Bookbinder pursues craft that began undercover in Soviet Union

The roots of Sasha Mosalov’s artwork go back to the days when he was living in the former Soviet Union and had an illegal business: publishing banned books.

Using a hand-operated bookbinding press, Mosalov bound photocopied anti-Soviet literature, the works of Freud and Jung, religious volumes — all materials that had been deemed a threat by the Soviet government — and sold the small-edition runs to customers who found him through word of mouth.

Sasha Mosalov with his Omer calendar photos/drew himmelstein

“Forbidden fruit is sweeter,” said Mosalov, 57, who would use whatever materials were available to him — like cloth for covers and paste paper for the inside pages — to make his books. “You couldn’t go to a store to buy bookbinding supplies because it was a state-controlled system that didn’t allow any private enterprise.”

The forced ingenuity from his former life still drives the El Cerrito-based artist today. In his first solo exhibition, now on display at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, Mosalov has created new pieces in what has become his chosen medium: craft bookbindings.

Born and raised in Moscow, Mosalov immigrated to the United States in 1991 at the age of 34. He had a degree in book arts, but aside from his small black market bookbinding business, he’d worked primarily as a painter. After coming to the U.S., he began using his bookbinding press to create art.

“After I’d seen some books in different galleries that were hand-leather bound, I started to perceive them not as books, per se, but as artistic objects,” he said. “It’s their form, shape and color that matters most to me and makes them more like a sculpture than a book.”

Mosalov’s books often begin and end with collages.

His creations are bound in dyed-and-painted leather on which Mosalov fashions textured, raised images. The endpapers are handmade collage designs, and the pages are hand-sewn. In contrast to his earliest books, which contained the words of intellectuals, the interior pages are blank.

“I think they’re beautiful,” said Elayne Grossbard, who curated the JCL exhibition. “I like the fact that he has that craft, [as well as] his intellectual interest in books.”

Grossbard first became familiar with Mosalov’s work when he was an art teacher at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, where he worked for about 10 years. Grossbard organized an annual group show of Jewish community artists, mostly drawn from art teachers at synagogues and Jewish day schools. Mosalov contributed pieces to five of the group shows in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Recently, the library has begun to focus more on smaller exhibitions featuring one or two artists or a single collection, and last June, Grossbard invited Mosalov to show his pieces in a solo show.

The result is “ReCOVER,” which will be on display through March 8.

In addition to a wide selection of bound books with abstract and nature-themed covers, Mosalov contributed a new version of a piece he originally created for a 2002 group show that focused on the Omer, the Jewish tradition of counting down the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot. Mosalov’s new Omer calendar features a seven-by-seven grid of 49 small books, each hanging from a hook and imprinted with Hebrew letters on their covers.

“Each day one can turn a tablet over and do the count of Omer,” he said.

Jewish symbols make up a small but significant part of his work. Through his website,, Mosalov takes orders for custom books, tailoring each design to the client’s wishes. For a bar mitzvah or a wedding, a book might include Hebrew lettering, a tree of life or a Hebrew inscription. Clients use his books as photo albums, journals, sketchbooks or commemorative pieces.

Mosalov says it’s all about catching the viewer’s eye with “a balance between textures, colors and shapes.”

“reCOVER: Book Bindings by Sasha Mosalov,” through March 8, Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.