US artist Susan Loy on how many letters are really in the Czech alphabet

Susan Loy

Susan Loy is an American artist who had a successful business selling her paintings in the US, but left it all behind a few years ago to move to Prague, when she was already in her 70s. Like Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, the American wife of Czechoslovakia’s first president, Susan is a Unitarian, and moved to the Czech Republic with Unitarian sponsorship. She is also the curator of an international art exhibition which is on display right now at the Unitarian Church in Prague, so I started by asking her what prompted her to organise it.

“I came to the Czech Republic five years ago on a cultural visa sponsored by the International Unitarian Church of Prague and the Czech Unitarian Church, and for the first two years I completed an art project for them. It was a Czech flower alphabet, and it took me two full years to do.

“When that was finished, we talked about what I could do next, and this was one of the ideas that the Unitarians really liked – sponsoring an art exhibition.

“This was before the pandemic, so we started planning it and then things got put on hold, like so many other things in the world. But I’m happy to say that it’s now happening!”

You’ve got 54 featured artists from 33 nations. Who are they? Are they all members of the Unitarian Church?

“There are maybe one or two Unitarians in the exhibition, but it was open to any artist internationally.

“We got the most entries from the United States, followed by the Czech Republic, and then various countries around the world.

“Some of them were surprising to me – we’ve got artists from Nigeria, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Germany, and England. There are many more, but just to give you an idea.”

Where did you put out the call for artists? How did you reach all these people?

“In various places. This was a task that my husband, Ron Ayers, primarily took on.

“He created a website to begin with, and then we contracted with an art entry portal that had the software mechanism all set up, and some of the artists found us through that entry portal’s open call. Then we researched open call websites and got a lot of entries through that.

“And some of it was word of mouth, especially here in Prague. I know personally of three artists who heard about it just via word of mouth, by us telling anybody that we thought would be interested.

“I also wrote letters to Czech artists. I visited the glass exhibition at the Museum of Decorative Arts and noted any of the contemporary artists that were there and wrote them letters, and we got entries from that as well.”

Is there a theme to the exhibition, or was it open to any kind of art?

“We decided that because it’s the first, we would leave it open. In the future we intend to have themes, and that’s common for this type of exhibition. We also invited art from the full range of media, including fine crafts, so it truly is an open exhibition.”

You’re an artist yourself and with your husband you run a successful business, Literary Calligraphy. Could you tell us about your art and how you managed to turn it into a business?

“As you say, it’s called Literary Calligraphy. I use watercolours, pens and brushes, and essentially integrate poems and prose from the literary classics into watercolour paintings.

“And it’s rather unique. The form of my art is the circle that’s squared – it’s known in some cultures as a mandala.

“Early on, I became captivated with that form. When I took my first calligraphy class I had one of those moments you hear artists talk about, where I knew immediately what I was going to do, the minute I picked up the pen – I called it my magic wand – I was going to letter the literary classics and create modern western mandalas. And that was 40 years ago!

Susan Loy's art | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

You and your husband Ron made the decision to move to Prague when you were in your 70s, is that right?

“Yes, when Ron turned 70, believe me, it was a shock – you’re just living your life and all of a sudden you realise, ‘Wow, I’m 70!’

“So we took a moment to pause and talk about whether there was anything we wanted to do in our lives that we had better do sooner rather than later. And we both wanted to live in Europe.

“I had studied junior year abroad in Luxembourg. I thought I would return immediately but other wonderful things intervened. Whenever Ron and I would travel for holidays from the US, we would tend to go to Europe and we both enjoyed it.

“We started looking into the process and discovered that Prague was affordable, which was important for us. And certainly as an artist, it is such a beautiful city. I knew all of that – the architecture, and one of my favourite artists who inspired me was Mucha.

“We started the process not knowing if we would be successful, but gradually everything fell into place and we were able to get our long-stay visas. And at the end of this month we will apply for our permanent residency!”

Ron Ayers and Susan Loy | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

That’s wonderful! Not so many people are so adventurous in their seventies as to move to a different country. Was there anything else that prompted the decision? It was 2017 – were there any political motivations?

“Well, there were. But I have to tell people, we did not really move here just because of Donald Trump. But the week after he was elected, I googled cheap places to expatriate to and Prague came up on that list, much to our surprise. So, it was a bit of an impetus.”

If you’re getting your permanent residence, do you know how long you’re planning to stay here?

“We have no plans, other than to stay as long as we want to stay. We still have our home, which is a lovely farm in rural Virginia, and that’s hard to leave, as well as our family.

