Dreams from Nightmares: illustrator Peter Sis draws from his experiences living under Communist rule in Czechoslovakia and the creative freedom that followed

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Date: July-August 2015
Publisher: Active Interest Media HoldCo, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,512 words
Content Level: (Level 3)
Lexile Measure: 970L

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FILMMAKER, ILLUSTRATOR AND AUTHOR are just three words to describe Peter Sis--a creative genius and winner of a Golden Bear Award, eight New York Times Book Review Best Illustrated Book of the Year awards, three Caldecott Honor Book awards, and a MacArthur Fellowship, among others. He also illustrated The Whipping Boy, which was awarded the Newbery Medal.

Sis attended the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague and the Royal College of Art in London before he was commissioned by the Czech government, in 1984, to create an animated film for the summer olympics taking place in the U.S.

The film was cancelled, but Sis was granted asylum and stayed in the U.S. Here, he talks to accomplished illustrator Will Hillenbrand.

Will Hillenbrand: Peter, the question that I'd like to start with is actually a quotation: "What is essential is invisible to the eye." It's a quotation that comes from Antoine de Saint-Exupery one of whose books you've just illustrated. That quote was also on Fred Rogers's office wall. Peter Sis: Just the quotation in itself is wonderful. For me, it has other meanings because I grew up in a society that wasn't open. It was essential that lots of things worked as a hidden message. I appreciate that you would mention Mr. Rogers. Not growing up in America--I came over here at age 33--there were some things I had to catch up on. Mr. Rogers was one of those things. I didn't know what was happening in children's television, but Mr. Rogers struck me. His was much slower and kinder than other television programs. If I look back, he was assuring me that there are things in America that are kind to children.

I think one of the reasons I did a book about Antoine de Saint-Exupery (see page 48) was that he was like Mr. Rogers in his work; Saint-Exupery did lots of very sensitive, smart things. He was a pilot and he also wrote books, but also he was a curious human being with a pure heart. In his books and in his life, he showed so much care for all people and what was happening to this world. He has another quotation that I think of very often about how there are more and more stores where you can buy almost everything, but you cannot buy friends in stores, and friends are most important in your life. These are the little things he said in the 1930s, but they're so meaningful today, too.

It's the essential bedrock past all the business of our world. With your work, and with that book, there are parallels: conflict, war and adventure. If I were working with a young illustration student and said, "Put those in your work," she might say, "How do I draw them?" Well, you draw from your experience.

Being uprooted, being an immigrant, and coming to a completely different country ... it's like going from one planet to another. As a boy, I always loved to draw. I liked to draw stories, and then I got into illustration by coincidence.

I think what I was trying to do was to still be that little boy who loves stories but, of course, I had to fit within a certain concept and business concern, which was publishing houses and editors. I was lucky with the editors but, if I look back, what I did was try to be like that boy who's playing; I was trying different styles. I was telling different stories.

At this point, I've been living in America longer than I lived in my home country and it's funny because I don't feel like it. I think lots of my work comes from that in-between moment--growing up with these fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen and the graphic style of Europe, and then coming to the new country. I thought for many years that I could bring these two worlds together because, I thought, they're not that far apart, but now I'm almost giving up. Whenever I get close, there's still a gap there.

The movement called Surrealism--we think of Dali and Magritte--your work touches that. There's a mythology that's connected to your work, which is rooted very deeply, not only in time, but also in the child's experience.

People want to say "Surrealism" or "Pointillism." They want to put art in one box, but I think these images contain much more, and when we don't know exactly what to call it, we call it by a name.

I also went to art school for a number of years. In Europe, as it often still is, you'd go to art school and, even if you were studying to become an illustrator or animator you'd say, "I'm an artist! I can't be doing commercial art." I was almost relieved to find out later, in America, that there are people who study illustration, and they're almost like my grandfather who made signs for stores and restaurants. You get a job, you get dimensions, you do it, you turn it in and you get money. You don't say, "I'm trying to create this very moody painting."

When I was a little boy, I had a spine injury and couldn't move. I was bedridden for almost a year when there were no televisions and no computers, and I would be given all kinds of books. I loved the books where I could find lots of stories going on in little details, like stories outside of the stories or under the stories. I'd already read the main story; I knew it was about Little Red Riding Hood, but then I was looking for different leaves and berries in the forest. I like to think that I am writing for somebody who has time to find all kinds of things.

It was most telling when I was in Virginia and I went to this juvenile detention center for a book talk. It was strange to go to any kind of prison in America. These boys had studied my books for a month! I was sitting with them and they would say, "Why did you put a brick in this corner?" It was the most detailed analysis of what I did. Other children are busier, or maybe I don't hear from the children who somehow find the time.

