Pavel Opočenský, born 1954
Pavel Opočenský was born in Karlovy Vary in 1954. His parents, Gustáv Opočenský and Františka Horáková, were both well-known actors. Pavel says that he was artistically inclined from a young age and that he enjoyed hobbies such as building ship models. He was fascinated with construction sites to the point that he was often absent after coming across one on his way to school. At the age of 15, Pavel began an apprenticeship in a relative’s metal workshop in České Budějovice, restoring items from churches and museums in need of repair. It was here that he became interested in jewelry making and design. After the three-year apprenticeship, Pavel traveled to Prague, went to a trade school for custom jewelry design, and joined a co-op; however, he did not finish either of those programs and decided to concentrate on producing his own pieces. He recalls having difficulty establishing himself as a professional artist in Czechoslovakia. Because he was not a member of the Communist Party and did not have the requisite education, Pavel was not able to sell his pieces through official means, and he instead went into business for himself. In order to escape arrest or police harassment on account of his entrepreneurship, Pavel’s friend (who owned an antique shop) falsified documents that stated he was performing repair work. Through this, and his work as a janitor in the Prague metro (which he claims required minimal effort), Pavel supported himself for a number of years.
In 1979, Pavel signed Charter 77 and says he was immediately visited by the police who threatened him with arrest if he did not give them information about his acquaintances. Later that year, Pavel crossed the border into West Germany with an altered passport. After two and a half years in Germany, Pavel moved to the United States. He arrived in New York City in 1982 and shortly thereafter held his first exhibition. Pavel spent much of his time in New York working with ivory. In 1990, he returned to Czechoslovakia for good – a decision that was spurred by a visit one year earlier. Just one week after his return, Pavel was put in police custody and jailed for two months following an incident in which he killed a skinhead in self-defense. Although the process took over four years, Pavel was cleared of all charges. In addition to producing his own work, which now included sculpture, Pavel became a consultant to others in the art community because of his business experience in New York City. In 2003, Pavel was arrested and served three years in jail for sex with minors. Since his release in 2006, Pavel has continued to produce jewelry and art. He lives in Prague with his wife and son.
Pavel’s parents were popular in Karlovy Vary
“My parents were actors, so they were both in the theatre at that time – as the ‘stars,’ so-called, of the little community of the theatre-goers, which was not a big community – never is, really. But it was nice to be the kid of those actors because everybody knew me. So, even when I was running around alone in Karlovy Vary, it was like home. Everybody was saying ‘Čau, Pavel. How are your parents?’ It was really like a big family and everybody knew my family.”
Small things from Pavel’s childhood have become manifest in his artwork
“Sometimes I didn’t make it to school, because on the way I saw these big machines doing some construction work in the ground. I loved it! The bulldozer, the cranes. Once I saw something like that, there’s no way I would ever get to school. But that was known. My parents always knew – if I didn’t come into school, they called them and say I’m not at school – they knew I am probably somewhere on the way to school because they always found me there. So that was like, every week, something like that was happening. That was fun. I somehow always liked it when you take material away from some platform or block or something. I think that led eventually to me being a sculptor.
“Actually, in Karlovy Vary, when you go around the buildings, you go behind the buildings. You climb the little passages on the side of the hills around Karlovy Vary, then you see that every building before you built it, they had to make huge cuts into the rocks, and then they started to build. So you have, actually, incredible geometric cuts in the rock which nobody sees ever. It wasn’t done for being looked at, but I knew about it, and I always climbed behind. It was quite an adventure, actually. And I think that somehow affected my mind to the degree that I make only negative shapes. Until this day, I’ll only drill holes, cut holes. I never do positive shapes, I always do negative shapes.”
