From dark to light: New exhibit highlights the art and journey of children’s book author Peter Sís

  • Above, an illustration from “The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain.” The pop art images reflect the brief flowering of artistic expression during the “Prague Spring” of 1968. 

  • Another image from “The Wall: Growing up Behind the Iron Curtain,” this one celebrating the opening of the former Eastern Bloc countries to the West in 1989. Image courtesy Peter Sís/Eric Carle Museum

  • Image courtesy Peter Sís/Eric Carle Museum

  • Peter Sís, who sought asylum in the U.S. in the 1980s and now lives in New York state, has won numerous awards for his books, including a MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius grant”).

  • Sís’ “Flying Man” tapestry design, which honors former Czech Republic President and writer Václav Havel. The art is displayed in the Václav Havel Airport in Prague. Image courtesy Peter Sís/Eric Carle Museum

  • A number of black and white illustrations from “The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain” portray the teenage Sís’ desire to escape from Czechoslovakia. Image courtesy Peter Sís/Eric Carle Museum

  • Image courtesy Peter Sís/Eric Carle Museum

  • An illustration from the 2002 book “Madlenka’s Dog,” which was a 2002 New York Times Book Review Notable Children's Book of the Year.  Image courtesy Peter Sís/Eric Carle Museum

Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 03, 2019

Like many teenagers in the 1960s, Peter Sís was thrilled by the sounds of The Beatles and other rock ‘n’ roll groups from Britain and the United States. He formed a band himself and became a DJ with his own radio program; he also welcomed the new artistic and social trends that accompanied the music, from longer hair on men to pop art posters.

There was just one problem: Sís, born in 1949, grew up in the former Czechoslovakia, where freedom of expression had a brief flowering in 1968 in what became known as the “Prague Spring.” Then 500,000 Soviet and Eastern Bloc troops marched in to crush the uprising and restore hard-line Communist control, including suppression of western influences like pop music.

But fast forward half a century and Sís, who today lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York state, again enjoys the music he first heard as a teen. More importantly, he’s long since established himself as a major artist, mining his life experiences and an avid interest in history and exploration to become an acclaimed children’s book illustrator and writer, with numerous awards to his name — including a MacArthur Fellowship and a Hans Christian Andersen Award.

The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst has opened a new exhibit, running through October 27, on Sís that speaks both to the themes of his work and his unusual life path. “The Picture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís” showcases his pop-art influenced illustrations, his curiosity about the world, and his journey to America and childhood behind the Iron Curtain.

Sís has lived in the United States since the early 1980s, after the Czech government sent him here to make an animated film about Czechoslovakia for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. But in spring 1984, he was ordered to return home when the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries announced a boycott of the games, in retaliation for a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979.

“He just decided he wasn’t going back,” Ellen Keiter, the Carle Museum curator, said during a recent tour of the exhibit. “It wasn’t an easy decision … but in the long run it allowed all his creativity and imagination to come out.”

Indeed. In an exhibit that highlights art from many of his books, as well as examples of public art (including tile mosaics and tapestries) he’s designed, what stands out about much of Sís’ work is its incredible level of detail. Using mixed materials such as pen and ink, watercolors, Gesso and oil pastels, he creates dense scenes and images that can alternate between bursts of color and dark tableaus; maps are a frequent subject.

“He uses what I’d call stippled lines and dots to build these very detailed backgrounds,” said Keiter. “It’s incredibly time consuming to do this kind of work, but its gives [his art] a real sophistication … there are a lot of layers to it.”

Though Sís has written and illustrated a number of books for very young children that have more accessible art and kid-friendly subjects like dinosaurs, Keiter says many of the artist’s books also offer more complicated storylines and levels of text, like basic text at the bottom of the page but more involved treatment that climbs up the sides of pages.

And his subjects appeal to the omnivorous reader: biographies of Galileo, Charles Darwin, and French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; the story of the mysterious journey his father, a filmmaker, made through China and Tibet in the 1950s; a tale about a Czech folk hero, Jan Welzl, an arctic adventurer of the early 20th century; and an adaptation of a 12th-century epic Persian poem, “The Conference of the Birds.”

Then there’s the dreamlike “The Three Golden Keys,” an allegory about a man who is unexpectedly whisked to the city of his youth (Prague, in Sís’ case) and must find his way to his childhood home with the aid of a black cat and three golden keys; only then will the silent city come back to life. Images from the book, such as one featuring hundreds of meticulously drawn bricks of an old, winding street, showcase Sís’ attention to detail and impart an air of mystery.

“Like all the best children’s books, this is one an adult will keep reaching for,” the New York Times wrote about ‘Keys,’ first issued in 1994. “For Peter Sís has succeeded in creating a book not only for the child, but for the adult she will one day be.”

Keeping busy

Though they’re not part of the exhibit, Sís created over 1,000 illustrations for the New York Times in past years, a fair number of them before he began writing and illustrating his books in the late 1980s; he also did illustrations for the books of other authors, as well as editorial work for different publications such as Time magazine.

The Carle show does, however, include some examples of early artistic work Sís did in America when he refused to return to Czechoslovakia and sought asylum; struggling to earn enough to make ends meet, he would paint faces and landscapes on eggs, bottles and other mundane items and sell them on the street.

As an accompanying catalog to the exhibit points out, Sís, as an immigrant, “felt a need to prove himself” and would often stay up all night to finish the illustrations he did for the New York Times. He also once spent three days crisscrossing a single illustration for “The Three Golden Keys.”

The western pop culture explosion of the 1960s that first fired his imagination can still be seen in much of his work, especially in “The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain,” a 2007 book about his boyhood in Czechoslovakia and the arrival of the new influences and ideas that led the teenage Sís to question what he’d been taught — and to seek answers through his own art.

The story mixes black and white and color images, with color signaling freedom of expression; there’s one illustration that could be a still from the animated Beatles’ film “Yellow Submarine,” a dreamscape filled with rock musicians, looping green hills, a player from the Harlem Globetrotters, flying fish and, yes, an airborne yellow submarine. By contrast, the book’s black and white frames present cartoonish police cars, eavesdropping neighbors, people secretly reading banned books, and long lines outside grocery stores.

In one sequence, a young boy imagines escaping from this bleak world by tunneling under a wall, pole vaulting over barbed wire, or swimming a river as soldiers fire at him.

In an afterword to the story, Sís wrote that when visiting Prague with his family or friends years after the Iron Curtain had come down, it was hard to convince them the city was once “a dark place full of fear, suspicion and lies.” That moved him to tell the story as he experienced it.

Keiter says Sís had been “on her radar” for a number of years as a subject for an exhibition; he’s previously given talks at the Carle and has been “a good friend” of the museum, she adds. In her view, the artist’s overall message is all about celebrating creativity and realizing life’s possibilities. “I think Peter has long been interested in writing about people who dare to dream.”

And that dreaming can take different forms, Sís once wrote: “I found out that one doesn’t have to discover new continents, that people can explore in their mind when locked in a prison cell and that books can be my home, my language, my country.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“The Picture Book Odysseys of Peter Sís” will be on exhibit at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art through October 27. For more information about the show and the museum, visit carlemuseum.org.