LITTLE DID SCULPTOR STEFAN PRIEHYBA KNOW THAT THE PICTURESQUE MEDITERRANEAN ISLAND HE LANDED ON OVER A DECADE AGO WOULD NOT ONLY BE THE BACKDROP FOR CINEMATIC ARTISTRY, BUT ALSO THE STAGE FOR A PROFOUND PERSONAL TRANSFORMATION. MALTA, WITH ITS ARTISTIC ALLURE AND WARM EMBRACE, IS NOT JUST HIS MUSE; IT HAS ALLOWED HIM TO SHAPE THE TALENTS OF ITS FUTURE ARTISTS TOO.
Words by Antoinette Sinnas | Extract taken from November 2023 Il-Bizzilla Magazine
Stefan Priehyba, from Slovakia, arrived in Malta 13 years ago, and has since carved out a niche for himself as a sculptor of repute on the island. But back then, he had no idea he would end up feeling “a profound connection to the evolving tapestry of Maltese history, both as an artist and as an educator”.
Drawn to art since childhood, Stefan wanted to become a restorer, but when the time came to choose, he opted for reproduction sculpting. And after four years of rigorous training, studying art and the anatomy of the human body, he found he could not only carve up, but also restore old stone sculptures.
As soon as he completed his studies, Stefan got his first big break in the Czech Republic, working on several Unesco sites – namely a Jewish cemetery, the Kutna Hora Cathedral and the Belvedere Palace in Prague – and he became an established freelance sculptor.
Then in 2009, he embarked on a journey that would forever change the course of his life. As a senior sculptor, he found himself in Malta, engaged in the creation of the movie Agora, directed by the renowned Alejandro Amenábar.
“Little did I know that this picturesque Mediterranean island would not only be the backdrop for cinematic artistry, but also the stage for a profound personal transformation,” he says.
The crew was composed of talented artists from diverse backgrounds, including Czech, Slovak and British sculptors. Together, they toiled for nearly half a year, pouring their creative energies into the realisation of Amenábar's vision.
“Once the film was completed, I found myself not only captivated by Malta's breathtaking landscapes, but also by the charm of a remarkable woman named Daniela, who would later become my beloved wife,” Stefan recounts. “In the aftermath of this life-altering experience, I left Malta briefly before returning to marry her, and for over a decade now, I have called this enchanting island my home.”
Ten years ago, Stefan embraced a new role as a lecturer at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology in the Institute for the Creative Arts, and it was within these hallowed halls that he had the privilege of nurturing a new generation of sculptors.
“My mission was clear: introduce them to sculpting techniques prevalent in the film industry, such as silicone mould-making and polystyrene carving. However, I also made it a point to incorporate the local limestone into my teachings, preserving the essence of traditional stone carving.
“Maltese limestone, with its relatively soft nature, proved to be the ideal medium for learning purposes. Students could manipulate the material with ease, facilitating their learning journey,” he explains.
Reflecting on his tenure as an MCAST lecturer, Stefan is filled with pride. “One of my very first students has now become my esteemed colleague. Knowing that I played a part in shaping their artistic journey is a truly remarkable feeling. There are numerous students who have ventured into the field of art, applying the techniques and knowledge I imparted to them.” It is in this sense that he feels a deep connection to Malta, both as an artist and as an educator.
Stefan has since been credited in other international movie and TV productions shot in Malta, including Game of Thrones, Sinbad, Assassin’s Creed, Hellboy II: The Golden Army and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and he is now working on the highly anticipated sequel to the Oscar-winning blockbuster Gladiator.
In the role of senior sculptor and propmaker, he has crafted weapons and shields for Narnia and produced the treasure for Peter Pevensie, the fictional character in C. S. Lewis's book series. Stefan also made the first big dragon skull featured in season I of the HBO medieval fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, along with the huge statue of Baelor, and he created around 70 corpses in various stages of decay for Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
“It was quite interesting to formulate substances and create material to replicate human skin and prosthetics, and construct weapons used by the prince and princess in the very first scene of the film,” Stefan recalls about Hellboy.
Apart from working on these fantastical props for various magical worlds, Stefan also uses his talents to explore the questions that plague his own mind. What would Batman look like in his 80s? The answer lies in his bust of old Bruce Wayne, with just a few teeth and a decaying – yet still iconic – suit.
He has contemplated the idea of superheroes and iconic fictional figures, such as the Incredible Hulk and a ferocious Werewolf, succumbing to the curse of time, and wishes to one day exhibit these busts together. “I want to show that heroes may grow old, but their courage never shrivels,” he says.
Sculpting to Stefan means everything and he immerses himself in his projects. When they take off, he enters a timeless zone, forgetting about the world around him, including food and water.
“I know I risk losing myself in my art,” he admits. That is why he tries to keep a strict balance between work and family life. When a creative spark strikes me, I practically become an insomniac… I can't stop thinking about it. I don’t act on it immediately, but I allow it to sink into my imagination and let it flow from my mind into my heart. When I am ready to translate my abstract idea into a tangible form, I pick up the chisel and begin rasping,” Stefan recounts of his all-consuming work process.
“I simply love three-dimensional work... It’s magical; alchemical. I believe an artist’s creative expression is limitless in sculpture. After all, it is one of the oldest forms of art, which dawned well before painting,” he continues.
“I'm a religious person and this allows me to tap into divinity’s ineffable essence. Just as God created the universe and sculpted us in His image and likeness, likewise we artists begin with an idea and a dream and transform simple raw materials into something new. It’s like creating a new world. Sometimes, it takes months from its conception, carefully measuring and etching every detail to bring earthen material to life...”
Although Stefan also works with clay and plaster, he loves working with stone: “I feel it speaks to me! It tells me just how and where to carve. I know what the statue wants me to do next. Sometimes, I think it's not even my work,” he admits.
As the sculptor looks back on this “remarkable decade”, he is reminded that “life has a way of weaving unexpected threads into the fabric of our existence. Malta, with its artistic allure and warm embrace, has not only been my muse, but has also given me the privilege of shaping the talents of future artists.
“My journey here continues to be a testament to the power of art and education in transforming lives and contributing to the rich cultural legacy of this beautiful island.”