Cartoonist’s colourful career

Jiri Sliva credits his success to a series of chance meetings, says Tina O’Sullivan

CZECH cartoonist Jiri Sliva’s exhibition, Happy Hour, runs this month at Cork Vision Centre. Cafes, wine, jazz, love stories and Kafka are just some of Sliva’s themes. An award-winning illustrator, he has also enjoyed success as a writer.

Sliva was born in Pilsen, which is famous for beer. He did not aspire to be a cartoonist, he says. “When I was 19, I went to Prague to study at the university. In 1971, I started in the high school of economics and sociology. Then, I started to work in futurology prognostics at our department of futurology and sociology.”

Sliva was writing about social forecasting, but the Russian occupation made it difficult. Sliva sought other work. He had a sideline as a drummer in a cabaret trio. His band leader encouraged him to submit his humorous verses to the local newspaper, which accepted them for publication..

“They liked my work and gave me a weekly column every Saturday. The lady said ‘I want drawings.’ I was always drawing in the margins, and she said ‘draw it in pen and ink, not in pencil, and we will put one at the head of your column of four or five limericks.’ This continued for about four months and then the so-called normalisation caught her and fired her. The new editor who came said, ‘Mr Sliva, there’s no time for such jokes and rhymes, but you can deliver your cartoons.’ That’s how I became a cartoonist. Little by little, I got more offers and it was without words, just absurd humour,” he says.

After eight years, Sliva went freelance and was picked up by a Swiss publication. This caused problems at home as the ‘normalisation’ demanded everyone had a stamp of employment, which freelancers received from their union. But Sliva held no membership. He sought counsel with his mentor, a lithographer, who suggested Sliva could work if he used printing techniques. He soon became accomplished in the art of lithography and was invited into the union.

Sliva’s wife worked for an art exportation company. Sliva negotiated an exclusive deal to trade through them, which broke his work into an international market and got his papers stamped.

A union member tutored Sliva in etchings to broaden his technique. “They all appreciated my art and said it would be a pity if I didn’t put my ideas on the copperplate,” says Sliva “It helped me to make more exhibitions, because you never make just one piece, you make a whole edition. If I make 50 prints very quickly, I could have 50 exhibitions. When we changed back to capitalism, the newspapers only had one cartoonist accompanying the news. The rest were unemployed. I was collaborating with one weekly, the rest was really freelance lithographs, which I could exhibit anywhere.”

Sliva has enjoyed international success and awards, including, this year, the International Satyrykon Cartoon Contest in Legnica, Poland, for his work Curriculum Vitae. Sliva says his life has been shaped by chance encounters, meeting key people who changed the direction of his career.

“I had an exhibition for my 50th birthday in Prague and an American publisher, by chance, visited and saw my exhibition. He asked the gallerist for contact with me and said if you have more than 70 pictures — I had about 40 — we could do a book. I thought some of my friends were making fun of me, because I was 50. But I wrote and he really was an American.”

Sliva met with the publisher at a Frankfurt book fair. On their way to Prague by train, a phone call revealed an unbelievable connection between them.

“At that time,” Sliva recalls, “my son worked for The Rockefeller Center in New York. He called me and said, ‘finally, I have an address.’ I wrote it down and repeated it out loud. The publisher sitting next to me said: “What? Park Slope? Which number? He is looking into my toilet window’

“Can you imagine, with 10 million New Yorkers?”

Stephen Leacock, a British-Canadian author who predated Woody Allen’s comic style of short stories, was Sliva’s reading material in his formative years. Sliva has illustrated modern translations of Leacock’s writing, as well as works by Mark Twain and many cookery books. Sliva also continues to write the verses that started his career, as well as children’s books.

Franz Kafka, the influential German writer born in Prague, has a connection to Sliva. The Czech ambassador in Dublin, also called Kafka, is the son of the writer’s modern translator. On hearing of Sliva’s exhibition of Kafka drawings in Tel Aviv, the ambassador put Sliva in touch with Cork Vision Centre.

A love of jazz shared with the centre’s director sealed the deal.

* Happy Hour runs at Cork Vision Centre until May 25.


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