Peter Sis has had a very successful career. His illustrations have appeared in countless prestigious publications, while his children’s books, such as The Wall: Growing Up Behind the Iron Curtain and Robinson, have charmed readers of all ages, as well as picking up a host of awards.
The artist was born Petr Sís in Czechoslovakia and was actually a star DJ and music journalist as a young man in swinging ‘60s Prague. In the early 1980s he moved to California, before later relocating to New York.
When I spoke to him in the Big Apple, our broad-ranging conversation took in his late friend Miloš Forman, public art, Ivana Trump – and much more.
You’ve done so many books in your career. Which in particular are close to your heart?
“Well, now I can look back, so the ones that are close to my heart are about my children when they were little, so it’s Madlenka, and about my father when he was alive, that’s Tibet [Tibet: Through the Red Box].
“About the city I grew up, which is Prague.
“I thought, I’m coming as this great artist and they will have admiration for me. But in fact the French weavers are the great artists!”
“So this is how I look at these books. I have to say that I don’t open them often enough, but when I do I’m sometimes surprised by how much work and how much emotion went into them.”
You seem to have great recall of your childhood in Prague. Would you say you’re a nostalgic person?
“Not enough. Because now I’m trying to remember really the first emotions, before I knew what Prague was or before I knew Europe was or whatever – just the feelings between mother and child.
“I know there are stories there, but it’s so hard to remember them.
“It seems like I am nostalgic for the places, but it really is now more for the feelings.
“Sometimes when I watch a mother and child on the subway or on the bus, you can see that the interaction and the feeling of the baby, feeling so safe and so comfortable.
“Which, then again, makes me think about books where I have children who are away from the parents – or like the situation now with the children on the Mexican border or in Africa – when they are not safe, when they are not comfortable.
“So this is all about basic human feelings really.”
Is the subject of mother and child going to be in your next book?
“One is the story of an immigrant in the 19th century who goes to America; the family follows, but the child doesn’t know that.
“That’s sort of like more trying to understand what America is all about.
“The other story is one I’ve been trying to deal with for many years, and that is the Winton children.
“It was the story of this amazing man and the children, but then I realised…
“A school friend of mine had a sister who was one of the children.
“Her mother brought her to the train leaving Prague for England, put the little child on the train and realised that she couldn’t do it and took the child off.
“Both mother and child ended up in Terezín and they survived.
“But it’s like all these questions about how you want a better life for your child but how you break your own heart, because of politics, because of a war situation, because of poverty.
“It’s all very complex, and I do realise that I don’t know enough. And it’s easy to exploit it – to make it heart-breaking.
“But then I found out that all these Winton children who arrived didn’t really know how they got there; they didn’t have any reference as to why somebody would put them on a train.
“Then they realised they have survived the war – and their parents are gone.
“Besides being this great artist and filmmaker, Miloš Forman was a great human being.”
“It’s just an absolutely incredible story about human feelings which sometimes we don’t pay enough attention to.
“It’s part of history, we know about it, but if you just start to think about it carefully it’s pretty amazing.”
Are these books in any way informed by recent political events in America, with President Trump separating families?
“That’s sort of incredible, because both these ideas started to occur before.
“But it’s amazing how these things… as with The Wall, I did a book about growing up behind the Iron Curtain which seemed to be ancient, but all of a sudden with Putin it became very, very meaningful again.
“It’s the same with the separation of children.
“It’s amazing if you think about it, like Winton’s children going to England, these immigrants going to America in the 19th century and then you have these Mexican children being separated from their parents on the border, because of some higher political cause.
“So for me it’s quite stunning how it can fit. And I hope by the time I finish this work, or it’s printed, that it still has a pretty powerful message.”
Something else you’ve been doing in recent years is these incredible, very large tapestries that have been appearing in public places. They seem extremely complex to produce – it seems like an unusual process. How much have you enjoyed that?
“But I should point out that I thought, This is my creation, I’m such a great artist.
“But in fact this past year I went to the place where they make these tapestries. It’s a place in France, near Limoges, called Aubusson.
“I went to the workshop or factory where a lot of people from the small town of Aubusson have worked for generations.
“I thought, I’m coming as this great artist and they will have admiration for me.
“But in fact they are the great artists! They look at me, like, Who are you? You come up with these ideas and we have to translate it into wool and into material.
“I realised it’s such a lucky and also almost tragic situation too, because the first picture that was turned into a tapestry was one I did for Hospodářské noviny when they asked me to pay tribute to Václav Havel.
“I did a picture which is the size of the newspaper and that was Flying Man.
