Though author and illustrator Peter Sís is best known for his evocative, informative picture books, the Sibert Award–winning, Czech-born author has found a new way to share his art with the world: by designing tapestries that honor the memories of Václav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, and poet Seamus Heaney.
Unveiled at the Prague Airport in 2012, Sís’s tapestry of Havel, “The Flying Man,” originated as an illustration for his picture book The Conference of the Birds (Penguin, 2011) that the author was unable to incorporate into the book. Sís then planned to use the illustration for a memorial cover for the Czech newspaper Hospodářské Noviny’s tribute to Havel. When Bill Shipsey, founder of Art for Amnesty, Amnesty International’s global artist project, saw it, he came up with the idea to transform the picture into a tapestry. Shipsey located tapestry makers in Aubusson, a small village in France famous for its carpets and tapestries, who for months painstakingly and “thread by thread” realized Sís’s vision, the author said.
Though the project was a lengthy and expensive endeavor—with high-profile admirers such as Bono, Peter Gabriel, and Yoko Ono contributing to the costs—Sís was gratified to see the result, a striking, 16 x 14 feet creation depicting a flock of white birds in the shape of a man against a blue sky.
“The colors are just absolutely radiant,” said Sís. “It’s really done with the utmost care.”
After this project came Sís’s work for the Dublin Airport. An admirer of Seamus Heaney, Sís had planned to collaborate with the Irish poet/playwright and 1995 Nobel Prize recipient on an illustrated version of his poem “In the Attic,” but Heaney died in 2013. The Dublin Airport then suggested that Sís design a tapestry honoring the poet. Sís employed his trademark fantastical style for “Out of the Marvellous,” unveiled at the airport this year, which depicts Heaney airborne, floating in the air in a hot air balloon–like contraption, hoisted by pages of his own poetry.
Sís expressed his admiration for the great work of the tapestry makers, noting the challenge of transposing his original watercolor paintings to the tapestry medium. “It must be very difficult for them to [weave] the very thin string I painted [in ‘Out of the Marvellous’],” he said. “I was in no way trying to adjust to the technique.”
He found the results immensely gratifying. “It’s just amazing that in this age…[that] this is really a handmade thing,” he said. “Somehow, it even looks better than my original art.”
While flying was the theme of both tapestries, as well as that of his recent picture book The Pilot and the Little Prince (FSG, 2014), on Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Sís said that he didn’t choose this subject consciously. Discussing his tapestry of Heaney, Sís explained that the poet “was always trying to reach new territories, so I made him with a book and balloon.” He added, “I think maybe it’s because I’m from a very small country, where you couldn’t really think about soaring high or leaving. Maybe it’s about being able to see the world from up there.”
Sís is familiar with the power of public art, having previously completed mosaics for the Baltimore Airport and three murals for the Champaign Public Library in Illinois. He is also known for his inspired art created for the New York City subway system, including a poster depicting a map of Manhattan in the shape of a whale (a map he reconceived as an alligator emerging from the sewer in The Pilot and the Little Prince) and “Happy City,” a mosaic in the subway station at 86th Street and Lexington Avenue showing city in the shape of an eye.
Though Sís spoke of his love for his picture books, he believes there is something special about public art, which helps to enrich the overall environment. “The space is [made] much more beautiful. It makes us all feel much better about life.”