Remembering Jan Sobota

                          Thirty years of collaboration in the book arts


                                               Ladislav Hanka

      Jan Sobota died on May 2nd of 2012.   He was my friend and collaborator for nearly three decades, but more importantly, he was an important participant in the renaissance of American Book Arts taking place in the 1980’s and 1990’s that eventually led to the establishment of the book arts as a discipline being taught in university art departments, and having standing as art in museums. I worked regularly with Jan during the years he was head conservator at SMU in Dallas.  I also worked with him in Cleveland and up until the end, in the Czech republic as well.   Jan clearly had a following among American bookbinders, quite a few of whom, followed him to the Czech Republic.  There he and Jarmila ran workshops and took on the occasional apprentice.    I was close to Jan and so I have accepted the responsibility of setting words to paper with what I remember, before that memory grows dim and details begin to blur and be forgotten.

      The book I have written, etched and printed about Jan is entitled; Remembering Jan Sobota.   Here I trace the three decades of collaboration between the two of us – him binding my books and organizing occasional book arts exhibitions in the US and Europe.  In the course of 36 pages I have spun some stories about Jan and his dominant place in the late twentieth century renaissance of American book arts – but tried to stay away from just listing professional accomplishments, which one can read elsewhere and instead, concentrated on the way he and Jarmila lived and to bring to life a personality that was large and generous, by telling the stories that one tells more privately about a favorite and occasionally, peculiar uncle.  The book contains 12 etchings, honoring Jan’s love of fish and fishing, in which the symbolism of Spawning Salmon runs its course – the adult fish returning to the rivers of their birth at the end of life, much as did Jan.  The Salmon are slowly seen to go from healthy animals driven by the reproductive imperative to spent and helpless dying creatures swirling about in an eddy and eventually as decomposing flesh returning to the soil, coming full circle.

      Jan came from an apprenticeship system of bookbinding that was still intact in Czechoslovakia and he served as an important evolutionary link to that unbroken body of knowledge of skills from European guilds of the past.  Jan lived here among us from the age of 45 – 60, typically one’s most productive years.  In those short 15 years he accomplished a lot and left a deep mark here .  He continued until his death, to have an influence from across the Atlantic.

     Already within the first year after his death, he has been honored for the contributions he made to American book arts with a retrospective show at Case Western Reserve University, held at Special Collections in the Kelvin Smith Library in October  & November of 2012.  About half were my books that we’d worked on together.  Others came from the CWR University collection and from Rowfant Club members.   The event was timed so as to run concurrently with the Watermarks convention, the Dard Hunter conference and Octavo fest and therefore, to be an integral part of the celebration of the book arts in Cleveland (where Jan got his start in the USA).  The Rowfant Club sponsored the event and I made this book honoring Jan for the retrospective show. 


         Jan was furthermore remembered with a lifetime achievement award at the Guild of Book Workers conference in Salt Lake City in October of 2012.   He was awarded a similar honor, for a lifetime of achievement by the Czech Society of Book Workers (of which he was a founding member) three years earlier on the occasion of his seventieth birthday.   Jan was an honorary member of the Meister der Einbandkunst in Germany and an obituary by their most venerable member, Werner Kiessig, appeared in their publication.  Peter VerHeyen marked Jan’s passing with an obituary in Bone Folder for North American binders.  He was a founding member of the Lone Star chapter of the guild of Book Workers (in 1991) who also marked his passage in their bulletin.  His death has been remarked upon widely among colleagues because his work was significant. 

      My own contribution to marking Jan’s passage has been this book about our collaboration in the book arts, which I would like to see survive and be saved to appropriate archives across the country.  Remembering Jan Sobota is printed entirely from intaglio plates - a Job-like piece of work that makes me more fully appreciate what William Blake took on with that way of working.


     The next major honor to be accorded Jan will be at the Trienniale of Book Binding taking place in Pilsen in June of 2013.   Jan was born near Pilsen (Plzeň in Czech) and his apprenticeship was with the great Pilsen-born bookbinder Jiří Šilinger.  Similarly it was the great Pilsner, Josef Váchal who gave both Jan and myself the inspiration and impetus to follow a calling in the book arts. 

