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A quarter-century later, Charles Hobson is still (un)dressing literature



Charles Hobson used to be a lawyer who dabbled in art. But one day in 1984, that changed.

The then-40-year-old Hobson was meeting a friend of the same age for lunch. That night, the friend went home, had a heart attack and died.

Hobson and several friends put together a small book in memoriam for the family. And there, Hobson says, "was where I learned a human being could make a book. I thought that was something that was magical you didn't really do it yourself."

Today, the 65-year-old Californian is a book artist. And his works can be found in the permanent collections of some of the world's most prestigious museums and libraries, including New York City's Museum of Modern Art, Washington, D.C.'s National Gallery and London's British Library.

Perhaps he should have known life might've taken him in this direction; even during law school, when he was allowed to take one class outside of the law curriculum, he chose painting.

Book love

Four years prior to his friend's death, Hobson had enrolled part-time at the San Francisco Art Institute. He says the re-entry into schooling, the loss of his friend, his new insight about books, and recognition that life is short all combined to push him to pursue a second bachelor's in fine arts and to start working with the book form.

He designs his books from start to finish, and puts a little of himself into each limited-edition piece. Naturally, his love of books is different from that of a librarian or a bookstore owner or a consummate reader.

"I consider books an artistic medium," he says, "a lot like painting or sculpture has particular qualities which offer an artist to express themselves. It's the ability to put word and image together in a way which can be one plus one equals three; where the experience of the words alone, and the images alone, would be as they were, but together they expand both sides of that equation."

The book Hobson shows people when trying to explain this is based on a poem by Billy Collins, titled Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes. He set the pages up with little pearl buttons and elastic eyelets.

"In order to read the poem," Hobson says, "you need to unbutton the pages. ... In the opening and reading of the book, you're actually experiencing that piece of the poem where you're dealing with undressing."

Hearing him talk this way, it's hard to believe he once spoke in the language of legal briefs. He laughs when he talks about his law school reunions.

"Most of my law school friends ... they're baffled," he says. "'This can't be the same guy!'"

But Jessica Hunter Larsen, curator at Colorado College's Coburn Gallery, which is bringing Hobson's Why I Love Books exhibit, says she's seen a number of people drawn to art later in life.

"There's always that kid in elementary school who does art all the time and is just sort of a natural artist," she says. However, she adds, many of those who discover art later have explored something in every other way possible, leaving art "the only way the idea can come to fruition."

Hobson had been dabbling for a long time, but Hunter Larsen says he told her that when he found this mode of expression, "it was like all the Christmas tree lights started to work at once."

Setting sail

Many of Hobson's paths of old can be found in the pages of his books. From his longtime interest in historical and literary genres, to sailing (his father was a boat builder), baseball (one of his first limited-edition books was Leonardo Knows Baseball) and even Edgar Degas (the man who prototyped the monotype printmaking method Hobson uses today), it's all there.

"My wife likes to say that the way I work is like an airport with a landing pattern," he says. "And that there will be 10 or 15 ideas circling in the air and then one day I'll land one. And I get working on it."

What he's working on now is a book titled Ancient Mariner, with Roger Angell, senior editor for the New Yorker. Angell wrote an essay about sailing in Maine that Hobson received permission to use. He says he felt he could bring the essay alive after finding a model boat with a sail that looked exactly like the one on Angell's boat.

The sail was 15 inches tall, which Hobson says is exactly the size of a half sheet of Reeves printmaking paper folded in half. It determined the size of the book, and gave him the opportunity to sew the mast and the sails into the book. At one point when you turn the pages, he says, you're turning the main sail from one side to another.

"I think most of my books have multiple layers," Hobson adds. "You can get one layer of information right off, and then you can go back and find something else that interests you. And then something else that might interest you."

Hobson doesn't yet know where he's headed after Ancient Mariner. He may have lots of ideas circling around his mind, but he doesn't believe the decision's up to him. It's something a bit more magical than that and, curiously, something authors often say about their love of the writing process.

"The ideas catch me," Hobson says. "I don't catch the ideas."

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