That's interesting, Peter, because you've touched on time. There was a vacuum of time created for you, and these young people have time. With film, in which you have a background, and with books, the element that we introduce to our audience or require of them is time.

That's an amazing observation because I was just trying to explain to my kids that time didn't exist in the same way when I grew up, thanks to politics. Now I can say it was the Cold War. We couldn't travel anywhere; we couldn't leave where we were. We had time to talk about whatever was happening or not happening and do drawings that we thought had no purpose because they weren't going anywhere. Time stood still. Somebody would come through Prague, say a tourist from Germany, and we'd say, "Wow, what is he doing here?" Now, of course, it's so different. There's no time for anything. I think my productivity in America comes from the fact that for so many years I was stuck in this time warp, not able to do anything, so I was eager to do something because all of a sudden I could.

One of the comments we might get as illustrators is, "That looks like it took a lot of time." Well, it does, but we don't pick up a book and say, "I love this because it took time." We love a book because it resonates and connects with us. We have this tapestry that, if we give ourselves permission and the time to go there, is richly rewarding.

I know it's happened a few times when I was doing something and thought, "Where did I come up with this? This is really taking a long time," but it was essential for what I was trying to do. I was just looking at the great interview you did with David Macaulay (July/August 2014), and thinking about his cathedrals and mosques and again I see his intentions. The idea is there beforehand, and it's not a question of, "How many bricks will it take?"

It's what we experience as artists. We're committed to this space, this page we're making; it's going to take time. How does that feed you?

It feeds me and it doesn't feed me. I think I might be done with a project, but then I realize that time moved in some different way than the time in general life, and that observation, for me, is striking now. How did time fly by so quickly? Both of our kids left home for college and everything changed fundamentally. Lots of books for me are, "Oh, this is when Madeline was losing a tooth; I did this book then," (see illustration to left and page 51) or, "This is when Matej liked trucks." What happened to time? How come they're grown up now? It only took 20 books!

I also think you're very humble. That being said, I can take a look at your collective body of work and say, "It's going to live outside of time." Your works are, individually and collectively, classics.

I have to go back to when I got a chance to do my first book in this country and think of how exceptionally lucky I was to get into this situation. Who knows how much more time it would have taken if Maurice Sendak hadn't helped me, because he didn't have to help me at all.

Can you talk a little bit about Sendak and that relationship?

It was very strange. I was in Los Angeles making a film. The film didn't work and I was without a job, trying to go to other film companies and say that I had some ideas. People thought my ideas were too "surrealistic." I got offered a job doing backgrounds for the show The Smurfs. I was seriously thinking about it, and now I'm glad I didn't take it, but it was $450 weekly, and I didn't go for it. I was basically frustrated. There I was, in Los Angeles as a new immigrant; I couldn't get a job. I didn't know what to do. I taught, but the school didn't like my way of teaching because I was not kind enough to the paying students.

Then, the head of the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, Josine Ianco Starrels, whose father is actually one of the founders of Dada, took some Xeroxes of my art and sent them to Maurice Sendak in Connecticut. He called me in Los Angeles and said, "So, you want to do children's books." I was at the end of any ideas about what I should be doing. I had gone to art school in Prague and in London. I had done illustration but I also did animation. I also did rock music record covers, and I was hoping I would be sort of a hip guy who paints the rock-and-roll drum kits and posters. Illustrators were always very gentle, quiet people, so I had never said, "I solely want to do illustration." All of a sudden, I have a phone call from Maurice Sendak. I didn't know Maurice Sendak as well as an American kid knew him. Only later did I find Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More to Life. I thought, "This i s fantastic!"

He offered to help me. He talked to me for about an hour and wanted to know what I thought about democracy, what I thought about Reagan, what I thought about the libraries and the chances of poor people buying books. "This is 1982," he said. "Publishing is deadly. It's about money now." Since then, I've known he had a dark side. I was fresh off the boat and thought the American Dream was, "If I can do something, I will." Sendak said, "Don't think that, and most of all what are you doing living in Los Angeles if you want to create thoughtful books?" I said, "This is where I came. I don't know any other place in America." He said, "You have to immediately move out of there because it's the most terrible and pretentious place." Then he said, "Keep on drawing; you will hear from me again."

Sendak called me next when he was in Los Angeles. I only found out recently that he was getting a big award at the American Library Association Conference, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. He called me and he said, "Okay, I'm in LA and I could introduce you to three or four publishers who would look at your work." I thought, "I'll get into books, and I'll turn them into films. In America, if you make books, you will probably sell a few million copies because there are so many millions of people," so I was clueless. When I came to New York, I was expecting that Greenwillow Books would take care of the apartment where I would live and also give me some money to buy clothes. I was still not sure about capitalist societies so I went and said, "Here I am," and they went, "Okay, so here you are; welcome to New York! We will see more of you and we will give you a contract." I thought, "Is that it? I have to find a place to stay now? I have to find and buy the table, chair and ink?"

