Samizdat with Lică Sainciuc

Today we are talking with Lică Sainciuc, a multidisciplinary person — painter, architect, graphic artist, illustrator, engineer, writer.

Let us talk a bit about your childhood: What was it like to grow up in a family of artists, where both mom and dad were artists?

It was a pleasure! I had colors, I had paper, I had everything I needed. But not the opinions of the parents.I had my own. At that time, my parents were quite confused with all the changes that were happening around them. The civilization returned to a few hundred years ago — it happened around 1940 to 1947, and those were the years of going back to the old practices. People started walking barefoot, took their shoes off, and threw away their hats. You were not allowed to leave the village without your documents. The only exception was if you went to school or if you were to marry someone, those were the possibilities of leaving your village, but no city person wanted to marry someone from the village. People moved to the city in order to become istopnic (archaism), the only job they were allowed to have.

I have a question regarding the heating system. I have heard such a thing that few books survived from that period of time, for the books were often used for fire making, in the very hard times. But here, at your workspace, you have so many books that survived and we wonder — How so?

It was cold (laughs). Books were always burning, but my mother was trying to differentiate them — they’re good to burn, they’re not. And when you started the fire, you needed a sheet, in which you put some ashes and a little gas was poured and it burned. Well, someone always ripped a page from the book — exactly the one that’s needed!

About the hidden things, you previously mentioned a practice where the books used to be sold with the uncut edges. Where does this practice come from?

This is not related to the era I’m talking about now, it was a practice done in the 19th century. Actually, I had a book like this in the ’40s, but they brought it to me recently. Cutting each book was an extra expense. That is, if you buy it uncut, it will be much cheaper. But in the 18th and 19th centuries there were even special ivory knives to cut the pages. However, if the book was already cut, it would cost more. There was also the golden trim (золотой обрез), meaning the book would be cut and the pages would be slightly covered with gold.

Coming back to the family talk, have you ever had a talk with your parents where they told you that, Lică, you are going to become an artist, or did they ever ask you about what you want to do in life?

Yes-yes. I don’t recall this moment, but they told me that, one day, I came home from school and told them I am not going back to school. They asked: “How come I don’t want to go to school anymore?” and I said I wanted to be a painter and I already know what I want to do with my life. Even more, I said that I’m already a painter, so why should I go to school?

What faculty did you graduate from?

As there was no Art Faculty at that time, I went to the Architecture Faculty. You were supposed to have a higher education — But why? What for? I didn’t need it anyway because I was already excused from the army because of my eyesight. On the contrary, when I was at university, they put me in the military department, and I didn’t want to go there.

How did your years of study go at the university?

Hmm, when I was in school, it was Khrushchev’s Thaw, periods of democratization. At school we were free, we talked to the teachers, we had physics, mathematics, science books brought from Romania. When I got to university, I thought it would be even more democratic than at school, but everything has just closed down, in 1965. I was coming to the classes with books from Romania, and I was asked in Russian why I had a Romanian book with me.

Another curious thing was the fact that there was liberalization, liberalization, liberalization. You could enter the “foreign book store”, meaning socialist, the one next to the Press House and find Romanian books. Afterwards, they said that the Romanian books were not useful, and the store was moved further from the Center, to Botanica district in Chisinau. Then they closed the book section in Romanian and only books from Germany, Hungary remained. That’s when I started learning German in order to understand what was written in those books. I also subscribed to Polish magazines, but then they started shutting them down, due to all the political turmoil. From Soviet magazines, I received Knowledge of power (Знание силы), it was a good magazine, but it was not about art, but rather philosophy. The Soviet magazines were also good, but they were specific. It was an anti-religious magazine, I think it was called Science and religion (Наука и религия), but it was very spiritual. My friend, Mircea Chistruga was subscribed to receive Наука и жизнь, and I received Знание силы, and we used to switch and check what was written there.

You said you were subscribed to foreign magazines, such as Polish magazines. And the moment when the access to magazines was limited…

No no, it wasn’t a moment, this was a longer period with gradual limitations. Now if you were to do an analysis of what happened then, you can see all the events chronologically, but back then you didn’t know what and when was about to happen. For example, I also received the magazine Szpilki — it was a lovely magazine. It was a Polish magazine about humor, very fine and modern. But at some point it stopped coming, even in the middle of the year, it was just cut off. The magazine was shut down because of Lech Walesa, but of course they didn’t justify the suspension of the magazine in the Soviet Union. They were saying that they didn’t get anything, no arguments.

Because of all these information blockages, both in Poland and in Romania, I started listening to English radio — BBC.

You’ve been a freelancer all your life. How did this happen?

Yes, that’s right. This is our family tradition. When I graduated from university, my neighbors started telling grandma that someone will finally work in your family. But I worked for only one year, after which I became a freelancer, and member of the Fine Artists Union.

What was your first received order as a freelancer?

I think the first order was the one my father asked me to execute. At that time when I was just beginning, the access to books wasn’t that easy, and I asked my father to execute an order of his own. He took an anthology of poetry and prose for children written by local authors as well as from Moscow. I made linocuts for this book and the book was soon ready, the testing process had started, the book was printed, but not bound. And during that time something happened. Back then, practically everything depended on Moscow’s decision, and there was a scandal during Khrushchev’s time, which was called the fight against formalism. The most interesting thing was the staging of it all, because it was a play: A modern exhibition was organized, I think it was at Moscow Manej, and those who were against the event allowed the exhibition to be organized, but they called Khrushchev and told him that look what at they’re doing, is it okay what’s going on here?!

