A Fish Cannot Drown in Water
Work by Sybil Archibald
Through Saturday, Feb. 29

Sacred poetry reading on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 7:30 p.m.
Panel discussion, on “Collecting Art on Paper,” Tuesday, Feb. 11, 7 p.m.
Artist talk Saturday, Feb. 29, 2 p.m.

Clerestory Fine Art, 40 Church St.

Clerestoryfineart.com, Instagram @clerestoryfineart, or 973-744-6000


Making art saved Sybil Archibald’s life.

Diagnosed not long out of college with Sclereoderma, Archibald was not expected to live more than five years.

That was in 1991.

The debilitating illness is an autoimmune disease, sometimes called the mummy disease, that involves hardening of the skin.

Over the years Archibald has had to change the way she works — her hands can no longer extend. Regular clay is too heavy, so she uses something she makes called paper clay. She works a lot in monotype printing (monotypes mean just one is made).

Her show “A Fish Cannot Drown in Water” opened last Thursday, Jan. 16, at Clerestory Fine Art, and runs through February.

“The Illness itself has completely transformed me as a person,” Archibald said. She compared herself to a sharp stone sitting in a river, whose hard edges have been smoothed



“I used to be much more judgmental about others and myself, quicker to anger… now I’m not, at least I try not to be,” she said with a laugh. “I feel very grateful for the illness because of what it’s taught me. Through artwork, I’ve learned how to go from suffering over illness to gratitude and acceptance of the illness. Part of that is that when you’re in the studio and start making work, it’s a meditative place. You can’t be in that place without the feelings you’re dealing with in life.”

The title of the show is taken from a poem by the Christian medieval mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg (German, c.1207–c.1282/1294). Archibald uses medieval iconography in her work, and sacred poetry.

She continued to work on her monotype-a-day project when she was hospitalized for three weeks last spring. Each monotype is accompanied by a sacred poem.

“Being in the hospital, it’s still your life,” she said. “You have to figure out a way to find happiness and acceptance of where you are. Otherwise you’ve lost three weeks of your life.”

Originally from California and now a South Orange resident, Archibald studied medieval spirituality at New York University, when her father would not allow her to go to art school and wanted her to study “something useful.”


Kathryn McGuire, who owns Clerestory Fine Art, has studied medieval art, and worked at the Metropolitan Art Museum.

“The catalog has a glossary and a guy tracing symbols. I went through her work and I spotted the symbols and then asked her and then we talked about it. So a lot of it is direct quotes from her,” McGuire said. For example, fish is described in “A Guide to Sybil Archibald’s Symbolism:” “Archibald is very influenced by sacred poetry. A lot of Sufi and Eastern poetry uses the metaphor of the ocean of divine love. With the light, that is creativity. The fish is a physical being that can exist in that ocean of divine love and that sea of creativity, serving as a symbol for the artist, who can be in that space.”

Sybil Archibald's art, before the opening, at Clerestory Fine Art. COURTESY CLERESTORY FINE ART
Sybil Archibald's art, before the opening, at Clerestory Fine Art. COURTESY CLERESTORY FINE ART


McGuire met Archibald when McGuire was working at the Incubator Program for Studio Montclair. McGuire likes the macabre, dark, edgy nature of Archibald’s work.

In this exhibition, she wanted to show some of Archibald’s larger pieces, to “show how big and wild and weird she can be.” One piece, “Catch and Release,” has chicken feet, and is bigger than six feet tall. 

An installation in a black light room, “Revelations,” includes markings that only become visible when you hold up a light. At the opening, there was a line waiting for an hour and a half to enter the room.

Archibald’s monotypes are also on exhibit: because there are more than 500 of them, the gallery has a selection on the wall, hung with magnets; when a patron buys one, it can be immediately replaced with another. 

The way Archibald continues to make her work, with limited mobility, touches McGuire, along with her reaction to the aesthetics of the work itself. “And also her work is quirky. I mean, it's silly and funky and goofy,” McGuire said. “There's an intensity to it, but there's a humor in it. just love how wild and bizarre they are.” Medieval art often is quirky and funky, she added.

Patrons enjoy “Revelations,” the black light installation, at Clerestory Fine Art.

The use of medieval imagery in Archibald’s work long predates her studying medievalism.

In high school she began making large puppets for parades, and became “obsessed with pregnancy and birth, a lot of annunciation symbolism,” she said. “I’m not religious at all, but I found this story very compelling, where the angel Gabriel comes and tells Mary she’s pregnant and puts Jesus in her womb. It’s a metaphor for the creative process, it’s given to us to gestate.”




Through her art, somehow, she said, she’s had a wonderful life, despite being told she had five years to live. She married and had a child. 

“Creativity is generative. Grass growing is a creative force. To be in contact with that creative force is healing. There are energies that come when I do a certain piece… I can be very upset, feeling terrible, then I go into the studio to do a monotype, and feel energy come through me. All of a sudden I have the energy to work.

“I leave the studio and have peace and calm.”

The art of Sybil Archibald, at Clerestory. COURTESY CLERESTORY FINE ART