     Jan emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1982 to Switzerland where he worked at the Papiermühle in Basel and then in 1984 moved to Cleveland at the invitation of the Rowfant Club of bibliophiles.  This Book lover’s group is among the oldest and most venerable bibliophile’s clubs in the nation and one of several very influential private organizations dedicated to the promotion of rare books and the book arts.  Other organizations similar to the Rowfant Club are the Grolier Club in New York and Caxton Club in Chicago – fellow members of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies.   Jan was immediately employed as the head conservator at Case Western Reserve University and bound books for the Rowfant Club’s membership in his spare moments, until he went to Southern Methodist University in Dallas to fulfill that conservator’s function at the Bridwell Library.  There he founded the DeGolyer memorial book binding competition, ran a gallery, curated exhibitions, held workshops and did all manner of work for the promotion of the book arts and especially fine design binding.  He had a great deal of influence on many artists and binders around him and therefore on the evolution of the book arts in the USA.  

       Jan and his wife Jarmila eventually re-emigrated back to their home in the Czech Republic in 1997, but continued to host US book artists in their new studio and Saturday’s Book Arts Gallery. They co-sponsored artist plen-aire residencies and offered book binding symposia and workshops for an international clientele up to the very end.  Many currently active US binders got their training with the Sobotas, either in Dallas or in Loket (Czechia).   Their effect on American book arts extended well into their repatriation and only now with Jan’s death, will that influence enter the legacy phase, which none can easily second guess.

     Among the salient observations by speakers at the memorial exhibition for Jan were that there are two major figures that the Rowfant Club of Cleveland has hosted, fostered and promoted for the book world - Dard Hunter and Jan Sobota.  Dard Hunter was prolific and generated all manner of ideas and recorded writings, but it was the secondary literature that took his contributions the next step – cementing his reputation and impact, allowing his work to evolve in the hands of subsequent generations and his ideas to inspire young minds. That secondary literature is something I have now started for the legacy of Jan Sobota in an admittedly modest format, but it is there and should be preserved as the first step of many.  I wrote down my memories of thirty years of work with Jan while that was still fresh in my mind and paired it with appropriate etchings.  I etched that text into thirty-six pages of copper plates and printed those plates by hand into the last available papers made by Jan’s deceased colleague and hand-paper maker, Zdeněk Král.  I imprinted leathers and designed a book with slipcase that is bound by Vernon Wiering.  That too is a nod to Jan Sobota - who had great appreciation for the young and inexperienced and giving them a hand up to include them in his world.  I too am his junior and was brought along at an age when nobody else took me seriously.    Others will follow my footsteps and the complete picture is of a legacy growing outwards from the center of a web that was largely Jan’s creation.   Jan made a large difference in the lives of many a struggling young artist.

    The importance of Jan in the recent renaissance of American book can scarcely be exaggerated.  He certainly wasn’t alone, but he was one of the figures that loomed large and his departure leaves a gap.  Because I am bilingual in Czech and English and worked with Jan over the course of nearly 30 years as an artist and collaborator – even as translator, I am in a unique position to know him and write about him.  I have an insider’s view of the man and am thus unusually suited to communicate this to the English-speaking reader.

     Jan and I worked as colleagues – together; making books whose whole was hopefully far more than a mere sum of their parts.  I am not his student as a binder, but a printmaker, who finds books an appropriate vehicle for presenting and preserving text and image.  My books often share subject matter that not only interested Jan, but which fit into his life’s vision and which dovetailed well with what motivated him to fight with an intransigent economic system and uncomprehending world in a foreign language and get up to make books every day.  In hindsight all famous and successful people seem self-evidently to have been destined for their assured place in the limelight, but there was nothing guaranteed or self-evident in Jan’s successes.  They were hard fought and dearly earned.   He swam in the undercurrents of books as fine art while the electronic media were doing their best to make print and paper obsolete.   The book arts have not enjoyed a well-established place beyond craft, design and conservation work until very recently.  The expanded view of books as art is something for which we can thank a very small number of tireless people who bridged that gap for us.   Jan was from among their number.  

