others. Bronze as a material offers a permanence and at the same time an ongoing mutability in response to the environment.
What was the first work you ever made? As a child of five, I did an oil painting on a canvas that my father stretched for me. It was of a pink seagull on an orange sea - my perception of a sunset. My mother still has it hanging in her bathroom.
Your favourite work to date? It would have to be a piece titled The Young Man And The Sea. It’s a piece that speaks to me.
How would you best describe yourself? Determined and passionate about the things I do, and the people in my life.
Why did you chose to ditch Pratt? It really stunted my creative process. As mentioned before, my summer in Simon’s Town set the bar for me in respect of what I was expecting out of a tertiary education in the arts. As a child of Africa, I also didn’t enjoy the culture and the lifestyle of living in downtown Brooklyn. I felt like a fish out of water. I knew that if I focused hard on what I wanted, and was disciplined in my practice, I could make it without an institution’s name behind me.
Your favourite icon? My father.
What are your most recent works? I’m very excited about a recent commission I did for a centre piece in the new rose garden at Vergelegen Estate. Then there is my second solo show at the Jan Royce Gallery in Cape Town last November, which did very well.
What does being an ‘African’ artist mean to you? The potential in African art is immense and Africa is growing at a rate that is unprecedented elsewhere on the planet. I feel that being an African artist means we have a responsibility to document this change in the best way we know how – through our art.
What are you listening to at the moment while working? Nils Frahm ‘Says’; Tame Impala ‘Elephant’; Crash Test Dummies ‘I Think I’ll Disappear Now’; The Verve ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’.
The best gift you’ve received recently? A couple of anatomically correct medical grade models — I refer to them all the time.
What do you do to relax? Surf, sculpt, listen to great music.
Adventure is clearly always on your agenda. Where are you planning to travel to next? A trip to the Mentawaii Islands off Padang in Indonesia. Ten days in the Sumatran jungle with warm water, waves, and untouched marine life. Time to do some exploring, and time for some inspirational research.
Where do we find your work? Object Design Art in Franshhoek, Jan Royce Gallery in Cape Town, and S Art in Hout Bay.