“The man from Art for Amnesty, Bill Shipsey, who I already knew, realised that this picture could become a tapestry.
“He was really the one who dared to suggest that it would be this huge piece in my work.
“I always did small pictures, small graphic art, sometimes a little bit bigger, but never big-sized.
“This picture, Flying Man, became a tapestry that is now in Prague Airport.
“Since then I have been approached by Art for Amnesty a few times and now I can say I have five or six tapestries that I created in the size of, let’s say, a book.
“My own unbearable experience of communism was how the system made you sort of bend and be grateful for things that you should be granted.”
“And then, I should knock on wood, because every time they somehow transferred really well into the large size because of the French weavers, because, I think, of how they were able to translate my vision into these tapestries.
“One is in Cape Town, one is in Dublin, one is in Ellis Island in New York.
“But it’s just amazing because they’re all celebrating somebody who was very meaningful to people, who meant a lot to me, like John Lennon.
“I also learned a lot about Nelson Mandela.
“Or Seamus Heaney, who was a friend. We meant to do a book together and then unfortunately he passed away. I did a tribute to him and now it’s in Dublin Airport.
“So they are these things about special people.
“I don’t know if anything like that will ever happen again, but it’s an incredible extension of my work in my life.”
You’ve also done a mosaic in a subway station here in New York and you’ve done posters for the New York transport authority. How satisfying is it for you to see your work in a public place, where it’s reaching far more people, I guess, than any book?
“It’s satisfying in an ego way, like with the poster on the New York subway.
“There was a moment at Union Square station when you had three trains passing each other with two posters on each car, so that feels good.
“Of course, you can have a moment on the subway I think when the subway doesn’t move and people are upset and go, What is this picture doing?
“But also you realise very soon that people don’t look at it.
“If I have a tapestry in the airport I say, Oh, I have a tapestry in the airport.
“But if somebody is rushing with two suitcases and one screaming child they’re not going to look at your tapestry.
“I was complaining about my mosaics. I was saying, Nobody ever looks at the mosaics at 86th St. and Lexington in New York, because people are getting on the train and off the train.
“And it’s usually kids or homeless people who would be looking at it.
“But then I heard somebody say, You know, they don’t look at it – but if you took it away, they would know it’s missing.
“So it’s somehow making everyday life more colourful and better.
“And then you hope that there is some sort of message or playfulness which goes with it.”
I guess your single most seen image must have been the poster for Amadeus. When Miloš Forman died earlier this year, there was a huge outpouring of love for him and for his films, of course. He was, I guess, a friend of yours. What was he like as a person, as a man?
“I think I would call him a mentor more…
“He was a friend. Most of all he was a very kind man with a great sense of humour who made everything better.
“Now I don’t mean just because he was a genius as a filmmaker and as a thinker, and the way he did things… he would always choose a project and stay with it and make it perfect. He didn’t rush.
“He was loyal. He never really spoke badly about anybody.
“I’m surprised that people are not open-minded in the sense that I saw at the time with all these young people who were in Havel’s government.”
“Besides being this great artist and filmmaker he was a great human being.
“I knew him and his sons and his wife and they were just wonderful and kind and loving people.
“But then only through a book about him or in time I found out really about his history, his childhood, his going through this torturous time when both parents were taken away by the Gestapo.
“The set of circumstances was that somebody who had hated his parents stamped the documents ‘return undesirable’ and both parents perished.
“He was a little boy who survived the war with his own thoughts, alone in the house, even though there was some family who would help.
“I think that made him who he was, but he was never hateful.
“He was a very wise man.
“And in fact if you look at all his films, there’s this incredible message which was like a memento for me, and I wish I could say that about all my books, but it was about freedom, it was about the human condition, and fighting absurdity, stupidity, dictatorship.
“It was always about human dignity.
“He never wanted anybody to bend. And in that I sensed that whole feeling, because my own unbearable experience of communism was how the system made you sort of bend and be grateful for things that you should be granted.
Now you can come and go whenever you want to the Czech Republic. You can go every month, if you want to. In the past, how important was it for you living here to have strong Czech connections?
“It went through these different stages.
“My father had told me. He was also a very wise man and he said, You know, it’s not like you leave your country once – you go through different stages.
“It’s so true. When I thought for seven years that I cannot ever go back, I would try to recreate the wallpaper in my grandmother’s kitchen.
“Then when I could go back, I remember how dumb I was, coming from America. I told my mother, Oh, I must have fresh orange juice every morning and take a shower.
“That was an important part of the lesson.
“And then it was so cool. At one time you could just, like, walk onto the plane and get out in Prague and be with your friends.
