Jan Bohuslav Sobota died on May 2nd of 2012 and this is my remembrance of this fine man who was a friend and mentor to me. Each autumn, salmon return to the rivers of their birth a€“ there to spawn and once again trigger a renewal of the eternal passion play.
Salmon that do eventually arrive at their destinations must once again compete a€“ this time for mates and to fight for access to the precious and very limited gravels. The profligate expenditure of life and extravagant wealth of biology is there everywhere to behold, as Death dances lightly among the gathering throngs of fish, picking and choosing from among them; who from their number shall successfully spawn and who shall just be food for the gathering predators and scavengers. Spend a day in silence, walking among the spawning salmon, as they dig spawning redds, jockey for position and slash at competitors with those gaping, snaggletoothed, hooked jaws. Jan Bohuslav Sobota has died, while half a world away; I was preparing these etchings of Spawned Salmon and dedicating them to Jan, the lover of fish. The book you hold in your hands has evolved from my simply giving these etchings a second life in book form, to my using them as a vehicle for honoring a friendship of three decades. In 1985, Jan and I had been corresponding for some months without ever meeting a€“ all quite distant and correct. A short bit of background on Jan Sobota to begin, but fear not; Ia€™ll soon be spinning anecdotes and thoughts on books as art a€“ celebrating Jana€™s life of course, telling a few stories out of school, but also straying into the personal and speculative in search of the meaning to be derived from the life and death of a friend. Jana€™s father was a serious bibliophile and collector of fine books, who nurtured that same love of books in his son a€“ an appreciation that steadily grew, until he was apprenticed to master bookbinder Karel A ilinger in PlzeA?. The pivotal event in Jana€™s early life as a book artist was the posthumous retrospective exhibition of fellow Pilsener, Josef VA?chal in 1969.
Jan supported a family, sponsored workshops, exhibited widely, did conservation work on rare historic books, ran a gallery a€“ and on it went. What Jan did for contemporary bookbinding, was to act as a bridge between the traditionally trained masters of the past and innovators of the present.
America was a great place to be a book artist in the early 1980a€™s precisely because it was an active zone of hybridization and hotbed of creativity. An instructive contrast to the anything-goes US scene was the icy reception I got when I showed a wooden box containing loose sheets of poetry and etchings to a Prague publisher. Neither Jan nor I had much interest in the book-like objects that often sneak into the museums as book arts a€“ the carved and glued together things that sorta, kinda have a bookish aspect to them a€“ rough-looking a€“ perhaps chain-sawed Oaken boards or granite slabs, slathered in tar and lashed together with jute; but lacking text.
When Jana€™s books went beyond function, conservation or decoration, they were subtle statements about binding and the place of books, knowledge and art, as well as statements about the dignity inhering in the handcrafted - with a good dose humor.
There are others who know their conservation and those, whose scientific contributions are far greater, but few of them are also artists at heart. It can sound so pedestrian, these eternal compromises between art and craft, yet what Jan represented was not at all common.
There is an inflection point at which exceptional craft begins to make the transition to art and it is closely associated with surmounting the limitations inhering to the discipline. Visiting with Jan in his workshop you quickly realized, that he did what a professional must, but ultimately, he just loved messing about with books.
A curiously protean hybrid of artist and craftsman, ancient and modern, one cannot think of Jan without seeing an unabashed Czech patriot in a foreign land. Early on in their stay in Cleveland, the Sobotas experienced the quintessential American disaster. Even after their medical debts were retired, money was still an issue for a family of immigrants with three kids a€“ two with special needs. Later on, when they were living in Texas, the massacre at Waco opened Jana€™s eyes to yet another difficult side of his adopted home. In 1979, I apprenticed with Jindra Schmidt, an engraver of stamps and currency, living in Prague. Schmidt had engraved stamps for Bulgaria, Iraq, Ethiopia, Albania, Guinea, Vietnam and Libya.
In 1992, Jindra Schmidt was honored for his contributions and depicted on the last stamp of a united Czechoslovakia, before it split into Czech and Slovak republics a€“ a fitting tribute. Unlike most children of immigrants, my destiny remained connected to that of my parentsa€™ homeland. My vocation as artist clarified itself in Prague while learning the increasingly obsolete skills of steel engraving. My first book was indeed, modeled after VA?chal, even to the extent of its diabolical subject matter. Jan showed me a great deal in the following years about the tradition of books as the meeting place of art, craft and ideas a€“ where printmaking intergrades seamlessly with the worlds of language, typography and illustration. One can like these things just fine and admire them from an uncomprehending distance, or you can become engaged. The book you hold was to have been a simple reprint of the Spawned Salmon a€“ something fun for Jan to work his magic upon.