My first book I wanted to dedicate to Maurice Sendak because it wouldn't have happened without him, and I still have a letter from him where he said, "I don't think you should do that." He said I should dedicate it to my mother. Later, I sent him all my new books, but I didn't really see him too often because I got married and had kids, and he was always such a smart man but pessimistic about what was going on in politics and in the world. I was more like, "No, everything is going great!" In fact, he was right. I think so often about that first hour when he told me how things would be. I also come from the Czech community; we always expect some foreign army to take over and destroy everything and, if you ask somebody how he is, he says, "It's terrible. I'm really bad and tomorrow's going to be even worse." It's an attitude for centuries, and Sendak was somehow feeding into this, for me. I already was dealing with the fact that I couldn't go back home. I couldn't be exposed to that negativity (the remembrance of suffering and invasions) because it was a dark force taking over me, but now I'm sorry, because he's not here.

You ended up receiving this very nice award, the Mazza Medallion of Excellence for Artistic Diversity, last night. It encompasses media--a mastery of many different media--and techniques, so we should probably talk a little about technique.

I love technique but I don't feel I'm experimenting enough. I still feel guilty 50 years later that, during art school, when I could have studied graphic techniques, we were experiencing revolution in Prague. I spent most of the time in the streets and cafes talking and demonstrating instead of in the studio, etching a plate. We had a whole studio in the school devoted to the tradition of graphic arts. I only went as far as the lithographic stone. It's a gap in my life, and now I try to do similar things with pen and ink and, of course, that becomes something completely different, so in a way, I have a big problem in life trying to resolve what I sketch and how I think visually and how I finish the art. My sketchbooks or my dummies are very free flowing. I can do them in just a few days, and I put together collages of different things that are visual references, and they've got a certain flow and they've got a certain elegance. Then, when I get to the finish, there's some big psychological problem and I think, "Oh my God, I'm in the United States of America. This book might be seen by many people"--it's stage fright.

I really prefer my sketches. With my last book, about Saint-Exupery (see page 48), I did five different dummies. I was playing and I enjoyed it. I just finished a book about ice cream, in which I've tried to simplify, because ice cream should be simple--pure color and joy. The publishers said, "No, no, you should do something with maps and you should include somebody like this...," but we all deal with it. You sort of paint yourself into a box.

Well, to a point, and maybe that's the template that we fit in; that's our box! I'm going to look at one page here in The Pilot and The Little Prince, and in this particular page we have a painting at the top and we have ink at the bottom. Is that watercolor?

Actually, that book is mostly watercolor except for two illustrations. Watercolor goes with the air and flying. Since our daughter was born, I've been trying to have things look as if they're emerging from the background. To celebrate her birth, I began creating the book The Three Golden Keys in 1992 in which I played a lot because, at that time, I had a chance to try everything. I was doing lots of editorial illustrations so I ran lots of tests, doing work for Time Magazine or Atlantic Monthly. I was trying a technique and then I'd say, "I really like this. I can use it later." At that time I was using a lot of gesso, then oil pastel, then layers of oil pastel, letting it dry, and then I would take an X-Acto knife and scratch the surface. I liked the idea; it was almost like etching, but I was creating these amazing colorful and textural mysteries, and it led to this.

My wife was pregnant and she said, "I don't think this residue from oil pastel is really good for anybody," so I switched to watercolor. That still brought lots of questions on her part so then I established a studio outside of the house, but I lost the continuity in the book so there is only one picture of scratching into oil pastel.

In Exupery's book Night Flight he actually has a chance to describe his own crash. People asked, was he guilty? Did he fall asleep? So he wrote a book about his life, about flying, and then he says, "We are flying and see this beacon of light and we are high in the clouds and all of a sudden we hit the sand." For five days he and his mechanic had only grapes, half a bottle of red wine and some chocolate. They were not prepared and they were wandering in the desert. It was an incredible miracle that they hit the sand. The wings broke off, and because of the character of the sand in the Libyan desert, the two were able to sort of slide into their landing, and they ran away quickly because they thought the plane was going to explode. It didn't explode, but the whole plane was in pieces in the desert; they didn't know where they were, and they were wandering. So the idea in The Pilot and the Little Prince is that they go in different directions and they meet a little fennec (a desert fox), which would become the fox in The Little Prince. I knew from the beginning how I wanted to draw this story, because everything in the book was supposed to be the personification of something: for example, what he sees from the air reminds him of faces or people. I wanted the color to be like a night in the desert: you can see but it's dark. I used watercolor, and I went over it many, many, many times to make these deep shades of color.