For some context, when Khrushchev was invited to such events and the so-called spies were shown to him, Khrushchev, the man that he was, spat and said that those people should be beaten, expelled from here and punished! Oftentimes, people were arrested right after he said that. Khrushchev was very upset with what he saw and he thought it was a special operation created by spies.

An order was released from party leaders to find out where such serious violations are taking place throughout the Soviet Union. And once they had reached Chisinau, searches started to occur in order to find various violations. Someone had to be punished, because it was fishy if all was well. And here we are, they found this book made by me, and they took it out of production, calling it a formalist product.

How did you get into the illustrators’ world?

I got there by myself, without my father's help. After I graduated from the university, I had a colleague, Valeriu Gheorghiu (an alumnus of the Faculty of Letters, same university), who had a job at a publishing house as an editor. He would give me a job to illustrate some book covers, offering some work to do. However, I wanted to illustrate children's books, but it was very difficult to get such a commission. My advantage was that I worked very fast, and I also knew English, which played in my favor.

Agniya Barto was a book I was asked to illustrate, and I don't know why it was black and white. Working on colored books was a better paid job, and that's why they didn't bother much with such orders.

But how did this book turn out to be in color?

I very quickly finished illustrating Agniya Barto’s book, and then all of the sudden, Agniya Barto received Lenin’s prize in Moscow, and rumors started floating around about the shame of having the winner’s books printed in black and white. And I was asked by the publishing house to quickly color the book earlier illustrated in black and white. Long story short, this was my first full color book.

What technique do you use for coloring the illustrations? Were there any rules that had to be followed?

As you all know, I am an experimenter. And there weren’t many rules, because we hit Khrushchev’s Thaw. I used to like to copy the style of American illustrations.

  • A curiosity from Khrushchev’s time: In those days, a popular trend among children’s books was the use of Lenin’s portrait when he was a child. The photo was placed on one of the front pages of children’s books. This practice reminded everybody that Lenin was once a child too, innocent and pure. However, this practice was later canceled.

From whom did you receive the order for the book “Albinuța”?

From Grigore Vieru. He had very simple conditions: he wanted the painter to know the local Romanian language and to have drawings on each page, one letter at a time.

But weren’t there enough artists who knew the language at the time? If we look at it realistically, how many artists knew the local language at that time?

There was another one, Guzun, but he didn’t really know how to draw. Aside from him, they were all Russian speakers.

Lică briefly told us the story of the Abecedarul (Alphabet book):

Abecedarul was a book that the system from those times was struggling with. At one point, Igor Vieru created Abacedarul and it was such a beautiful book! But the people from the system were thinking of ways to destroy it and even ban it. This version of Abecedarul existed up until 1975, afterwards banned and called a nationalist book. They had issues with the drawings, because the text written by Spiridon Vangheli and Igor Vieru were rather good. Those from the system contacted an illustrator from Moscow, called Vaghin. He worked remotely and received postcards and letters from Moldovans — call it correspondence.

After I worked on Albinuța, I made the Abecedarul, but it was again experimental, because the Abecedarul made by Vaghin still existed. Initially, the version of our Abecedar was published in magazines, in the Leninist Spark (Scânteia Leninistă), in parts, a few pages in each published magazine.

Following the discussions we had with Lică, we came to the conclusion that “Abecedarul” underwent two phases: first it was written in Cyrillic, and in 1989 it was written in Romanian.

On August 31, 1989, the Latin alphabet was adopted in Moldova instead of the imposed Cyrillic. But the next day, on September 1, all the children were going back to school, the little ones were going to the first grade and they needed an ABC (Abecedar) written with Latin letters. Luckily, first grade pupils started learning by the school curriculum after one month of adaptation and training. We also started producing the Abecedar with Latin letters one page at a time and sent them to local newspapers to be published. In this way, teachers and parents could collect a few pages from the Abecedar until they had the entire book collected.

How did you manage to escape the Soviet regime unscathed?

I don’t think I escaped unharmed.

But you were a freelancer, a deadbeat (тунеядец — as the Russians say). Didn’t you look suspicious to the governance, in the sense that you weren’t an official employee?

That’s why I joined the Fine Artists’ Union, because you could skip working officially somewhere. As a member of the union, you were free from worries and could work as a freelancer.

Tell us the story of the “Nani Nani” book and how there was letter deficiency when you were working on it.

I made the books from the Codobelc series after the English ones, because I saw that Brits produced small books and I really liked them! It was 1989, I was already using Latin letters, and one day I came to the publishing house where Constantin Dragomir was the editor-in-chief and where I also produced this series of books. Back then there was a fuss with the Latin alphabet and I could do all sorts of experiments, that’s how “Nani Nani” appeared, from an experiment. We wanted to print it in Romanian, and the printing house said they had no typesetting fonts for this. I told them not to worry, because I was willing to draw the letters as illustrations myself. Back then, we were all using letraset.

* Letraset — tracing sheets on which glued letters were printed and they were transferred to paper, like dry stickers.

I had a lot of unused letters, collected from Romania and other countries, and I used them for “Nani Nani”. In Romania I also bought a ruler with letters for German rapidographs, of different sizes. This is how the “Nani Nani” book turned out to be handwritten.

A typical question: Where does the love for children’s books come from?

Hmm, they’re the only ones that make sense. The child can’t read, and I haven’t seen children’s books without drawings.

What motivates you to keep re-editing these books that you once created? Why not leave them in the past and get on with making new books?

Abecedarul has been requested by the public, since Facebook appeared. It opened a window into the world, and I saw that readers love the Abecedar. When I saw that there were counterfeits with the Abecedar and that it was sold from strange sources, I said that this is good, because it was a boost for me to continue my work.

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