Nice sentimental reminiscences, but there is still the matter of getting the work accomplished and out before the public, organizing exhibitions, printing catalogs and paying for transatlantic flights. The Prague show was reconfigured and curated by Jana€?s longtime friend, Ilja A edo, for exhibition at the West Bohemian Museum in PlzeA?. Quite predictably, I like seeing the kind of work I do honored a€“ the wood engravings and etchings made to shine in the context of crisply printed type and an excellent binding.


Ia€™ve heard printmakers lament that the surest way to devalue prints is to add excellent poetry, sensitive typography and a bang-up binding a€“ and then live to see the whole thing sell for half the price of just the unbound prints. Therea€™s nothing quite like seventeenth century Bohemia, the dead center of Europe, for particularly thorough violence a€“ with the Bubonic Plague stepping in afterwards as mop-up crew. The chapel at Sedlec was rebuilt after the major blood-letting of the thirty-years war as a memento mori a€“ reminder of death.
What can you say about the mounds of dead, the ruined lives, destroyed nations and misery multiplied by millions that isna€™t trite or self-evident?
But then I pan over to other fields a€“ not the kind where the grass is composting my fellow man, but to fields of endeavor where the ferment is of ideas recombining into ever more refined ways of thinking. I once lived at the Golem house in Prague a€“ at Meislova ulice, number 8, in the old Jewish ghetto.
Horoscopes might seem a curious basis on which to select ministers and diplomats, but it is also more common than youa€™d think. Picture the scene before you: Ita€™s a late night in Prague, before the Marlboro man dominated every street corner, even before the neon of casinos and the vulgarity of Golden Arches assaulted the nightwalkersa€™ eyes at all hours a€“ back when darkness, oh yes, that beautiful comforting velvety, all-enveloping and blessed dark, broken only by the moon, stars and late night taxis, still ruled the streets after the sun went down. The Golem was a mythic being of Jewish folklore, created from clay and quickened by the Shem, a magical stone engraved with an ancient Hebraic inscription, inserted into Golema€™s forehead.
The maternal tongues of these small nations have miraculously survived all the invasions, floods, plagues and foreign occupiers to this day a€“ a gift preserved and delivered to them across the generations.
Minority languages, on the other hand, carry an emotional load that can scarcely be exaggerated. Ishi and his sister were the last of the Yahi tribe to survive the genocidal colonization of California. Those whose language and culture are not threatened can never know the burden under which the carriers of small minority languages labor a€“ nor how those in exile bring up their children to preserve that which is beyond their capacities to save.
Jan was all about preserving traditions and the kind of ancestral knowledge that today is mostly enshrined in books. Today, the stories of our tribes are less and less passed on as oral tradition and most often read to us from the childrena€™s books wea€™ve learned to treasure a€“ illustrated by fine artists and produced with care for the highly discriminating purchasers of childrena€™s books a€“ for grandparents. A?epelA?k employed binders and typesetters to present complete suites of his work and in this too, he introduced me to a new world. Later in Prague I missed my flight back, due to the World Trade Center bombing and was delayed by a week.
The difficult thing to bear in acknowledging my teachers, models, heroes, suppliers and inspirations, is that these masters of the crafts and industries surrounding and supporting the book arts are mostly deceased.
The fruit we seek is not fast food, but laden with full-bodied flavors, attained by slow natural processes. All of us come from grandfathers who once were wheelwrights, cobblers or instrument makers; men with a profound love of wood and leather, who knew the working qualities of every kind of obscure tree growing in their countryside a€“ men who knew when to reach for elm or hickory a€“ as well as for goat, dog or even fish-skins. Jan spoke fondly of his grandmother, who baked bread every week of the year to feed an entire estate a€“ farm hands, livery people, gentry, trainers and hod-carriers alike.
Working consciously is the ultimate goal a€“ and that is the legacy youa€™ll find evidently contained within and upon the boards of every book bound by Jan Bohuslav Sobota. The etchings you see here first came to life as illustrations for the wedding anniversary announcements of MA­la and Jaroslav KynA?l.
Jan Bohuslav Sobota died on May 2nd of 2012 and this is my remembrance of this fine man who was a friend and mentor to me.A  He was an exceptional bookbinder, teacher and promoter of the book arts, but also an exile who successfully returned home after years abroad. There they encounter resident trout and bass a€“ even sunfish, chubs and dace, all keyed into the increasingly plentiful and highly nutritious bounty of salmon eggs. Situated 90A km south-west of Prague at the confluence of four rivers, PlzeA? is first recorded in writings from the tenth century. That vision was about innovation and creativity within the context of an historical tradition. This is what youa€™ll see in a Sobota binding a€“ exceptional attention paid to context and relationships, using materials and technical means that do indeed function and last. He knew his work was valuable and documented it fastidiously a€“ confident that it would be last. There was, however, nothing about his nationalism that demeaned anybody elsea€™s traditions or origins. That smallish incident within the parade of American fringe politics elicited an insanely violent level of suppression.
