Monday, May 7, 2012

Jan Sobota (1939 - 2012)

I first encountered Jan's work in Lewis' Fine Bookbinding in the Twentieth Century and was smitten. Then in 1989 I had the pleasure of taking a workshop on building 3-D/Relief designs when they were all living along the lake near Cleveland. Later I worked with him on 50x25, a wonderful exhibit featuring books by the Rarach Press.

He was a bear of a man with a heart of gold (and then some). His passing will leave a huge void.

Below included in Ladislav Hanka's moving celebration of Jan's life is a picture of Jan I took during that 1989 workshop.

Peter D. Verheyen

Obituary: in memory of Jan Sobota
Written by Ladislav R. Hanka, Kalamazoo MI

Jan Bohuslav Sobota passed away the 2nd of May, 2012. An active member of the Guild of Book Workers since the early-1980s, he was my friend of thirty-three years, binder of my books and co-exhibitor on two continents. I feel called to share some reflections on his life with the many of you who knew him, were his students or just admired his work:

Jan came to the USA in 1984, sponsored by the Rowfant Club of book collectors in Cleveland. He‘d been in Switzerland, exiled from his native Czechoslovakia and was employed at the conservation lab of Case Western Reserve University, eventually going to the Bridwell Library at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Conservation work paid the bills, but you, his friends and colleagues, all know that his first love was the making of fine unique design bindings. He arrived during the renaissance of American book arts in the 1980’s and hit the ground running as an active promoter and sponsor of shows and workshops. Jan Sobota was a tsunami of the book arts, affecting all around him. With his wife Jarmila, they immediately established the Saturday’s Book Arts Gallery in Euclid, Ohio and kept the name and concept of that gallery alive in various places and incarnations as they moved about the world. (Sobota means Saturday in Czech). Day jobs at universities gave Jan financial stability and institutional support, but also multiplied the effect of his book arts efforts, allowing him to better apply the benefits of his coming from an unbroken tradition of apprenticeships and bring a profound knowledge of the craft and tradition of bookbinding to the many American students eager to learn at a time when that knowledge was being lost at a staggering rate. He shared that knowledge generously with anybody who would listen.

Jan survived both Nazis and Communists, yet that adversity didn’t embitter him. He was kind and circumspect in how he spoke, but also no fool. He was an astute observer and his short experience of America contained contrasts that speak volumes. America gave him opportunity and he repaid the favor manifold. He believed in the USA as a nation of principle, based in a humane constitution (which he studied) and the rule of law, but he was not a mindless patriot or an unqualified believer in free and unregulated enterprise.

Early on in Cleveland, Jan contracted cancer, before he could afford health insurance. He survived and came to understand America as a society where neighbors help each other. People they hardly knew, appeared with casseroles, left meat loaves on the porch, lent them money and took up collections. They were a Godsend, but he also discovered that America’s pioneer spirit not-with-standing, kind neighbors couldn’t stop his family from slipping into a psychic debtor's prison over his health crisis. Now comes the Sobota story I most love telling: Jan had staggering debt, a colostomy and a family to support. He took on more conservation work, among which was an old book, with crumbling boards. Inside the leather covers Jan found an odd mass of stuck-together papers, which he soaked and carefully teased apart. These scraps turned out to be a deck of medieval playing cards - the second oldest such cards known. He restored them and sold them for enough to cover his medical expenses. Few people would have cast that glued-up mess a second glance before pitching it, nor would they recognize what they had in hand or known how to restore or sell it. God helps those who help themselves – no?

Even after the debt was retired, money was still an issue for a family of immigrants with three children, (two of them with special needs) and limited use of English. At one point the Sobotas responded to the seductions of Amway. They stayed with us in Kalamazoo, while taking the “introductory course” nearby. Day by day they became indoctrinated and groomed to invade their home in Czechia with cleaning products and a new pyramid scheme. They left in a get-rich-quick haze, but in a week their freshly laundered brains began to awaken. Jan, the survivor and master filter of propaganda and Jarmila the psychologist had been thoroughly buffaloed. They bashfully admitted their foolishness and went back to the real work of making beautiful books in Texas.

Soon afterwards, the massacre at Waco opened Jan’s eyes to yet another difficult side of his adopted home. That smallish incident within the parade of American fringe politics and its insanely violent suppression left a far larger mark on Jan than one might expect. He’d seen far worse, but he didn’t expect it of the US. American society was becoming a lot more complex in its high and low points. He was really getting to know us at our best and worst.

