From the Great Libraries of Kazakhstan

Sean Smuda

Serik Kulmeshkenov is showing me his penis--one of them, anyway. "I've designed erotic bookplates before," the artist says, returning from the table that holds his printing and engraving gear, "but never pornographic ones. This one is pornographic."

He displays a thick, small square of white paper with a hard, venous member wrapped in a Napoleonic officer's coat printed in black on its glossy surface. Despite its lack of proper eyes, ears, or mouth, the organ seems sentient.

We're in the living room of Kulmeshkenov's street-level digs, a cozy one-bedroom on one of downtown Minneapolis's throbbing arteries. Kulmeshkenov's command of his environment is such that the place seems spacious, despite a profusion of surfaces and gadgets. You'd never guess that he is legally blind. Trim at age 50, with thick gray hair just grazing the shoulders of his electric-blue polo shirt, he moves quickly, deftly, and often. He disappears momentarily, returning with the sketches for nine other plates, all similarly themed. "It's what the guy who commissioned them wants," he says, shrugging.

Maybe Kazakhstan, where Kulmeshkenov spent his first 44 years, is more conservative than the U.S. To my jaded eye, the print seems more comically ribald than pornographic. Still, it's a lot naughtier than any of the nicely framed and matted selections lining his living room walls--a tiny fraction of the 250 or so bookplates the artist has designed since he got the bug in 1984. (Bookplates are meant to be affixed to the inside cover of a book, where they identify a volume as belonging to a particular collection. Aficionados of this art form, however, also trade the bookplates they've commissioned for other original works.)

"I drew when I was growing up," Kulmeshkenov says, "but I never planned to be an artist. I thought I'd just be some kind of working-class guy. After secondary school, I spent two years in the Soviet Army. I figured I'd just get some kind of regular job when I got out."

Instead, returning to his native Astana, he enrolled in architecture school at a friend's behest. After graduation, he worked for the government until his vision started failing less than two years later. Diagnosed with Behçet's Disease, a rare autoimmune disorder that causes an inflammation of the blood vessels, he lost his job. "I felt as though my life was over," he recalls. "Suddenly, I was on a pension, just an empty shell."

Soviet treatment modalities for the chronic condition were more than a little clunky. "Every month, I'd spend around three weeks in the hospital," he says. "After that, my vision would be perfect for a week to 10 days, then the inflammation in my eyes would start getting worse again and I'd have to go back to the hospital."

While visiting his mother's house during a sighted interlude, Kulmeshkenov came across a newspaper article titled "The Magic World of Ex Libris." "At the time," he says, "I knew next to nothing about bookplates and the art of ex libris ("from the library of"). But the article had a magnetic effect on me. I wrote the journalist, asking if he knew where I could get more information. I didn't even know if he'd reply."

He didn't. But around six months later, an envelope from Siberia arrived in the mail. "I opened it and a few very nice bookplates fell out. "The writer had passed my letter on to Oleg Besedin, an artist who lived in Irkutsk," he says. "He was very nice, very helpful. I felt as though a whole new world had opened up before me."

Thanks to Besedin, Kulmeshkenov was soon corresponding with artists and collectors all over Europe while polishing his engraving skills. "Metal--usually copper--is the best engraving medium," he says. "Wood is number two. I use Plexiglas, which isn't quite as good."

You wouldn't guess from the final product that Kulmeshkenov is working with inferior materials. A bookplate he designed gratis for the Czech fantastic-realist Albin Brunovsky depicts a pair of arms rising from the surface of a barren planet. One hand is holding a sheet of paper over a thick, old tome. The other is drawing a face on it. Meticulously shaded and dynamically detailed, the print would be a wonder even if it weren't only three inches by four inches, with a fairly generous margin.

"He's my all-time favorite artist," Kulmeshkenov says of Brunovsky, vanishing into the bedroom and reappearing with several gray envelopes. "Every now and then I'd get something in the mail from him: no letter, just a few bookplates. Then, he sent me this." The artist pulls out a plate a little bigger than most, dominated by an intricate, leafy arch, with several handwritten lines at its base. "It's the original," he says proudly.

The print is lovely, and every bit as meticulously rendered as its counterpart. But Kulmeshkenov got the short end of the vine by just a hair. Brunovsky played his hand relatively safe, hewing to a simple scheme and plenty of negative space. Kulmeshkenov, here and elsewhere, pursues maximum density, covering every available centimeter with evidence of his hard-won drawing skills and architect's sense of proportion. There's an exactitude to the detail and the geometry, enriched by a surrealist bent that drives much of the artist's noncommissioned work.

Brunovsky wasn't the only colleague to grace Kulmeshkenov with freebies, nor vice versa. "I have around 1,400 bookplates," he says, "most of which I've gotten in trade." He amassed most of the collection during the '80s and early '90s, pursuing his passion furiously whenever circumstances allowed, while frying his already-ailing eyeballs. By 1993, his vision was completely shot.


Luckily, a grant enabled Kulmeshkenov to visit the Mayo Clinic for treatment in 1994. "It all happened very quickly," he says. "I didn't even have a valid passport at the time, so I called an old friend who'd become a KGB officer and asked if he could help me get one right away. I had a new passport in a week. We got together when I returned to Kazakhstan for a visit in 2003. He told me then that, when he'd presented the paperwork to his superior for approval, the man smiled and said, 'this one will never come back.'"

But after six months in Rochester, he did just that, returning to the U.S. for good only after winning a green card lottery in 2000. The Iron Curtain's collapse notwithstanding, getting out of Kazakhstan proved harder the second time around. "This committee wanted to charge me $600 to inspect my collection--and my work--just to make sure I wasn't taking anything of cultural value out of the country. I called and told them they had a week to reconsider; otherwise I'd burn 11 of my bookplates in public."

When the bureaucrats failed to renege, he made good on his threat, with copious TV, radio, and print coverage. The authorities ended up letting him leave for $15 bucks, his collection uninspected and intact. Meanwhile, medical science had advanced. A Mayo operation restored enough of his sight for him to resume bookplate design and cartooning. He has also taken up digital photography.

Kulmeshkenov is surprisingly sanguine about his ordeal. "For all I know, I could go completely blind tomorrow," he says. "I just try to make the most of the time I have. The hardest part is catching up. If you're not active, patrons tend to forget about you within a few years. I was missing in action for longer than that."

The upside of the downtime is that he's been drawing for pleasure, packing larger sheets with richly detailed phantasmagorias in which every leaf and line is alive. And, somewhere in his modest soul, the seed of greater ambition has sprouted, thanks to Mikhail Bulgakov's magisterial black comedy, The Master and Margarita.

"It's my favorite book. My dream is to illustrate a nice edition of it," he says, gliding into the kitchen to make coffee. Like the rest of Kulmeshkenov's s apartment, it's spotless.

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