Masaryk a€“ and the cute little girl with a bouquet of flowers, is my mother Eva, at the age of three. Schmidta€™s income from the federal mint far exceeded anybody elsea€™s in the extended family and supported a network of cars, cottages and rent-controlled flats.
Schmidt, as he preferred to be called, was a man of conservative demeanor who preferred polite and reserved forms of speech and address. While visiting their unassuming engraver and extending my tourist visa 30 days at a time, I was quietly becoming qualified for life as a counterfeiter a€“ a vocation within which, one is set for life, however it may eventually turn out. Jan allowed several binders to have their way with it a€“ amo boxes for slipcases with shell casings for hinges and so forth.
This next incarnation of our exhibit in PlzeA? was all just a bit more prosaic and provincial.


Is it the binding we consider and exhibit a€“ or is the binding there to conserve a text, which is ultimately the point? There are also binders to whom everything else is merely the text block, who care little if it is an offset trade edition or a book made by hand.
The tales therein recorded reflected the accreted wisdom and wit of a people as they retold them across the highlands in modest log cottages after the harvest was in.
The way of working belongs to the Sobota vision I addressed earlier a€“ the honor and soul to be found in conscientiously made handcrafts. I dona€™t feel that accomplished or ready to assume their mantle and yet with every generation that is what must happen. Gravels, with just the right flow of fresh water running up through stones of the right size are but a tiny portion of the riverbed.A  The salmon must struggle past cities and sewer pipes, farms and irrigation systems, dams and turbines, fishermen and waterfalls a€“ just to reach the streams of their birth.
This widely beloved stamp was re-issued in 2000 and mother continues to receive philatelic fan mail to this day. He died the day I was composing a colophon for the Spawned Salmon with words of praise for his lifea€™s work. The engraving was masterfully done by Schmidta€™s long-dead colleague, Bohumil Heinz (1894-1940). The state security apparatus was surely aware of my presence, but if they kept tabs on me, I never knew. Everything is just so wonderful and everybody so creative, but suspending judgment long enough to actually look at some artwork and then giving it a chance isna€™t so bankrupt, is it?
Human body parts are again flying and the Baron is at his best defeating Turks and evading friendly fire from buffoonish generals.
Farmers would occasionally find their possessions and take them as souvenirs, unaware that the last Indians still lived in their midst. Damn the cost; ita€™s who we are and the last material vestiges of soulful encounters with our elders a€“ onea€™s whose stories are slipping inexorably away, thinned by each passing year and generation. Their kids were grown and they were by then slipping into that last, reflective phase of life a€“ done competing. These scraps turned out to be a deck of medieval playing cards - the second oldest such cards known. A book is so much more than the sum of its parts a€“ and yet each of us tends to have our own bailiwick in which we shine and to which we look first.
These plates have been inked and wiped by hand, employing methods that woulda€™ve been familiar to Rembrandt. They crashed with my wife Jana and me in Kalamazoo, while taking the a€?orientation coursea€?nearby. I can confidently report back to my English reader, that Jan would only grow in stature for you, if you could have fully understood the subtlety of his thoughts in his own maternal tongue. Perhaps right for those who shouldna€™t have sharp objects, for fear of hurting themselves. That show was purchased whole by Special Collections at Western Michigan University and constitutes the largest collection of Sobota bindings and the most complete archive of my work. Few people would have cast a second glance at that glued-up mess of moldering old papers before pitching it, nor would they have recognized what they had in hand or known how to restore or sell it. These folks were a profound blessing to a family facing some truly rough sailing a€“ a Godsend. Schmidt had worked was signed with warm dedications to him and thus worth real money to collectors.
He wanted to see the printmaker in me come to full fruition and I wanted to be worthy of his attentions. The family has dwelled within sight of the seats of power, pushing copper plates through a press and outlived the Hapsburg Monarchy, First Republic, Nazis and Communists.
The intact packages were still there on their shelves, all duly graded, labeled and priced, awaiting an owner who was never to return. Back home, their Czech neighbors would have envied them and accused them of theft or worse, but people here seemed to be pleased as punch to see them prosper a€“ genuinely happy for them.
Those items too, kept trickling out the door, until there came a sad, sad day, when the golden eggs were all gone. They bashfully admitted their foolishness and went back to making beautiful books a€“ and their American friends were so relieved to see them regain their sanity. You take time to grieve and then pick yourself up by your bootstraps (by God a€“ get a grip) and get on with it (Rome wasna€™t built in a day you know). StrejA?ek was still working, but it was all coming to an inevitable end, as he grew shaky of hand and hard of seeing. Enriched by my days of being nurtured by Prague, Matkou MA›st (Mother of Cities), I moved on to meet my destiny with art.



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