Peter Sis

In summer 2001, the University of Wisconsin-Madison welcomes Peter Sís as an Arts Institute Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence.

The Department of Art, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC), and the Elvehjem Museum of Art are cosponsors of his residency. The noted illustrator, author, and animation filmmaker will teach a course on illustration in the Department of Art, be the subject of book discussions at the CCBC, have an exhibition of his work and give a public lecture and book-signing at the Elvehjem.

Peter Sís was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia in 1949. His mother was an artist and his father a filmmaker. Peter grew up in Prague, under the Communist regime. Peter says, "I started to draw at an early age. I drew all the time, on every available surface. Gradually I decorated the whole house, the light switches, the chairs . . ."

He attended the Academy of Applied Arts in Prague from 1968 to 1974, where he was D.J. of a rock music program and cofounder of a political student magazine. In 1977 he spent a year at the Royal College of Art in London. He had his first solo art exhibition in Prague in 1974; his first American solo exhibition was in 1990 at the Ohio University School of Art. He regularly exhibits in both group and solo shows in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. He uses oil pastels or makes intricate pen-and-ink drawings washed with delicate watercolors. Sís spoke about his style in a talk he gave on the UW-Madison campus in March 1999: "My work is called sophisticated, but it may be just time-consuming. If my writing is complex and intricate, it is because my thinking is. My desire is to be as simple and clear as possible."

Sís made his first animated film, "Mimikry," in 1975. This film, which used a surrealistic style to present his own antiviolence message, was about a kind of butterfly that mimics the look of a death's head to ward off predators. His animated film "Island for 6,000 Alarm Clocks, A Modern Fairy Tale" (in which alarm clocks were so tired of being punched every morning, they escaped into their own world) was banned in Czechoslovakia. His film "Heads," an homage to the art of Arcimboldo, won the Golden Bear Award for an animated short at the 1980 West Berlin Film Festival. When his films were included in a Los Angeles animated film festival in 1982, the Czech government permitted him to attend. Sís decided to stay in the United States and was granted asylum. His first American film was an animated short for MTV based on Bob Dylan's song "You Gotta Serve Somebody," which won the Cine Golden Eagle Award.

When he was living in Los Angeles, a friend sent samples of his work to children's book author Maurice Sendak, who introduced Peter to several editors of children's books. He had published his first illustrations in 1977 in a Czech rendition of some of the Grimm Brothers' fairy tales and published his illustrations in another seven books in Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, and Germany. He still had to break into American book publishing, which he did in 1984 when Greenwillow Books commissioned him to illustrate George Shannon's book Bean Boy. A career in publishing necessitated an expensive move to New York, and the poster he had just created for his countryman Milos Forman's movie Amadeus facilitated that move. Also in 1984 he began doing illustrations for The New York Times, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, and other leading newspapers and magazines.

Sís's artwork for the novel The Whipping Boy written by Sid Fleischman gained attention for Sís at the beginning of his children's book career in the U.S. Illustrations for George Shannon's riddles from folklore have provided another window into his artistry, as have his illustrations accompanying collections of Jack Prelutsky's humorous poetry.

Sís's experiences since moving to New York City are reflected in picture books such as Waving and Going Up! His personal awareness as the father of very young children informed the fold-out reversible lullaby book Sleep Safe, Little Whale written by Miriam Schlein. A sequence of unique picture books with very few words celebrate the imaginative play of a young child: Fire Truck; Trucks Trucks Trucks; Ship Ahoy!; Dinosaur!; and Ballerina!

His more sophisticated books have brought Peter Sís to prominence across America, throughout Europe and the English-speaking world, and in some Asian nations, as well. In Starry Messenger, words are incorporated within visual images so that the multiple texts become an important part of the visual design. The texts of Starry Messenger can be read at various levels, just as they can in Madlenka. The removable dust jacket for the book Tibet suggests the transition of an animation, as do the repeated visual images in each section of the book. Layered images are significant in The Three Golden Keys and Starry Messenger, and, to a certain extent, in Follow the Dream.

