It is a frigid winter day in 1979.
A 10-year-old girl plays outside against a backdrop of drab, gray, cinderblock, cookie-cutter, government-controlled apartment buildings stretching toward the horizon line. The girl barely speaks to anyone; she, like everybody else, lives in fear of what the government might do if they don't agree with her words. She runs inside her cookie-cutter buildingit's time for the 10 minutes a day cartoons will flicker across her televisionthe rest of the programming is filled with regime-supervised news and "entertainment." It's the one time a day she can escape.
The girl's parents live in fear. Their beliefs are starkly opposite of their government, but they can't express them. Years ago they did; but gradually they detached and faded away, resulting in a chaotic upbringing for the girl. The father lost himself in an alcoholic haze and the mother turned to religion, natural refuges for those with nowhere to turn. Care packages arrive from the girl's sister in America containing Mickey Mouse dolls, Service Merchandise catalogs, and letters spinning tales of a free society that seemed as far away as the hot sun that shone on the frozen landscape, but keeping her dreams alive.
The girl grew into an isolated young adult who did what most people in communist Czechoslovakia did: she finished high school, enrolled in college (archival science), became married and pregnant at 20. But in high school her suspicions were confirmed: she was different. One day she found a book of her alcoholic father's poetry, long since left to gather dust, hidden away in his study. She realized she has the creative gene, but her government wouldn't allow her to use it.
Then, on Nov. 17, 1989, something amazing happened. The non-violent Velvet Revolution began, and Czechoslovakia became a free country just over a month later. Three years later, after being randomly selected to be one of ten Czechs a year to immigrate to the United States, she moved to Lisle, Ill. She learned English there, in part from watching Delta Burke on the TV show Designing Women; she enjoyed it much more than the 10 minutes of cartoons.
Switch to an unseasonably warm day in October 2012. Marketa Sivek leads a private tour of her art studio in Wicker Park's renowned Flatiron building, divulging details of her extraordinary life and her powerfully emotional paintings.
"I've had many different lives in one," the 43-year-old said. "I feel like I'm 50."
Her work has been featured in Elle Décor, Chicago Tribune Magazine, the Rachael Ray Show and WGN, among many media outlets. Oprah Winfrey recently purchased one of her works, which run from $300 to $5,200, from her gallery in Park City, Utah. But not many people have known the person inside the shell. "It's funny, your whole life you're trying to arrive at who you are," she says. And here she is, surrounded by her artwork, in all it's honesty.
Sivek's artwork has grown over the years. She reveals her well-preserved first painting: an intricate Picasso-esque work of two facial profiles and a dog composed with bold, abstract lines. It was years later that her "Dresses" series got her recognized in the art community for their dreamy nostalgia and striking coloreach one ordained with different, fun symbols like cowboy hats and tuxedos. "[The dresses] are something she can't escape," her close friend and fellow artist Kathy Halper said. "They were such a symbol of childhood and femininity. [They] are still sort of symbolic of everything she does well."
Other series have followed: "Silhouettes," "Red Balls" and the powerfully emotional "Lonely Houses," inspired by a trip to Iceland. "They came from my desire to have a home," Sivek said of the symbolic houses in various precarious positions that seem to jump off the canvas and into viewer's psyches. Some include a lighthouse, a symbolic beacon of hope for her own life and everyone who understands the deeper significance. "There's an appreciation for beauty combined with melancholy and loneliness that comes through," Halper said. "It's very telling."
When Halper first met Sivek in 2002, she was blown away. "Marketa was like a rock star," she said. "People would be in such a rush to get to Marketa's studio, they wouldn't even notice you were there at all. I was in awe of her." Many others are as well, swarming around her on First Fridays, the one night a month where every studio in the building is open for all visitors, and her events at Terzian Galleries in Utah.
The little girl is now an adult. And despite arriving in Chicago in 1997 ("I remember the first stroller in Wicker Park," she cracked as she walked past American Apparel on Milwaukee Avenue) and becoming perhaps the star of the Flatiron, hardly anyone really knows her. They don't know about her emotionally stagnant ex-husband or her recent college-graduate son in Sedona, Ariz. They don't know of her lesbianism since 28, her necessary heartbreaks, or her belief in molecules instead of religion. They don't realize that despite the "no photography" signs in her studio, she will allow them, when asked. She might even tell you her story, too.
Marketa Sivek's artwork can be viewed at her studio in the Flatiron Building in Chicago, 1579 N. Milwaukee Ave., Suite 230. She is also exhibiting her latest collection at Terzian Galleries, 309 Main Street, Park City, Utah, beginning Dec. 15 through the end of January. For more information visit www.marketasivek.com or www.terziangalleries.com, or call 773-486-6055.