20 questions for artist illustrator Jiri Tibor Novak

Surfcoast artist, Jiri Tibor Novak, is launching his new artist book portraits at Qdos Gallery in Lorne next month with an exhibition running from 15 October to 6 November. portraits is published in a limited edition of five books. Bound in linen/cotton by Sian Marlow with a slip case cover, each artist book is carefully handcrafted and features twenty etchings positioned alongside the text that inspired them. Individual framed prints of the book etchings will also be on display in the gallery.

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Jiri Tibor Novak with some of his etchings from portraits in the background. Image courtesy of The Gordon.

Novak arrived in Australia in 1970 from Czechoslovakia after the soviet invasion. He has become a respected artist, teacher, and community worker, as well as a children’s book illustrator, well known for his quirky and engaging artworks which often pose more questions than they answer. Although he has embraced the Australian way of life, his Czech heritage and European influence are apparent in his work. In this Q&A, Novak discusses aspects of his artistic practice.

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Images of Jiri Tibor Novak’s artist book portraits. Images courtesy of the artist.

I asked: what is poetry?
… ashes of a dead man / his powdery residue
drifting by  / to make you sneeze
I answered.

Text from portraits.

Many people would describe your work as surrealist. How would you describe your work?
I think that it is probably a correct description, but I would like to be thought of as “poetic and with whimsy”.

What is your process for making art?
Here I am at quandary – I like reading and as an illustrator I am driven by text.

What sort of research and or reference materials do you do use for your work?
(previous answer applies)

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Jiri Tibor Novak, Nest and Monument. Image courtesy the artist.

Does your work have social, political, cultural or personal messages?
And here again, I like to think that in some cases I do respond to political or social texts. I am definitely driven by personal experiences.

Can you tell us how you came to make artist books? What is it about artist books that you like so much? Do you collect artists’ books?
I have been all of my life interested in books, how they are made, what is in them, how do they look. My professional life is filled with many illustrated books for children and the artist book is just a little step from the children’s world. What appeals to me foremost is the fact that in artists book it is the craft meeting with art. That is to my mind the most beautiful union of all. Yes I do collect artists’ books.

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Jiri Tibor Novak, Caravan. Image courtesy the artist.

Did you hand colour the prints in portraits or are they coloured by other means?
Some of the prints are tinted by hand.

Why do you select only some parts to be coloured?
For the emphasis within the image.

How many books have you illustrated?
I truly don’t know, because many are educational books, which means that they never reach the open market (maybe 50?).

What are some of your favourite books you have illustrated?
Fish and Bird (Oxford University Press), One Big Yo To Go (Oxford University Press), Birdman (Random House), Vienna (Nosukumo), Christopher (Swamp Publishing), and more, but these few are my favourite books.

What medium do you like to use the most? Why do you like this medium?
Time to time it is water colour or gouache, but I have to say, etching, aquatint. It is the graphic or printmaker in me talking now. Anything which can be used to produce a book after all.

It’s in the rock but not the stone.
It’s in the marrow but not the bone.
It’s in the bolster but not in bed.
Its not in the living nor in the dead.

Children’s riddle (used as text in portraits)

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Jiri Tibor Novak, Natura Morta. Image courtesy the artist.

All artists experience challenges in their artistic practice. Can you tell us about any you have had?
I am not sure how to answer this question. It is to me any artistic endeavour challenging me constantly and it is the resolution of that artistic endeavor which could or could not satisfy me.

Has there been a highlight in your art career?
Fish and Bird for one. This is children’s book I have done in 1980 with Oxford University Press, which was voted the most beautiful book in Bologna Fair of 1981.

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Did you have an inspirational teacher and how did that shape the course of your work?
Yes I did, but sadly they are all gone.

Have you ever made an artistic pilgrimage? If so, where did you go and why?
I have to admit going to see an altar piece in Ghent, Belgium which was painted by Van Eyck brothers called Adoration of the Lamb. It cannot be described by word or reproduction, one has to see it. [Ed: If interested, read an interview with Noah Charney author of Stealing the Mystic Lamb, where he discusses the amazing history of this artwork.]

If there was one piece of artwork you could have in your collection, what would it be and why?
I think I have answered this question. The only thing is that I would have to build the cathedral to house it in.

Have any artists been an inspiration to you?
Saul Steinberg illustrator, Alfred Kubin illustrator – I don’t think I could answer it justly… there are so many brilliant artists in all sorts of stratas of art and I am influenced by so many…

What are you currently working on?
I have started on limited edition/folio of prints which will be called visitors. It is about introduced species into Australian continent. The text is short stories by a well recognised Australian writer.

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Jiri Tibor Novak, Donkey. Image courtesy the artist.

What do you teach at The Gordon?
I am teaching in Graphic Design, Illustration + Principles and Elements of Design. And enjoying it.

Have you always been an artist? What did you do before becoming an artist?
I was born, before becoming an artist… sorry this is a joke.

Have you been back to Czechoslovakia?
Many times since 1989, when the communist regime had been overturned.

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Jiri Tibor Novak, Fox. Image courtesy the artist.

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You can see more images of Jiri Tibor Novak’s work on his website tibor.com.au.
The exhibition runs from 15 October to 6 November at Qdos Arts, 35 Allenvale Rd, Lorne.  Ph: (03) 5289 1989  www.qdosarts.com

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