        In 1995 we put on a major exhibit at SMU entitled 50 x 25 in which we showcased the works of 25 leading American design binders, using books that I had made.  Some were books that were adapted to the show and some were made for that show at Jan’s request.  The Bridwell Library published a generous catalogue of 100 pages and the exhibition was then circulated to four more museums.  That show was eventually purchased whole by special collections at Western Michigan University.  Even after his re-emigration to Czechia (1997), Jan continued for some time to return to the Bridwell Library at SMU in Dallas to do conservation work.  I saw him occasionally then, but mostly it was I, the younger man, who traveled to Europe, where we did our further collaborations. 


      Jan and Jarmila returned to the USA nearly every year to participate in book arts events and this included activities of the Guild of Book Workers and the miniature collectors conventions in particular.  Jan and I assembled other exhibitions since the first large one sponsored by the Bridwell Library.  They took place in Europe and were well received in some major museums as well regional galleries of art.

      I am currently organizing yet one more and final such show posthumously - about a year out.    That currently evolving show will revolve around this new book, Remembering Jan Sobota.  I have contracted with a number of his leading colleagues from the Guild of Book Workers and others in Europe to each bind a copy.  Eventually a substantive collection of these books will come together as these folks finish a last book binder's tribute to Jan - something I’ll be making available as a traveling exhibition.  Quite a number of the same binders involved in 50 x 25 will be in this show, chosen capriciously from a mix of Jan’s colleagues, friends and students.

     That exhibition will be available to appropriate venues and I encourage inquiries.  For the moment we have a commitment to exhibit at the West Bohemian museum in Pilsen in 2015 and several uncommitted expressions of interest.

   The current list of participating binders:

Jarmila Jelena Sobotova      Saturday’s book arts – Loket,  Czech Republic

Peter Verheyen                    Philobiblon  &
Syracuse University

Don Etherington                  Bindery,  Somerville North Carolina

Monique Lallier                   Bindery,  Somerville North Carolina

Franklin Mowery                 Folger Library, Washinton DC

Cris Takacs                          Bindery, Chardon OH

Harry Campbell                   Ohio State University Conservation lab

David Lawrence                  Lawrence Bindery, Irving Texas

Priscilla Spitler                   Thistle Bindery, Las Cruces New Mexico

Pamela Leutz                      The Gilded Edge & Colorado College

Paul DelRue                        Bindery, Denbighshire, England

Jackson Forrest                    Bindery and rare book dealer, Dallas Texas

Gabriella Fox                       Bindery, Cincinatti OH

Dalibor Nesnidal                 Bindery in Semtěš, Czech Republic

Paula Gourley                      Lilyhouse Editions,  Eugene OR

Pamela Moore                      Libertino Book Arts, Manhattan New York,

Ethan Ensign                       Scrub Oak Bindery, Salt Lake City

Patty Bruce                          Bindery in Boston    MA

Sean Richards                      Byzantium Studios, Norman Oklahoma

Vernon Wiering                   Vernon Wiering’s Bindery, Grand Rapids, MI

Jacek Tylkowski                  Introligatornia Tylkowski,  Poznań, Poland

  Phillip Smith declined due to declining health and age but he did volunteer to write a short piece for any publication that might attend such a show.

Several more binders have been contacted and are still undecided.

    Those binders having completed their bindings can see them displayed in my website alongside the Remembering Jan Sobota Page.  Thus far that includes some exquisite bindings by :

Don Etherington

Monique Lallier

Vernon Wiering

      Availability of Jan Sobota’s bindings for purchase

   There are still some books bound by Jan Sobota available for purchase.  The largest portion is in my possession and a significant portion is in the ownership of his widow, Jarmila.   What I have available are not the expensive and highly innovative design bindings upon which Jan built his reputation, (though I have a couple left in Kalamazoo and several more stored in the Czech Republic) but far more modest pieces. These are typically folios of etchings with modest amounts of text, which Jan would have bound for me in edition bindings that I had him design and produce.  His widow Jarmila also has a few bindings remaining in Loket – Czech Republic.   She is interested in selling them.

