Olivier Strebelle - The Flying Sculptor A Famous Belgian and his Art by Ginny Suter and Anne Closon
Ginny wrote numerous articles for Plug-In Belgium and Internationals in Belgium in the late 1990s early 2000's and presented a weekly radio programme for a local radio station in the Brussels Waterloo area.
The eight metre bronze statue of 'Le Phénix 44' was unveiled on Avenue Louise in 1994 to commemorate the liberation of Belgium 50 years before. Signifying release from bondage to liberty, "like a dove cut away from its shackles," explains its creator, Olivier Strebelle, wringing and circling his hands together, then sliding them across to emulate a bird taking off in flight. He has large, kind hands, and amazing thumbs, elongated, like a ballerina's backward stance, by the hundreds of forms he's shaped.
A statuesque man, he blends in with an army of his works recently displayed at the Veranneman Foundation, Kruishoutem, near Gent, and exhibited to celebrate his 70th birthday. He still goes hang gliding for kicks. "I am an all or nothing person. When I first became successful, I had a Porsche and all that goes with conventional success. But I am not a conventional man, I am an all or nothing man. Otherwise life becomes mundane, and you don't experience it to the full."
Statues are on the point of take-off
He'd always dreamt of flying. He learnt to fly 25 years ago in the United States where he discovered hang-gliding, too. He could live anywhere in the world, but adds, "unconventionally, I prefer Belgium. It's funny, some agents even refuse to come and see me here because it's not high enough on their circuit priorities. But I love Belgium. Everything is so different, so individual and so interesting with its historical mix of cultures. People can be who they are rather than cloned by fashion. Belgium is a rare mosaic."
"And," he adds, "I can go hang-gliding regularly in Dinant, wind permitting." But isn't that dangerous, we ask? "No more than crossing the road, and you are more in control if you respect the science of the hobby," he replies. "It's an inspiration. All my statues are on the point of take-off where gravity changes from one law and force, to another. The greater risk is with the other, less controlled new sport, para-gliding, and the sky gets over-crowded."
As is his CV. Sculpting from the age of 16, graduating from the La Cambre Institute of Art, Brussels, along with other friends who also achieved fame. Painters - Alechinsky, Dotremont, sculptors - Reinhoud, D'Haese, Monique Gyebels, graphic designer - Olyff, and photographer Roland d'Ursel, and amongst whom he founded the centre of the COBRA movement, networking with other avante garde artists from Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam, at the Atelier du Marais in the Sablon, in 1949.
Antwerp's Royal Academy of Fine Arts first employed him as a professor before he went on to win the Grand Prix de Rome for sculpture in 1956. In 1958 he reached world-wide fame following the Brussels World Fair Exhibition, where he was discovered by US artists. He spent eight years teaching all over the States. "A sculptor must be an occasional professor," he says.
How does one start to build such huge statues, we wonder. "With a drawing, then a small plaster model, then a full scale one," he replies. Do you make this on your own? "No, it's all team work," he explains, "in which I am primarily assisted by my associate and right arm Mattieu Olyff. But I have to watch every move constantly to avoid 'a chink in the armour'." Then the moulds must be taken to England, Switzerland, Italy, or Holland, as there are no furnaces large enough for smelting metal here in Belgium. The monumental statues can take three to five years to complete.
Amongst his many monumental statues found around the world are 'Between Sea and Sky' at the Marine Centre, Singapore, 'The Lions', at the Marriot Marquis Hotel, Atlanta, 'Le Bon Genie' at the University of Jerusalem, the 'Anthropomotion' Montreal, the 'Protecting Eagle', at Harrisburg, USA, 'L'Endormie and L'Epanouie', Atlanta, Georgia.
Closer to home you can find 'Flight in Mind' at Brussels International Airport, Zaventem, 'Les Girouettes de Louvain-la-Neuve', for Shell at Louvain-la-Neuve, 'Confluences', at the European Parliament - the largest (35m high), 'Les Lions', at the Theosophie, Leuven Universitiy, 'L'Envol', Brussels Ministry of Finance, 'Ascendence', Trade Mart Design Center, Brussels, 'Artifice d'Acier', at the Crédit Communal de Belgique, Brussels, 'Miss Television', Ciné Revue Headquarters, Brussels, 'Dessus-Dessous', the Caisse Générale d'Epargne et de Retraite, Brussels, 'Europe', Gallerie Ravenstein, Brussels, 'La Coquille', at the Belgian Shell company, 'Le Triton d'Ostende' Ostend Casino, 'La Sirène d'Ostende', Blankenberge Casino, 'Cheval Bayard', Pont des Ardennes, Namur.
Shaping things to come
His passion for his art never ceases and he is now sculpting more than ever, with his agenda full of projects. One of these is already under way for a memorial statue in the Ivory Coast for the year 2,000. Then there are two other projects for Brussels to be completed by 1999 - but these are still top secret. And, of course, there are many more exhibitions in the pipeline.
45 years of personal exhibitions and monumental works all over the world, films and publications are testimonies to this passionate and fascinating Belgium artist.
©Ginny Suter - 1998
Original article appearing in "Internationals in Belgium" Dick Suter was an editor of the magazine and contributor and Ginny Suter was a regular contributor in the late 1990's and 2000's - The magazine had a circulation of 10,000 Please note that this article was first published many years ago and telephone and fax numbers are likely to be out of date and email addresses have been removed.
Source of images, unless otherwise stated - Suter family archives