Pavel recalls the difficulties he faced in becoming an artist in communist Czechoslovakia
“Without having an exam from the school, I could never go to high school or university for art, and I could not sell my work – which I was designing and selling to the people, but it was half illegal always. I could never sell it the legal way through the galleries because at that time you could only go through the system, through the state-controlled system galleries, and they could only take you if you were part of the Communist Party, or you had proper education, neither of which I had. Nobody was interested in the work itself. They were always interested in these conditional things, not in the real work. And I had enough of that.”
Pavel made a living by selling his jewelry pieces
“When I wanted to make an income, I had to be able to do some [jewelry] from gold. So people gave me some old pieces from family, or some coins, teeth and I melted it and I plated it, and from the plate I cut it out, and basically did the whole process from getting the scrap gold and ending up with the final product of my own design. Quite a process. I did several pieces like that and I was quite successful by selling them, so I could allow myself not to be employed by the state, because everything was by the state. By that, not to be employed by the state meant that I am exploiting other citizens of Czechoslovak society, and it was really punishable. Not going through official work was basically a criminal offense.
“So I had to have something to prove that I am not on the other side of the law. So I had a friend who was working in one of these stores with antiquities and some old jewelry, and he was giving me little bills that said I was fixing the jewelry for the store. Which was really not that much true. He gave me much more money than I earned. But it was for the police, because you could be stopped any moment on the street and they were checking you. You had to have a personal ID with you, a little book, and there was written if you were working. This way they were really controlling people constantly, all the time. So I didn’t have any job of course, but I had these little bills – I had a stack of bills kind of stuck in. And I went through many controls in the street safely because of those bills, because the police didn’t know what to do with it. They were not prepared for such a slick way of getting around this. So that saved me for three years. Three years, I was not working officially, but I had these bills.”
In 1979, Pavel signed Charter 77
“From working at the metro, I knew the guy who was part of the Plastic People [of the Universe] and he was also working there. So I met with other people and I was really was happy, because I finally met people like me – being pissed off, having enough of the system – and spoke about it! They were not afraid to speak about it. I was happy to be finally with people like that. So I signed the charter immediately. I didn’t even think twice.”
Pavel moved to New York in 1982
“I want to be somewhere where I have equal chances. So I went to America, because that’s the place where you have equal chances – at least I thought so. But it was right. Actually, it was right. I went to New York and in two months I had my first exhibition with my jewelry. In two months. It was quite amazing. The gallery owner was fascinated by my work and there I was, exhibiting my work. My dream came true. Something that I almost lost. Lost the dream, lost hope in Czechoslovakia. All the sudden, I was in the middle of New York, in the middle of all this incredible happenings. I had my own exhibition. It was something.”
Following the Velvet Revolution, Pavel became a consultant for other artists in Prague
“The first two or three years, I served to several people as an advisor. What to think, how to do it, who to visit, what contacts they needed. Because we were maybe two or three people who came back so early from Western countries and we were actively exhibiting there. So I was only one who had experience with the real market. So I was helping a number of people with all these experiences, telling them how it would be done in Europe.
“Then I helped several galleries at that time to organize a more proper way, a more business-like way, and also, a more fair way to the artists. Because of course, many collectors still to this day, they’d rather go to the artist directly and get it cheaper there, which is killing the gallery business. On the other hand, the galleries were not doing anything. The first galleries had no clue what to do for the artists. You cannot sit there and wait for a customer, you have to go and find the customer for the artist, and then you can ask 50 percent. But if you don’t do it, then you have no right to 50 percent. Well, until this day, some galleries don’t understand it. They’re sitting and waiting there: ‘Maybe somebody will come, maybe not.’ No, you have to generate interest in the public. You have to help to generate, and that means advertisement, that mean organizing shows in museums, get involved in lectures. Be visible, be out there to attract the collectors or, basically, growing the collectors and bringing them to the gallery and sell them the art of the artist you’re representing. This is a long process. Basically, I knew that and I was definitely acting to get the information to my fellow artists, to my colleagues because they were all asking me how to do this, how to do that, and also to the few galleries which, at that time, existed.”
Category: New York City, Oral History