Ondřej Sekora - Life and Work

Citizen of Prague 6

In the 50’ “Ants” were not so much favored anymore and Ondřej Sekora thought to have exhausted this theme. He was preparing a publication of his books for young children for the State Publishing House of Children’s Literature. At this point in time he was not able draw solely on his parenting experiences. As times changed, so did children. Sekora was trying to grasp the thinking and interests of a new generation. In a letter to František Tenčík he wrote: “I do not want to present children and their problems from the outside, but rather target their inner world. I want to grasp its roots, which surely nest somewhere inside the child and if they do not, I shall create them with a story. To be on the safe side I do this every time and again, deriving from their fantasy, from their pool of knowledge, from their longing. Only then do I start to talk about a theme. My writing method should lead them to the desire to know about what is being narrated and explained. I don’t want to be the one doing the explaining. I want them to come up with the explanation, I want them to tell me they’ve known this for a long time, meaning - I want them to come to understand by using their own heads, because they’re clever”.


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Ondřej Sekora and his drawing heroes.

At the time, Ondřej Sekory lived in Prague 6. And to get to know the children better, he used to put on a puppet theatre for them, chat with them in schools and in libraries. According to his friends, kids used to go to his house to play as well. Particularly children from Velflíkova street in Prague 6 who inspired him to write books like Na dvoře si děti hrály (Kids played in the courtyard) /1955/ and Hurá za Zdenou (Hurrah, run to Zdena) /1960/. He used the theme of the first book to write a puppet-show that became part of a children’s series on Czechoslovak Television. In 1958 he wrote in his diary: “Dream achieved – performed grand learning games for kids”. He performed on children’s television programs since the beginning of their existence.


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To conceive a timeless cartoon character is not easy and only few autjprs have succeded. Even Ferda’s delivery into this world did not come easily. He was born June 22, 1927, on the pages of the Pestry Tyden weekly. “The Adventures of a Tipsy Ant” though, as published at that time, could hardly be considered children’s literature, but it established Sekora’s style. The godfathers of his style, the swiftly drafted line drawings, were came from his newspaper roots and the emphasis on motion in his drawings came from his experience as an athlete.

Ondrej Sekora returned to the character of Ferda Mravenec again in 1933 in a series of the Lidove noviny newspaper. At that time, his young son served as inspiration. He wanted to draw on this Ant Hero some of his entomological interests – to show him as part of living nature. He used his own poetry to accompany the series.

For the Christmas edition in 1936, Ondrej Sekora wrote a book called Ferda Mravenec, práce všeho druhu (Ferda the Ant, Jack of All Trades). In this book he was able to add color to the so far black and white content, thus enriching his published work with full-page cartoons and prose. Ferda was vigorous, handy and inventive. He could fix anything. He was a competitive runner and won by having excellent time and great style; he was a great swimmer; he could handle the lasso and tame horses; he was a bullfighter. He could fix a radio as well as throw a party. Through his adventures, kids would acquaint themselves with tiny field critters, forest clearings and riverbanks. The author had a gift of depicting these in way that filled children with empathy for all living creatures.
Ferda in Foreign Service, another work by the author published in /1937/ following great success among readers of his previous book, presented the relationships among creatures living in a forest clearing. Ferda in the Anthill /1938/ introduced the ingenious organization of an anthill. Ferdův slabikář (Ferda’s ABC’s) /1939/ opened the door to the world of reading. The first three books were first published in one volume /1962/ and were titled Knížka Ferdy Mravence (The Book of Ferda the Ant. They introduced the author’s new illustrations. It also launched an edition of selected publications of Ondřej Sekora /1968 – 1975/ that was also the most commonly translated. Ferda the Ant became the protagonist of the first Czechoslovak animated film ever made, created in the city of Zlín and directed by Hermína Týrová as early as in 1944. Later on, composer Jiří Pauer wrote a ballet score and Evžen Zámečník an opera based on its motifs.  Ondřej Sekora returned to his favorite character in 1947 in a new volume Ferda cvičí Mraveniště (Ferda Exercising in the Anthill) where he was assigned a sport trainer’s job. The series was topped with the book Ants Will Not Surrender (Mravenci se nedají) from 1954