And here, in the same book, we've got the tanks at the bottom, and the script?

You know it's annoying because the wet watercolor is so much brighter than when it dries; the printing cannot do it justice. The watercolor also determined that I had to have a studio with an oven because I would dry the pictures in front of the oven. At one point I was cooking while I was making pictures. Those were the days of grease sparks!

That's mixed media! Tell me how you think about color when you're making your books. Do you have colors for certain things that resonate with you?

I'd say the colors are determined by my vision of the book at the end.

With Saint Exupery, because he's flying and it's his story of flying, there are lots of blues and lots of oceans. I remember in the book on Darwin (The Tree of Life: A Book Depicting the Life of Charles Darwin-Naturalist, Geologist & Thinker, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux) because it's set in the Victorian time, I thought grays, beiges and greens. Columbus (Follow the Dream: The Story of Christopher Columbus, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers) many years ago, was done with lots of blues, just because it was oceans ("In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.") again. These were large oil paintings I could leave on the floor. Then came the kids and crawling! The pictures got smaller, and I would not leave them on the floor overnight.

Now, of course, with The Wall (see below), you have this motif of walls. The motif seems a reflection of your own experience, whether expressed through your account of Galileo's (Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, paperback published by Square Fish) struggle with conventional thinking or, as it is here in The Wall, with a visual motif.

I think it's the most important motif in my work. When I look back, I think, how can somebody tell you, "You cannot cross this wall! You need permission to cross this wall. We'll keep you." It's interesting how, when you're born here, as my kids were, being American, you don't understand. My son, even today, even with all these books I did, said, "If you didn't like it (in Prague), why didn't you just go away" and I go, "You couldn't go away! You were stuck there." It's a Czech saying that, "If you have a full stomach, you don't believe the hungry person." So walls were always in my work as the main message. Some people find the motif offensive; people who have families or relatives who were killed in the Communist camps say, "Well, this is about some walls. It was more than that. It was about life and death; it was about freedom." But, for me, the right to really be free or to pursue happiness, it's the most important, and it's restricted by a wall.

I think that when children experience this, when they see it, they know. They see that in your Mozart book (Play, Mozart, Play!, published by Greenwillow Books). What Mozart's doing in that book is following the rules of his own creative self, but he also blossoms from inside. I think what a child relates to, and the child in me relates to, is that there are walls and barriers in our lives, and some of these, of course, are real political experiences. Making it personal, that's what you've done, so that a child can relate.

I remember Maurice Sendak was so upset when he wanted to be an activist with We Are All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy. Because they were Sendak's, store owners put piles of these books everywhere, expecting a Christmas bonanza, and then, when they realized the book was really about poverty and AIDS, the books just got trashed. Booksellers started to remove them, and it was incredibly painful. I remember that Sendak and I spoke, and he felt as if he had this important message for the world about how the world should behave, and people, for commercial reasons, didn't want to see it, just as he'd warned me when I first got into illustration.

I think art, at some point, can agitate. To make the pearl we need a grain of sand. I'd like to talk about Madlenka before we end. I love the way you did the perspective, but I also wanted to talk about how the typography developed, even on this page where the type circles the page and then it turns into the following page. It's almost like a little wiggle of the tooth--the tooth is getting loose here, I think. Also, let's talk about cutting windows in a page (see above) so the reader sees through it to different worlds. In a way, you're celebrating the diversity that the artist's eye sees in beauty and variety--and not the sameness of things.

That was a very joyful time because we were in downtown Manhattan, and my daughter was a very energetic little girl. Day to day, I realized that everybody on that block was from a different country. For me, it was something worth celebrating (see spread, above, and page 46). The idea of the tooth also happened coincidentally, and I think the design of the type, if I'm not mistaken, was due to our director, Filomena Tuosto, the wife of illustrator Ed Young. I liked the idea of entering different worlds by having almost a third dimension--going into those worlds.

I'm a huge fan of your work and I appreciate so much the carefulness and the thoughtfulness, and that you're sharing your work with the people that are most important to me--the young people that see the world new.

What you said today about the children and how they see the world new--that's what I need to hear. I got a little bit of that from my own children, but once they started getting bigger, it happened less and less often, and now I was just thinking that I have to find some way to remind myself of that message. Children do not write letters to authors anymore. It would be nice to have some sort of discussion with the kids to know what they think because I'm completely missing that. What you said was very much appreciated because that keeps me going.

It does. Thank you very much.


WILL HILLENBRAND has interviewed David Macaulay, Tomie dePaola, Melissa Sweet, Kevin Hawkes and Ashley Bryan for The Artist's Magazine. His latest book is Snowman's Story (Two Lions, 2014). Visit his website at www.willhillenbrand.com.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A413786828