“But we don’t have children, which is what I think makes most people stay close to their family. And we do travel back as often as we can to visit family and friends in the US.”

Susan Loy | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

As you mentioned, for the first two years you were here on a cultural visa sponsored by the Czech Unitarian Church, and you were working on a project called the Czech Flower Alphabet, which sounds very intriguing. Could you tell us about that?

“Much of my literary calligraphy art is botanical in nature. Nature, prose and poetry are what I enjoy the most, and so this came right out of the kind of work that I had been doing for many years.

“I had created English flower alphabets before – quite a few – as a format and a theme, and it’s a very fun thing to do, to try to find a flower or a tree for every letter of the alphabet.

“The Unitarians celebrate a flower ceremony that originated here in Prague, and it’s actually one of the few traditions that Unitarians celebrate worldwide. So I decided I would do this Czech flower alphabet.

“Now, the very interesting thing was that when I started to research it, my first question was: how many letters are there in the Czech alphabet? Most English speakers, if you ask them, they are going to say 26. It’s an easy answer.

“But when I would ask Czech people, they would pause and look at me with a curious expression, and then they would start counting on their hands, or they would discuss it.

“In fact, it became a very nice way for me to meet Czech people on a different level than I would have under other circumstances, and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

“One time at our local pub, I met this man and his friend and they were so kind and generous. After I explained it to them, they said, ‘Well, let’s see the list you’re working on!’ So I pulled out my working list of plants and they explained some things to me.

“Like that the ‘U’ with the little circle over it is never going to be at the beginning of a word, so forget about looking for a flower or a plant that starts with that, and that certain other letters were unlikely to be the start of a flower name. This was tremendously helpful.

“Eventually I learned that the answer to that question is going to be anywhere between 28 to 42 letters, depending upon how you count the diacritical marks.”

Ron Ayers and Susan Loy | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

I remember when I first started formally learning Czech in my early twenties, I was shocked to discover that ‘ch’ is considered one letter in Czech.

“Yes, and it follows later in the alphabet in the Czech order – it doesn’t go after C.”

I’m curious to talk a bit more about Unitarianism. For people who don’t know, could you explain what it is? Is it a branch of Christianity or is it its own thing?

“It was once a part of Christianity, but they broke away sometime in the 1500s because of theological debates that mean very little to us today.

“In the United States, the Unitarians were much more influential. Some of the early presidents – Thomas Jefferson, for instance – was a Unitarian. And so were the American transcendentalists, and this is really what influenced me.

“I have always been attracted to the writing of the transcendentalists, of Emerson and Thoreau, and friends of transcendentalists, because Unitarians tend not to actually join. And this was very influential, in terms of both my personal interest and my artwork. I have read and continue to read the writings of the transcendentalists.

“And at some point in rural Virginia, Ron and I decided that we wanted to find a community that resonated with us. Social justice is another important factor that Unitarians believe in and they actually try to work towards social justice.”

Susan Loy's art | Photo: Anna Fodor,  Radio Prague International

Do you know much about the history of the Czech Unitarian Church and how it got started here?

“I know a little. Norbert Čapek founded the Czech Unitarian Church around 1923. He had been to the United States, which is where he became associated with the Unitarians, and then he came back and created this Czech flower ceremony, that as I mentioned is celebrated in many Unitarian churches around the world. He also bought the building where the art exhibition I’m organising is being held.

“The reason that he bought the building was they had rented places for the congregations to meet, and in the first place, the landlord heard laughing inside the church and he decided that he didn’t like that. And then they rented another place and the neighbours complained about all the laughing inside the Unitarian Church. So Čapek decided that they had better buy their own building, because they intended to continue laughing.”

His name is Norbert Čapek – is he by any chance a relation of Josef and Karel Čapek?

“I don’t think so, although some people have said to me that they must be related. But I have read his biography and there was no mention of it.”

If he founded it in 1923, does that mean you’re now celebrating 100 years of the Czech Unitarian Church?

“Yes, they celebrated that, and in fact when I completed my Czech flower alphabet, I presented it and it was part of that celebration commemorating 100 years.”

We’re also celebrating 100 years of Czech Radio this year and 1923 was also the year that Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk, the American wife of the very first Czechoslovak president, died.

“And she was also a Unitarian!”

Photo: Barbora Navrátilová,  Radio Prague International

The 2023 Prague International Art Exhibition is open to the public for free every day except Sundays from 11.00 – 17.00 at Čapek Hall, Anenská 5, Prague 1 until 1 June. Tours of the exhibition are available in English at 11.00 and 16.00 daily.