Text and photos by Connie Leinbach
Kind of like an alchemist of old, Tony Sylvester conjures artistically functional forms from concrete in his island studio.
Sinks, counter tops, tables, fire pits, fountains, even lounge chairs–all made from his special mixture of Portland cement and sand–can be seen in his studio at 16 Back Road.
It’s a process Sylvester has been perfecting since 2009 when he began working with this new medium, a change from the home building and woodworking he had done since arriving here in 1971 searching for good surfing waves.
While Sylvester’s woodworking handiwork is evident in the more than 30 homes he has built on the island, concrete ignites his creativity.
“It’s so different from wood,” he says about this specialized art form. “There’s no limit as to what can be done. It’s not construction; it’s functional art.”
For each of his creations, Sylvester first has to build a hollow template into which to pour the concrete. After it hardens and dries, there’s filling in some of the voids, polishing,grinding and finishing.
“It’s a long process,” he said. Each piece takes three to four weeks. “But it gets more and more interesting.”
Sylvester includes whatever customers want: shells, metal filings, copper pieces.
“I’ve included fish hooks, coral, earrings, even things made out of metal imbedded into the concrete,” he said.
Local couple Leslie and Bill Monticone commissioned Sylvester for their bathroom redo.
“I’m excited about my new sink with the glow-in-the-dark stones,” Leslie said.
He’s proud of remaking a broken 1895 headstone for one of Gael Hawkins’ properties.
“It feels so good when people are excited about what you’re doing,” he said.
Customers might look at his table with a concrete top and wooden frame and question the
weight. Sylvester happily informs them otherwise. These are not solid concrete; they are concrete forms. “This glass fiber-reinforced concrete is super strong but very light,” he said.
Sylvester’s pieces can be neutral or bursting with color, such as the yellow concrete sink on view in his studio. Of particular interest to Sylvester is combining concrete with other materials, such as wood or steel for custom benches.
One such combination is the recently completed entrance sign to the new Community Park ball field at the end of Maurice Ballance Road.
It has the look of a heavy monument, but the base and frame is one of Sylvester’s concrete forms. Jason Daniels, captain of the Hyde County Sheriff’s department on Ocracoke, fashioned the logo from wood. While Sylvester has some pre-made pieces in the showroom, these are only examples since he likes to collaborate with his customers.
“With these, you’re not buying stock items,” he said. “It’s a collaboration of your design and mine. The trippier it is, the more I like it.”
Tony’s chaises can be seen in the Back Porch garden, in Down Creek Gallery, and a number of his pieces are included in the Lillian August gallery in Manhattan.