    The American book arts movement would not be where it is today without those early groundbreakers like Jan Sobota.  What I have here to offer isn’t just Jan’s work, but also the work he did with me, work that he influenced as that process of making art and literature and culture passed on from his teachers and mentors, became stabilized within him and evolved further in the hands of those of us whom he too influenced.  Jan may have started as just a binder, but he and those around him evolved as books became an art form that far surpassed the limited editions, dedicated to revisiting old ground and making more tasteful and expensively produced variations of popular showpieces.  Books have now become a way to make new art  – art that requires the marriage of several disciplines to express what is in the artist’s mind and soul.   The time to collect such work is when it is being made and is most easily available – before it becomes the exclusive bailiwick of rare book dealers.

   There are many more books and etchings to be seen on my website, which I hope anybody reading this will want to peruse.  I worked with Jan and loved him as a brother/father figure, but I am also an artist whose own work is what motivates him to get up and work.  That motivating vision has much to do with a spiritual vision coming from a life led in step with nature in ways that might be closest to a creation-based theology of Meister Eckhart – but of course more bohemian or sensualist at its core.  I am after all an artist with debts to Rembrandt and Leonardo as much as to the more recently dead Horst Janssen, Josef Váchal, Ladislav Čepelák or Morris Graves and indeed to quite a few living, breathing contemporaries. 

     I have assembled a list below of those books that have been bound by Jan Sobota which I still have available, assuming that this would be of the most likely immediate interest to any reader of these words. The titles don’t always say that much about the contents, but the webpage link listed below each title is where you’ll see it depicted and have a bit more information about it.


Available Books by Ladislav Hanka  bound by Jan Sobota



Frogs  - this one is curiously widely collected by insiders of the book world –Rowfant Club members, rare book dealers, and art gallery owners - even the president of the Czech Republic




Tibetan Monks


Purl - three remain


Saints:  Three left (


Byt Božím Bláznem; To be the Divine Fool  (written in Czech)


Devil’s Rock


      I have two design bindings of Devil’s Rock – It’s written in Czech and both examples are among the rare remaining unique pieces.   Both are depicted in the website  (but not the one in a sculptural housing).  That one is in the Czech museum of Book Binding in Loket. These two are the rarest pieces of what I have left from Jan.


Iowa Couplets (Jarmila’s Binding)


    Jan’s widow, Jarmila also has some of Jan’s Bindings, which she’d also like to sell.  Her English is good and I’d encourage your contacting her as well.  They are the larger and more expensive unique bindings – good museum pieces – and she could really use the money after Jan’s death.   


Jarmila Sobota <[email protected]>;

In overview:

The 10 Books by or having to do with Jan Sobota

                      which I have to offer immediately and their costs:


Remembering Jan Sobota                        1,500.00

Purl                                                                     500.00

Saints                                                                 750.00

 Privilege                                                           350.00

Byt Bozim Blaznem/

      To be the Divine Fool                        1,000.00

Toads                                                             1,500.00

Frogs…….                                                        800.00

Tibetan Monks                                            1,200.00

Iowa Couplets (Jarmila)                              150.00

Devils Rock – Certuv Kamen               8,000.00 

Traveling European Show


   There is a larger secondary website in which I have gone about describing the traveling book show that Jan and I sponsored in Europe.  That whole show is now in storage in the Czech Republic.   It was to have traveled outside Czechia, primarily to the Gutenberg Museum and Bibliotheque Wittockiana in Brussels, but with Jan’s ill health and eventual death all that slowly ground to a halt and now I am unsure where to go with it.  This is the largest and best collaborative work we ever did together and a very substantial book collection.  I am hoping to convince some museum in Czechia that they need to purchase it and preclude seeing their patrimony being exported from the country – but if adequate funds aren’t to be found , I will bring it to the USA.  I have to dangle that carrot and hope somebody has a wealthy donor with itchy fingers.  101 pieces by 60 binders!  If you have any interest in such an extensive collection, which includes a great number of Jan’s better bindings, please don’t take the values I have listed as final.  They are for insurance purposes.  There is logic to them and they come from years of experience selling my work, but the differences in value between the works of various binders and the increased value of Jan’s work after death will affect values as will Jarmila’s having sold some pieces that are hers from the collection.  It will take having a realistic appraisal made.   Still, it is at least a beginning.

Ladislav Hanka

1005 Oakland Dr

Kalamazoo MI

USA 49008

(269) 388-5631

[email protected]