Head’s Up: The Art of Freedom

Coming up next month is National Library Week (April 8-14) and one of the things we in the library community always observe during that week is the importance of intellectual freedom and the ongoing fight against censorship. But there is a corollary in the art world that provides the subtext for our current exhibits in the Special Collections exhibit gallery.

Just as writers face the possibility of censorship, visual artists face similar efforts to control or constrain their work. The Russian artists featured in our Avant-Garde and Innocence exhibit supported the Bolshevik revolution only to find the Soviet government establishing the parameters of “acceptable” art. Unable to work within those narrowly defined limits, they emigrated to the West in order to pursue their artistic dreams, supporting themselves as illustrators of children’s books.

Our newest exhibit features a more recent example. Peter Sís, born in Czechoslovakia, became a filmmaker who, while working for the Czech government in the U.S., took the opportunity to seek asylum here in the 1980’s. A conversation with Maurice Sendak led to his transformation into first an illustrator and then an author of children’s books, many of which also speak to adults. In fact his most recent work is a beautifully illustrated fable for adults, based on a 12th century Islamic poem, The Conference of the Birds. Along the way he has collected just about every award available in the field, and our exhibit of a selection of his works features many award winners.

As a sidelight on our Sís exhibit I pulled the few but important examples of 20th century Czechoslovakian children’s literature we have in the King Collection, our major collection of historic children’s literature. In the course of researching the authors and illustrators of these titles I saw the familiar story repeated again and again: artists and writers fighting against the repressive constraints of totalitarian governments that, whether fascist or communist, feared the free expression of artistic vision.

Peter Sís, who just this week received the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award for Illustration, will present the annual May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture, “Reading in the Dark,” here at Miami on Wednesday, April 4, at 7 p.m. in Hall Auditorium. This lecture is held in a different venue every year, and Miami’s selection for 2012 is the result of a creative coalition of partners, including the University Libraries, put together by Dr. Brenda Dales in the Department of Teacher Education.

Tickets for the lecture are free but must be reserved by contacting the Miami University Box Office. Following the lecture in Hall there will be a reception in King 320, and a book signing in Special Collections. The exhibit gallery will be open for viewing, and while you wait to have Mr. Sis sign your book you can enjoy seeing what an artist can achieve when imagination, vision and technique are allowed to run free.

Elizabeth Brice
Assistant Dean for Technical Services and
Head, Special Collections & Archives