Ferda Mravenec v cizích službách (Ferda the Ant in Foreign Service) / HOKR 1947

Ferda v mraveništi ("Ferda in the Anthill") HOKR 1947

Ferda Mavenec (Ferda the Ant) / HOKR 1948

Ferda Mavenec (Ferda the Ant) / HOKR 1948


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I must admit that Ferda is my best cartoon character. I will try to explain what I was looking for and what inspired me in the process.
I needed a lead hero for a great number of drawings and a lot of diverse stories. For the hero to be portrayed time after time, the character had to be easy to draw and at the same time easy to describe his likeness. His face had to be such that it would be easy to change his numerous expressions with a simple line of a pencil. The whole figure had to be flexible and lively so as to perform his victorious achievements to the fullest.

I knew the character was going to be an ant though. I studied a real ant and started to draw immediately. Whoa! The ant’s head was not inspirational enough to be drawn. In spite of that, it was possible to draw various grimaces, laughter, amazement and frowns, but – it wasn’t easy. And I couldn’t permit myself to do that with a head that had to be drawn repeatedly. For, if one works too laboriously, ease disappears.

There was still something that bothered me about the head. Due to its triangular shape, there wasn’t much space left for the face and eyes. But it is specifically the face of the lead character that has to stand out from the distance and whatever its expression at the moment needs to be the center of the whole drawing. That is why I chose a white hole to portray the mouth, large eyes and a round head. These shapes were both distinctive and easy while maintaining the likeness of a real ant.
Next in line was the ant’s body. In reality it looks like a crumpled stick, so to speak. I tried to draw. It was not appeal as the pencil line and it is so rigid! Suddenly I recalled that the ant’s body looks like it is composed of a number of shiny marbles. All it took was replacing reality with fiction and suddenly the body was alive.

It was clear to me from the outset that if I want him to perform human tasks I could not portray him as having six legs. Finally, what was left was the hero’s behind. The most rewarding part of the ant’s body, but after painting it in its true likeness I instantly saw that it was way too large and bulky. As soon as this ant would stand up like a human, it would burden him like a heavy sack. I was pressed to make the behind smaller and suddenly it became coquettish. And that was a good thing, because this behind had to emphasize each movement. Any position I decided to draw the ant in, I knew ahead of time how to twist his behind as to accentuate every situation, including his facial expression.

But the figure was still too black. Mickey Mouse wears trousers for break it up. But those would, in case of my ant, cover his precious behind. It had to be something else. At last I came up with a polka-dotted bowtie. I purposely drew the bowtie with pointy ends that could be twisted in various directions and positioned to emphasize the ant’s motions like its behind.
Even elaborate grimaces -- which I would not be able to express solely with the face -- could be accomplished if I added the fitting use of the behind and the edges of the bowtie.

These two things positively made Ferda into the character he is. He would have gotten lost among the other figures had I painted a slightly larger behind and if I took away his bowtie. I am happy these things are so simple. It was basically enough to picture them in your head and they practically drew themselves.


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February 1939 - Pouch the Beetle

Following the trilogy about Ferda the Ant Ondřej Sekora felt, that a positive hero such as Ferda needs a sidekick who would be sort of a dopey. Someone not too bright or skillful, because even in a children’s group not everyone can excel at everything – and those others should be given a chance as well. He remembered Ferda’s friend from the first part who had swagger and was kind of clownish as well - Pouch the Beetle.

Pouch the Beetle was, as his name suggests, an antihero. Being born in a movie theatre, he passionately watched all the movies. He succumbed to virtual reality to the point of believing that everything he saw on the silver screen was real. On top of this he was convinced, that he knew everything and could handle anything, which consequently led to many misfortunes. However, his good will convinced the ants to stay friends with him. The book Troubles of Pouch the Beetle was published in 1939 almost simultaneously with Ferda in the Anthill.

