Petr Sís: Our ancestors would draw in caves in times of uncertainty

Petr Sís, photo: T. Bitnar

The highly successful Czech-born illustrator and author Petr Sís has been resident in New York for several decades. As the city comes under intense pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, he discusses his latest projects and more in this interview from the Czech Center New York series Artists That Never Give Up in the City That Never Sleeps.

Petr Sís,  photo: Ian Willoughby
How long have you lived in New York? How has New York influenced your work, how has it inspired you?

“I've been living in New York since ‘84 and to me the city has been a great inspiration and source of energy.”

What are you currently working on? What are your upcoming projects?

“I am just finishing a book dedicated to the memory of Sir Nicholas Winton, who saved the lives of 699 children from Czechoslovakia just before the outbreak of World War II.

“The book is supposed to be published in the fall.

“I’ve spent the last two weeks drawing and working on the very last dots in the last picture.”

In 2014, we had your very successful exhibition titled Cartography of the Mind in the Czech Center Gallery. It was a wonderful cooperation and for me an opportunity to experience your drawings up close. They have the magical property of drawing a person deep into the story. Could you tell us how you choose characters and themes? Do you see the story or images first?

“Cartography of the Mind was a beautiful show thanks to Charlotta Kotík and also to you with your wife Kristýna [Milde].

“What fascinates me is entering a story, forgetting myself – as a way to escape grey reality, as I did in my childhood.

“Back then I was able to live with Captain Nemo in his submarine and fly in a hot-air balloon over Africa.

“When I drew the stories, I did not notice that the whole night had passed by and it was already dawn.

“This really happened to me only at a young age. The older I got, the harder it was, and now it’s almost impossible.

“I choose the characters and stories that inspire me.

“Nicholas Winton was a young Englishman on vacation who did not have to worry about children in faraway Czechoslovakia.

“People did not believe that a great disaster was coming. However, he managed to save nearly 700 children.”

The current coronavirus situation has affected the whole art world. Has it impacted you personally or professionally?

“Of course it has. I am answering these questions at a moment when the tsunami wave is just on the rise.

“It’s all still yet to be determined.”

Many people find comfort and broader perspectives in art. As an artist, what helps you find balance and support in times of uncertainty? Do you have any encouraging thoughts to share?

“Art is comfort and inspiration.

“Our ancestors would draw in caves in times of uncertainty. So can we.”

A Brno-born artist, author and filmmaker, Petr Sís now lives and works in the New York City metropolitan area. He has created award-winning animated shorts, posters, murals, tapestries and public art. He has written and illustrated numerous books for children and adults. These include three Caldecott Award-winning titles, Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, Tibet: Through The Red Box and The Wall: Growing Up Behind Iron Curtain. He is also a recipient of the 2003 MacArthur Fellowship and the 2012 Hans Christian Andersen Award for illustration. His art has been exhibited internationally and recently Prague’s DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague presented a major retrospective of his work.