“That was, of course, before all the security unpleasantness which we experience now.
“And now of course there are the ravages of age [laughs]. I have to plan it and I have to know that I have enough space for my knee to stretch.
“It’s interesting how it’s almost reversed itself. That I want to go, but I have to plan it.
“The best time was probably coming and going, but that was also an illusion in a way.
“I think now it will be time for me to leave New York, because it became too busy and too touristy and too insane.”
“Because working on the project about immigrants in the 19th century, this was an interesting phenomenon – that people really left their home, they knew that they would not be coming back.
“I mean, it happened that people got rich and did come back, but mostly they were really changing their whole life.
“They were going to a new country and they had to sort of prove themselves in the new country.
“It got a little misleading at one point when you could go, come and go.
“Now I see Prague especially is such a rich and well-to-do place and I’m surprised that people are not, I would say, open-minded in the sense that I saw at the time with all these young people who were in Havel’s government.
“But I think it also goes with the times. There was the time after the Velvet Revolution when everything seemed to be sort of transient and enjoyable.
“Now, because of tourism, because of prices… but I think it just goes with getting old.”
It’s probably harder to make it in the US than in the Czech Republic. What do you need to be a success in America, do you think?
“I think you need luck, as everywhere.
“And being in New York, you are in the centre – or you were in the centre, now it’s all changing with digital technology – and I was close to the publishing houses, I was close to all the media.
“I know many people in Prague who are more talented than I am, but I think I was close enough that somebody would call and say, Can you be here in 15 minutes? Can you do a picture?
“So I think in that sense I was close to the source. Which again is now changing, because you can I guess email from any place.
“But I think it was a good quarter-century for me. Also because of people like Miloš Forman or Ivan Passer or Mike Hausman. So I think it was wonderful.
“What I envy young people now is that they can come and they can send pictures ahead of them and they can make international connections and they don’t have to worry about some visas or permits to travel.
“So I think in that sense the world is probably better. Politics are something else.”
When you first lived here it would have been pretty much inconceivable that somebody like Donald Trump could be elected. What has changed, either here or in the world in general?
“Ivana Trump was a big story for all Czech émigrés, because there were just a few people [who were big names]… there were film people and arts people and also models.
“And Ivana was definitely a socialite, who married Donald Trump.
“It’s amazing, because he was like this landlord and he was in all the newspapers as this playboy – so it would be completely inconceivable that this would happen.
“But what is more stunning is the vulgarity of it all, all over the world.
“If I look around and see how people are accusing the press, behaving the way they behave, speaking the way they speak.
“And now maybe I’m contradicting myself, because I’m sure that when I was 19 or 20 I would want people to be free and behave as they want.
“But every day is like Halloween with Donald Trump. I’m sort of shaking, because nothing is stable, everything is in motion.
“In fact, just yesterday I was on the train coming to Manhattan and somebody called me from Prague and said, What is he doing? Have you been watching his press conference?
“And I say, No, I’m on the train. He said, Does he want to have a war?
“So I think he’s shaking up people all over the world because nobody’s quite certain what’s going on.
“Sometimes I worry, because I’m going to be 70 next year and I can see, like, sometimes you talk too much or sometimes you get crazy ideas because you’re getting too old.
“Every day is like Halloween with Donald Trump. I’m sort of shaking, because nothing is stable, everything is in motion.”
“Sometimes you slip on the step and sometimes you look at young women, or something.
“And I’m wondering how much he is really getting old and crazy and putting his ego ahead of the well-being of the whole world.”
Have you ever met or interacted with Trump?
“I met his wife. I was really proud at one point of being friends with Ája Vrzáňová, who was friends with Ivana, and that his children speak Czech. I even connected myself, being from Moravia [PS was born in Brno]…
“And now everything is upside down and it’s just disturbing.”
You mentioned that you turn 70 at your next birthday. Stop me if this question is too personal, but are you somebody who’s relaxed about aging?
“I should say that I am.
“But I’m really not, in the sense that I was always the observer of things, drawing things, so a book would sometimes take a long time…
“I was observing Galileo or travelling with Charles Darwin and seemingly I wasn’t aging at all, because I was living with other people.
“It was so easy to make predicaments, like Charles Darwin is going to die, this is so sad.
“Even in my animation I did passages where I said, Oh this is the end of life.
“Because when you are young you easily say, Oh, this is what happens in the end.
“But now when I’m getting to, or I’m already in, the zone of it, it is disturbing how much of it I drew or predicted – and I think I should have been more careful [laughs].
“So I’m trying to put a brave face on it, but it is definitely a bit disturbing.”
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