The following year young readers could happily anticipate Malířské kousky brouka Pytlíka (Painting stunts of Pouch the Beatle). It portrayed a characteristic painting style. Through humorous stories kids would learn about colors, how to mix them, the function of regular straight lines and circles used to create pictures of animals. They became acquainted with nature painting as well as portraiture.

Ondřej Sekora talked about the art of painting with the same fervor as he advocated the life of insects, particularly the colorful and gracious world of butterflies, which he knew down to every scientific detail. Educational intentions were hidden behind every entertaining story. For instance, he described chaos by painting over the protective camouflage of animals by making a frog resemble a wallet or by painting little spiders to look like buttons. By using bizarre humor bordering on the absurd, he tried to explain to children the binding nature of order, the rule of natural law as well as the consequences of violating them.
Since 1969 both books were published in one volume simply called Pouch the Beatle. In 2010 the publishing house Knizni klub returned to re-printing them as two separate volumes.


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In the Labor Camps

Although Ondřej Sekora was not your typical political activist, he happened to be among the first to react to the approaching danger of Nazism, starting with diminutive drawings that accompanied his articles. They were not directly aimed to criticize, but rather they made fun of the ridicule of racial and other such similar laws. As a follow-up, a series was published. Since autumn 1938 white parts in newspapers suggested censorship. In 1941 Sekora was let go from the Lidove noviny. The real reason for firing him was that, based on the Nuremberg Race Laws, his wife was labeled a Jew, despite the fact that both she and their son were baptized and that the couple re-married in church in the hope to divert the ruling.

Ondřej Sekora was banned from the Syndicate of Journalists and could not be published or be publicly active in any way. As part of his punishment he was ordered to work in the Kleinstein labor camp in what is today’s Poland, where a Nazi airport was being built. When the front was approaching and it became obvious, that it would not be possible to finish the airport, the camp was liquidated. Prisoners were sent to Prague, assembled in the Hagibor quarters and again resent to Germany, this time to Osterode in the Harz mountains. He traveled there alongside a famous Czechoslovak actor Oldřich Nový, whose wife was of Jewish origin as well.
Starting with his arrival in Kleinstein, Ondřej Sekora wrote about his experiences in a diary, one of the liveliest and most authentic existing written documents about World War II.

A lighter variation of the diary was an album of sketches that he finished upon returning home and which was a work of irony where his comic drawings were couched in black humor. This type of humor was a permanent part of prison life and so-called “prison culture”, where a humorous drawing and friendly caricature played a vital role for author and fellow prisoners. Nevertheless, some events he described and that would be considered unthinkable really did happen.


Ondřej Sekora - Sports Editor of Lidove noviny Newspaper

Most Lidove noviny readers today would not fathom that almost a hundred years ago Onřej Sekora joined the staff as a sports journalist and purportedly the first illustrator of a sport’s column in the Czech press. Soon, Lidove noviny could not do without his caricatures of sport and gossip in the news, political caricatures and cartoon series, all pioneered by the young Sekora.

He had the fortune the newspaper sent him to Paris in 1923 for a year, although with a heavy workload. His job was to send, monthly, three sports-driven series, two series for the Children’s Corner (Dětský koutek); twelve individual cartoons or caricatures; drawings for the Sunday insert; and every second day news about sports or cultural life. He was trying to get some Czechoslovak sports news published in the French press as well. He even helped create an international journalists correspondence club.

In Paris he got to know rugby. He liked it so much, that he began to write about it and also became a trainer and later a referee for the first rugby teams in his country. His first book was called “Rugby: How It Is Played And Its Rules”, published in Brno in 1926. The following year he traveled to France for a second time. He covered the Tour de France as a reporter. He went horseback riding and skied.

He even became a ski instructor in the Alps for tours organized for Lidove noviny readers.

In the 1930’s, Ondřej Sekora was given the weighty task of filling the pages of the Children’s Corner section of the Lidove noviny paper, which grew to become a section called Lidove noviny dětem (Lidové Noviny for Kids). They were published in part as large full page inserts for bank holidays and important events. For instance, he drew lions as they were brought to the ZOO, which he observed with such excitement, that he almost forgot his son there.  From 1933, he wrote about international affairs, mainly through a series of anti-fascist articles.