Sís pays homage to places and individual people in some books. Prague is featured in The Three Golden Keys, and his family's current Manhattan neighborhood in Madlenka. Starry Messenger honors Galileo Galilei's witness to truth; Follow the Dream offers a tribute to the daring of Christopher Columbus; and A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North relates the journey of Jan Welzl, a folk hero from Czechoslovakia. Multiple tributes to his father's life and work, as a filmmaker who still lives in Prague, are woven throughout the complex volume Tibet.

Although Peter Sís now lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children, he continues to integrate his experiences as an animator in the closed society of a Communist regime with his mobility today between the culture of Europe and that of his career and family life in America. His books bring profound insights and cross many boundaries.


Peter Sís will teach a four-week course on professional illustration in the Department of Art, June 18 through July 15 (art 469), open to twenty students with the consent of art professor Philip Hamilton. Prospective students need not be enrolled in the Department of Art program or even UW-Madison, but they must have selected a book and have ideas for its illustration before consulting Professor Hamilton (E-mail:, tel: 608 262-1660). Sís will teach students about methods for professional preparation of illustrations for publishers. During those four weeks students will prepare their illustrations for a book and then exhibit them at the 734 Gallery, 734 University Avenue.

The Cooperative Children's Book Center, a noncirculating children's and young adult literature library of the School of Education, will hold two book discussions on Peter Sís for UW-Madison students, staff, and faculty and other interested adults. Discussions will be held on Wednesday, June 27 from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, July 11 from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. in the Elizabeth Burr Room, CCBC, 4290 Helen C. White Hall. Each discussion will be limited to fifteen participants. There is no fee, but preregistration is required. Phone 608 263-3720 to register by June 22 or for additional information. UW faculty planning a Sís book discussion in a course may consult with the CCBC.

Participants must read at least five of the books scheduled and be prepared to discuss them using CCBC Book Discussion Guidelines, found at On June 27 the books to be discussed are Alphabet Soup (Knopf, 1988), Beach Ball (Greenwillow, 1990), The Dragons Are Singing Tonight (Greenwillow, 1993), The Three Golden Keys (Doubleday, 1994), Starry Messenger (Farrar, 1996), Fire Truck (Greenwillow, 1998), and Madlenka (Farrar, 2000). Books to be discussed on July 11 are Bean Boy (Greenwillow, 1984), Rainbow Rhino (Knopf, 1987), Follow the Dream (Knopf, 1991), A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North (Knopf, 1993), Komodo! (Greenwillow, 1993), Tibet (Farrar, 1998), and Trucks Trucks Trucks (Greenwillow, 1999). Books can be read at CCBC during regular summer working hours: Monday through Saturday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. (closed July 4).

Peter Sís will give a lecture, "Map of My World," at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 27 in Elvehjem room L160. Following the lecture the Elvehjem will hold a reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. At 7:00 p.m. Sís will sign his books, several of which can be purchased in the Museum Shop. All events are free and open to the public. Phone 608 263-2246 for additional information. The exhibition Small Worlds: Illustrations by Peter Sís will be on display from June 27 through September 2, 2001 at the Elvehjem Museum of Art, 800 University Avenue. Admission is free.

Peter Sís's illustrations for children's books invite the viewer into a richly detailed visual world, and subtle delights amply reward those who linger over the images. The exhibition Small Worlds features pen-and-ink with watercolor drawings and oil pastels on gesso from ten of his books from the early American Bean Boy to Rainbow Rhino, Follow the Dream, An Ocean World, Komodo!, A Small Tall Tale from the Far Far North, The Three Golden Keys, Starry Messenger: Galileo Galilei, Tibet: Through the Red Box, and Madlenka. Some thirty-three original illustrations will be accompanied by a small selection of his books. Sís's illustrations illuminate fact with fantasy and recreate the imagery of dreams. Maps and landscapes hold a special place in Sís's work, and the intricate detail of these images invites exploration. The individual illustrations imaginatively reconstruct the characters in Sís's own style. The care that is lavished on these drawings sets them apart; they have the sense of being lovingly handmade gifts.