Sculptor Pavel Opočenský: “I was the least angry prisoner”.

24-08-2009

Sculptor Pavel Opočenský has seen many twists and turns in his life. After signing Charter 77, he left for Germany to eventually settle in New York. When he came back after the fall of communism in 1990, he got involved in an incident in which he killed a skinhead in self defence. The trial took four and a half years before he was cleared of criminal charges. In the meantime, Pavel Opočenský became a respected sculptor – but in 2003, he was sentenced to three years in jail for sex with minors.

Pavel Opočenský with one of the 'mobiloids' he made in prison, photo: CTKPavel Opočenský with one of the 'mobiloids' he made in prison, photo: CTK Sculptor Pavel Opočenský has seen many twists and turns in his life. After signing Charter 77, he left for Germany to eventually settle in New York. When he came back after the fall of communism in 1990, he got involved in an incident in which he killed a skinhead in self defence. The trial took four and a half years before he was cleared of criminal charges. In the meantime, Pavel Opočenský became a respected sculptor – but in 2003, he was sentenced to three years in jail for sex with minors. After he left prison in 2006, he said it was the fourth new start in his life, so when I sat down with Pavel Opočenský, my first question was which of them was the toughest to get through.

“Each of these starts was very specific but I would say that the last one was in a way the most difficult because it was something that I really deserved. I knew that there was no one else to blame but me, and I was also very much disappointed with myself that I allowed for me to be put in jail for quite a long time – three years is quite long. Things change, people change, and also the opportunities I had before disappeared. Before I went to prison, I was quite a successful and well known sculptor, and when I came back I was at the bottom. I had no money left, many people didn’t want to see me, although there were some who did, so it wasn’t a complete disaster, but it was definitely a new start. And I hope it was the last one, too, because I don’t think I could live through another.”

When you got to the United States in 1981, I imagine it must have also been difficult at first.

Karel and Josef Čapek's monument on Náměstí míru in Prague, photo: Kristýna MakováKarel and Josef Čapek's monument on Náměstí míru in Prague, photo: Kristýna Maková “Coming to the US was actually the best experience from all those new starts. First of all, I came to a city I knew was right for me; it was an instinctively right decision. When I came to New York, it was a matter of weeks before I realized where I belonged, and I started working. At that time, of course, the only thing I could do was work with my hands because my English was practically non-existent. But I ran into this lady, and she needed someone who worked with ivory. I had never worked with ivory before, I had never carved it; I had no idea. But I borrowed these tools, and really made the piece as well as I could. I must have spent some ten hours on it – a ridiculously long time. She was really happy and I ended up working on other pieces and designs in ivory, and that’s how I got started. I worked with a material I had not known you could work with, and some two weeks after I finished working for the lady, I had my own designs. So some six months after I came to New York, I had my first group of objects, and I found a gallery that was willing to exhibit it, which was a miracle, because I didn’t speak English. And since then, I was exhibiting regularly.”

After the fall of communism, you came back to Czechoslovakia, but very soon you got involved in a very nasty incident. You came to the assistance of two people who were attacked by skinheads, and in self-defence, you eventually killed one of them. How do you look at the incident today?

“Well, I had been back from the US for a week, or six days. I absolutely loved what was going on here – you may remember that it was filled with hope and so on. So I came back and I was like in a dream, day and night. And from those dreams I was literally ripped out with this horror story on the street. What happened was that a gang of drunk skinheads was terrorizing a couple of people in the street and I was suddenly there, in the middle of all those events, and I was so repulsed by what I saw, I was nearly fainting with repulsion. I had never before had such an experience in my life and I hope I never will again. But I knew that at that moment, when I was facing those skinheads who were drunk and tried to hit me with steel pipes, I knew that if they did, I’d be dead or at best very severely injured. So I didn’t think twice, it was just an instinctive act, and thanks to that I survived the incident. And even though I have to live with this tragedy that happened, I still prefer being alive than dead.”

But you troubles were far from over. In 2003, you ended up in jail once more, this time for sex with minors. It seems however that you could be in a commercial for the Czech prison system because when you came back, you said that it helped you and that you didn’t feel bitter. So does the Czech prison system work?

“I could speak for hours about this story itself. It was a very interesting experience. Yes, it happened. I never denied it. I had my little harem with like 30 girls. All of them looked the same, all of them had their experiences with sex from before I met them, and eventually, some months after I got in touch with them, I realized that some of them were underage. When I realized this, I knew I was facing punishment, possibly even prison. I could stop, or I could carry on without paying attention to that. And I chose not to pay attention. That’s me, unfortunately, I’m like that, and I knew that one of those days I was going to get in trouble, and even might have to go to jail. That really happened, just like I predicted, and that was probably the reason why I was the least angry prisoner in the prison. I was not angry because I knew I deserved it and I knew I did everything to end up there. Bur from the first day, I did all I could to gain something from it so that when it was over, I could face myself and say, ‘Ok, Pavel, you did something for which you were put in jail which you deserved, but did you get something out of it that you normally wouldn’t?’ And today, I can say, ‘yes, I did gain something I would normally not get. I gained some skills, I went to school there for two years, plus I had a lot of time to read, to think, to draw, and to plan things for later. But the price I had to pay was big – I lost many opportunities, I lost all of my customers, and I lost a lot of money because of that. But you know, it’s probably part of the punishment.”

24-08-2009