In 1996 the Sobotas re-emigrated back home to the Czech Republic – quite suddenly actually. Life in America had been good and they’d developed an extensive social and professional network, but it was still a foreign country. Then one day in Prague, when it came time to put an end to vacation and board the plane for Dallas, they just couldn’t do it. The need to be home was overwhelming – a physiological necessity. Jarmila stayed and Jan went to pack up their belongings and make a new start, once again. It was however a good choice and they became very engaged in the Czech Society of Book Workers. Jan became active in municipal and local politics in matters related to small-businesses and craftsmen – the local engines of every hometown economy that make real things which actual people need, paying taxes and creating a civil society, regardless of what the big corporations and big governments might claim to be up to. It isn’t just a matter of Jan’s politics, but a picture of who he was and why he made the books he did. He was an integrated whole person and it was all about having his feet on the ground, his hands calloused, dirty and in the material world and being face to face with actual people in honest exchanges. Whether just re-binding a family Bible, repairing some children’s books with folk tales or conserving a rare medieval incunabulum or even binding brand new books made by his friend in Kalamazoo – it was all honorable work and for the good.

There are many lives that Jan has touched, but I can speak best of my own experience. Many of you will remember the 1995 50 x 25 book show in Dallas, in which 25 invited Guild members participated and bound my books. Jan had a generous catalog published; the show was then circulated and eventually sold into a public collection. That resulted in my first brush with financial security. A decade later we did a similar show together, which was exhibited at the National Museum in Prague and then Pilsen. These events don’t happen accidentally. They are orchestrated over years. They are rare. They are major inflections in the life of an artist. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Jan, but I am hardly the only one.

Catalog to 50 x 25

Jan died in his sleep – just closed up shop one evening and went to bed for the last time, leaving behind piles of books in various stages of completion. The night he died, I got up at 3 AM to collate and package a new book to send him – presuming that Jan being Jan, he would jump at more work. Retirement is after all for sissies. His feet may hurt; his blood sugar levels may be sky high; major pieces of his plumbing may have gone AWOL; but he’s only 73! It’s Jan here - the indefatigable boundless font of energy – Jan Sobota! I was also composing a colophon in which I mentioned him and how important the living links to traditional handcrafts are, when I began noticing that; of the paper-makers, binders, lithographers, tanners, typesetters and printmakers I was acknowledging, most were dead - perhaps noticed it as Jan himself was passing from this earthly plane.

The old ways pass and we who maintain vestiges of that knowledge carry a large burden in the shadow of mass-produced consumer culture. We are the guardians of that which cannot be falsified or mass-produced. What we do carries the impress of human hands and communicates the loving care with which it was made. It has far more to do with your grandmother’s cookies than any industrial product. The products of this handwork are like the tools in Jan’s shop, worn and covered with the marks of honor that years of continual use inevitably bring. Tools are to be used. Cookies are to be eaten. Books are to be read.

Jan was among those guardians of the human patrimony who gave others the courage to stay the course. Our fellow citizens will eventually want that which we care-take and we must keep it alive until they realize they need it. Jan breathed a lot of life back into his calling – gave back at least what he was given by making that moral choice to be loyal to his aesthetic values. He’d save an old bindery from the scrap and antique dealers in order to redistribute the tools among those who’d honor the masters by using them – by cutting down the shaft of a burin to fit the unique needs of one’s own hand, perhaps re-temper the steel to better cut contemporary materials.

Jan and I began our binding collaborations with a series of Moravian folk tales collected by my grandfather – humorous tales about the activity of the Devil in the lives of simple villagers in the sticks – something like a Czech version of the Devil and Daniel Webster. It is deceptive material and contains a great deal of wisdom, informed by generations of inherited shared experience; the universal consciousness reflected in folkways. To illustrate it oneself and then to print it by hand in Czech and bind it in full leather with a nice slipcase is hardly a savvy business decision and yet I find it hard to imagine a more fitting thing to inherit and value beyond all money. Things made with that level of integrity are a joy to hold and to use.

It is the role of age to be reflective as friends and colleagues wink out one by one - to reflect on the meaning of death. What values from the past is it worth maintaining and which battle is no more than a pointless struggle against an unstoppable rising tide? I don't feel very adequate to the role of guardian of the values and skills of the past and yet I suppose I am becoming the living expert in some aspects of a few of these arcane skills. In this I’ll take my example from Jan Sobota by being a living breathing example and simply do what I do well, each piece warm and worn from the touch of my hand before I release it to the world and pass it on over to another.

Jan Sobota’s death is a meaningful punctuation point, because his life was lived meaningfully. He made modest art of human dimensions calling to be touched – exceptionally crafted and informed by a lifetime of profoundly humanistic experience. With each such death the baton is passed once more to the gimpy and crippled to run the rest of the race for those who no longer can.

Vladimír Škutin, Marie Jose Sacre, ill., Kde Bydlí Cas (Where Time Lives), 1985
From the Guild of Book Workers' 100th anniversary exhibit held in 2006.

Rest easy my friend.

Remembered I had this image of me in my youth with one of Jan's bindings.