"She was the life of the party, and the life of the party never wants to be the one to say it's over." – Alex Boynes
No more apt words were ever spoken about Sylvie Stern, the broadcaster, artist, dog-lover and fierce arts advocate who died suddenly this week. Her death was unexpected, out of the blue, and many were shocked.
She was best known as a long-time presenter on 2XX, an advocate for the arts, a devoted volunteer dog-walker for Domestic Animal Services and, most of all for anyone growing up in Canberra in the 1990s, the manager of the popular Civic nightclub Heaven.
In fact, pretty much anyone who had anything to do with the arts and pop culture in Canberra – music, visual arts, theatre – knew Stern. Even at short notice, embarking on this obituary was a cakewalk – if you don't get hung up with official details, that is. Any number of arts figures – from the head of ArtsACT down to emerging artists, writers, DJs, record-store owners – and of course animal rights advocates, were effusive when describing what she meant to them, and what she gave to Canberra.
How to describe someone like Sylvie Stern? Invariably clad in black – usually jeans and a t-shirt – she wore heavy eyeliner and caked-on makeup, and an elaborate sort of half-beehive. She had a loud, deep gravelly voice (the same timbre, in fact, as Donna Summer, with whom she recorded in New York), but a gentle and caring nature. Involved in many causes in the Canberra arts world, she made turning up a point of pride, be it at a glitzy opening at a major gallery, an official arts policy announcement or an under-promoted mid-week rock concert in a city bar.
Like the nightclub she presided over in the 1990s, she was grungy and glamorous and, paradoxically for someone so open and generous with her time, enigmatic. No one can say with any certainty how old she was – late 50s? Mid-60s? Tellingly, no one had ever really stopped to think. It didn't matter – it added to her mystique and unique personality. Similarly, accounts differ on where she was from – New York? Tasmania? – and how long she had been in Canberra. Officially, she fetched up here in 1993, after a stroke ended her singing career in New York, but there are accounts of her performing in local shows in the early 1980s, and even as far back as 1974. With Stern, you could believe whatever you wanted to believe about her, and she would always, always extend the same courtesy to you.
But alongside the enigma was the now inescapable fact that no one knew quite how ill she was. She was someone who often talked openly about her health – and the fact that she had spent the last few years caring devotedly for her elderly mother – but, it seems, she never gave anyone cause for concern. Hardly anyone knew how bad the cancer was, hence the seeming "bolt from the blue" that was the news of her death.
As one person commented, "People will be looking around and saying, 'Where's Sylvie?'"
Because she was ubiquitous, a constant presence, and had become so well-known that she was one of the subjects in a series of portraits by artist Barbara van der Linden in the Centenary project Faces of Canberra.
Artistic director of Canberra Contemporary Art Space David Broker remembers being a newcomer from Brisbane, and instantly shown the ropes by Stern.
"As soon as I arrived in Canberra, Sylvie took me under her wing and told me what the scene was like, who I should be meeting, who I should be looking at and who I should be avoiding," he said.
"She loved the stories, I think that was her favourite thing, actually hearing what people were doing …She had this way of getting information out of you, which is fabulous when you're on the radio."
It was, he says, impossible to give a meaningful account of her contribution to the local arts scene, such was its scope. She championed all art forms and all talents, and her open enthusiasm was infectious.
Canberra Times film critic and man-about-town Cris Kennedy remembers interviewing her on radio not long after she arrived here, back when 2XX was still located in what is now the Drill Hall Gallery. She was a performer still gilded by a recent stint in New York, but in recovery from a stroke, and was taking part in the 1994 production of Canberra Repertory's Old Time Music Hall.
"I was hosting the arts show Rave Review and Sylvie, the bossiest guest I had ever encountered, was correcting my microphone technique, mouthing questions she wanted me to ask her while I was speaking," he says.
"Annoying at the time, I soon saw this mothering, bossy side of Sylvie in fact as proof of her sense of showmanship, of her wanting people to be and appear at their very best."
She would go on to do the same for countless artists in the Canberra region for the next two decades, carving out opportunities for others and celebrating their successes, or even just their potential.
ArtsACT director David Whitney, who worked alongside her in various capacities, including at the Canberra Theatre and on the ACT Cultural Council, described her as "dogged and passionate", and above all generous, with both her time and anyone else's. Almost all the work she did was on a volunteer basis, and many remember the long, rambling interviews she would broadcast in full, to give her subjects the full benefit of airtime and publicity.
Ensconcing herself firmly in the arts scene from the moment she arrived here (whenever that was), she positioned herself early on in the centre of Canberra's underbelly which, as anyone who has lived here for any length of time knows, is alive and thriving, in no small part because of her.
"She was generous with her time on the council, and always advocating for stuff that was left of centre," he says.
Heaven, the edgy club she ran for a period in the 1990s, had "appetite and chicness", but it was also grungy and unpredictable – an arts hub as much as a gay and lesbian-friendly night-spot.
One Heaven regular, Canberra author and fellow arts advocate Nigel Featherstone, felt her influence on a profoundly personal level.
"I feel like Sylvie's responsible for my whole gay life," he says, only half-joking. He not only met his long-term partner there, but says he was exposed to an exotic side of Canberra he never would have seen otherwise.
"She went out of her way to create … a safe space – you always knew you'd be completely safe at Heaven and there'd be no judgment whatsoever, which you'd expect," he says.
But along with dance music and themed nights, there were also drag shows and edgy performance installations – wax and nudity and all kinds of things.
"It's funny to have someone who's a sort of matron of the arts and makes us all feel special, but also encourages you to go out and do weird shit," he says, fondly.
Artist Alex Boynes has similar memories, albeit as a very underage frequenter whom Stern hired to DJ and hand out flyers about upcoming events. Anything went at Heaven, and on any given night, you could find yourself dancing alongside goths, cyber-punks, ravers, party-lovers both gay and straight.
"I've never been to a place like it. It was a bit like an art school party every night," he says.
"You could go there any time and anything was welcome, everyone was welcome. It was the most warm and inviting and safe environment that I've ever been to in terms of the night life, and it was incredible, the talent that she fostered there and an open-minded nature I haven't seen since in that situation."
Importantly, he and Stern remained firm friends throughout the years – she was both an aunt-like figure and a mentor.
"As I began to move towards visual arts and away from music and DJ-ing, she was in a way doing the same thing, so we were always step-and-step," he says.
2XX announcer Sophie Verass, who worked with Stern for the past two years, had a similar relationship to Stern – a nurturing friendship in which age wasn't an issue. That said, Stern had a cool and exotic vibe that could be intoxicating.
"It was like, if you were in Year 7, she would be one of the cool people in Year 12 who let you hang out," she says.
Board member at the station and long-time associate Simon Kravis is adamant the station owed its existence to Stern, who remained fiercely loyal to the station in its darkest days.
"If she hadn't been around I think it's quite possible the station would no longer be in existence," he says.
"When things got really bad, she was always prepared to step in. She was not one to leave a sinking ship that she believed in, and so she had a very, very deep level of commitment to the station. She had her own ideas about how it ought to be run, and if they didn't coincide with yours you were in for an argument.
"She had that energy and commitment to community activity. Canberra is much the poorer for her passing."
In the words of Canberra Times art critic Sasha Grishin, losing Sylvie Stern is "a bit of a body blow for Canberra Bohemia".
M16 Artspace at 21 Blaxland Crescent will be hosting a wake for Sylvie Stern on Wednesday January 28 from 3.00pm-6.00pm.
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