Alvena Seckar, walking the path of artistic activism

“I wish I would have been more active in the movement,” Alvena Seckar said earnestly. My jaw dropped – collectively or, in part, her body of work epitomizes the very meaning of political activism.

For instance, she told me of a painting that she did in 1957 – an oil pipeline, with Arab men marching on top and their blood pouring from a break below. “And it all came true,” she said apologetically, reflecting on the prophetic painting. Meanwhile around the world the chorus of “no blood for oil” swells.

Born in 1915, Alvena Seckar began life much like other coal-miners’ children. Her parents were both recent Slovak immigrants. Of her father, Valentine Seckar, she says only that he was a typical Slovakian man: he was “boss all the time.” He was from the Slovak village of Ruzindol that is famous for the paintings done by its inhabitants. Alvena says little of her mother, but the momentary hesitation in her voice conveys the deepest affection. Her mother, Susan “Zuzi” Vadjdak, was from the area called Orava, renowned for its decorative crafts.

Like the books she would come to write, her childhood was filled with uncertainty, danger, and dreams. Her family moved 22 times. From her work we can see the type of conditions she experienced – unhealthy air, coal fires, hunger and caved-in homes are just a few of the realities. Thankfully her material poverty was in stark contrast to the fantastic cultural life in which she was raised. Traditional Slovak songs, dances, foods, crafts, and stories of the beautiful homeland colored her vision of the world.

Her mother taught her and her younger brother how to read. But it wasn’t until she was a teenager that her family settled long enough for her to attend a formal one-room school. In Allentown, Pa., one teacher saw some of Alvena’s artistic talent. She found Alvena a patron who made it possible for her to go to art school for the next six years. With scholarships and additional sponsors Alvena continued her education and training at the University of Pennsylvania. She transferred to New York University (NYU) where she finished her Bachelors (1939) and Masters (1949).

While at NYU her career began when she “was sent to a book publisher to do illustrations.” Adding decorations to others people’s work was not to be her fate. Her deep convictions got the better of her in 1947, when she attended the first World Youth Conference in Prague.

Upon her return she began to see art as a means of political communication. She wanted to “consider myself a political artist.” In 1952 her book Zuska of the Burning Hills was a New York Herald-Tribune Spring Festival Honoree and was placed on The New York Times list of the Hundred Best Books published for children. Zuska is only one of her fabulous works, the rest of which are equally compelling.

In Zuska a young girl’s father is injured in a mine, the mine closes and the entire community is forced to move. Meanwhile Zuska saves and reforms a more fortunate child.

Through Zuska, Alvena is able to communicate her own profound political principles, the hardships of the industrial world, the realities of class warfare, the infinite capacity of human kindness, how capitalism turns people against each other, the necessity of strong unions, and the injustice of the American dream denied.

But above all Alvena gives the reader hope for the future by showing the ability of communities, individuals, and youth to make positive changes in their world. Her most prevalent theme is that when people work together they can overcome any personal or systemic obstacle. Through her young characters she is able to show that change is not only possible but simply a matter of speaking out and acting on those words.

In Zuska, one of her characters exclaims, “If we had a strong union here, the union would have put a stop to that docking,” during a conversation about coal miners being docked pay unfairly. Later on, the workers do get a stronger union which stops much more than just the docking.

Through the main character, Zuska, readers see the hardships faced and overcome when working class people come together.

Alvena’s works address how greed, capital, and hatred upset healthy social relationships. The interactions of the children of bosses and the children of miners mirror the class warfare that is normally thought of as an adult issue. When the granddaughter of the company store owner offers Zuska a pair of her old shoes, because Zuska’s shoe has a hole, the reader sees both the kindness with which children give and the injustice which gives one child a closet full of clothes while another has only the dress she is wearing. “‘I never wear these – I really have no use for them, so if there’s a pair that fits you, please take them. Now here’s a pair of heavy leather boots that Grandpa thought I’d need for winter here in the Camp, but I never wear them because I have zipper arctics,’” Olga says to Zuska.

Yesterday’s and today’s realities are harsh for working families. Alvena writes, “Zuska felt too tired to play … The lunches of the other pupils were as small as her own,” or “their grocery bill kept on getting larger at the company store. Meals were becoming scanty in the Stebina household,” and “Zuska was hungry too, but she did not say anything.”

Alvena does not protect the reader from the danger of daily life. When a mine caved-in, people were hurt, children were burned by the giant coal-slag fires, and houses suddenly fell because of mine shafts below. By not hiding the real cost of industrial greed, she shows the beauty of a parent’s sacrifice or child’s efforts to pay a family debt, communities share scarcities with each other, and people overcome the greed of the society they live in and work for a better world.

In Alvena’s works we see the small steps of progress that make a socialist society inevitable. Alvena does not let the reader forget about others who are less fortunate. “‘For us it is perfect, dear neighbor. … But for you and all our friends and neighbors, life has to go on in the same old way. It doesn’t seem right.’”

Alvena’s books do have happy endings, a union is strengthened, a family in need finds a new and better home, and a community working together in an emergency is able to save lives. But always she shows that more work is left to the reader to do.

For Alvena, too, there is more work ahead. “I am against the policies of this government,” she declares as soon as President Bush is mentioned. She likens Bush’s current political policies to earlier U.S. efforts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Far from protecting the state of Israel, Alvena believes “they (Bush administration) are promoting anti-Semitism;” meanwhile “Bushes are getting even richer off oil.” Alvena also talks about the connection between the health of the environment and the sick capital that exploits it: “the health of our streams and lakes is political too … they [corporations] are so greedy for money” then ignore the price of health.

One of her paintings, in particular, gives testament to the power of sacrifices for social progress. A young Black child sits in the back seat of a car driven by a middle aged white official; the car is surrounded by armed guards, and beyond, a crowd of working class whites, bearing southern Confederate flags. The young girl is not idealized, she is just scared; the crowd is not demonized, they, too, are just scared. That picture hangs in the National Civil Rights Museum in New Orleans, as witness to how far we have come, and a reminder of how far we still have to go.

Alvena was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1964. In her own words, “Now I’m in a wheel-chair and one of my hands is paralyzed, but I’m still painting.” Her paintings are as political as ever. A new edition of Zuska of the Burning Hills is coming soon. It will include for the first time her own illustrations. Contact Bochazy-Carducci Publishers at www.bolchazy.com or (800) 392-6453 for information.

And thank you, Alvena.

The author can be reached at bkishner@pww.org