--- Go to the Opening Page of this website ---

'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #64 - Summer 2006
Contents of this Issue:

What a wet summer we are having this year! As I sit at my workbench, I watch the Kiyomi River flow by below my window, but the mood these days is quite different - instead of the usual gentle trickle of the stream over the rocks, there is now a constant rush of water.

As my building is set very high above the water level I am in no danger of flooding; but with the extra 'action' taking place just in front of my workbench, it is sometimes a bit difficult to concentrate on the work.

I wonder how many hours in all I have 'wasted' sitting staring at the river!

After the flimsy little newsletter I sent you in the spring, we're back to the usual size for this summer issue. But not back to the usual number of stories; when I started writing the story that became the main feature this time, I guess I got a bit carried away, and didn't leave much room for anything else.

But I managed to squeeze in the Annual Report for last year, have a short Mokuhankan update for you, and certainly didn't miss getting a story from Sadako for her corner!

I hope you find something of interest inside; there should be plenty to report come autumn ...

To be a Printmaker

I am sometimes contacted by people who want advice on becoming a printmaker. It seems that there are a lot of people who like prints, feel that they are good at making them, and would like to make it their career, instead of something that they do in their spare time. There is of course nothing wrong with this idea at all, and I would not wish to discourage anybody from following this path. But I rather suspect that not too many of these young people realize what such a career entails. Let's take a peek inside ... at 'what it takes' to make a living the way I do. Dave wears a few different hats ...

Dave the carver, and Dave the printer:

The physical work of making the prints is of course out in the open and easily understood by anybody. This is the core of the whole show, and without this, everything else would be pointless. But does this require special skills? My answer - "No, I don't think so" - may surprise you. Let me explain; to be an opera singer is impossible unless you have the basic underlying skill to sing. But printmaking has no specific basic skill. Just look at two examples, Munakata Shiko on one side, with his energetic, rough, and wild work, and David here on the other side, with his carefully crafted and detailed approach. In printmaking, whatever character and skills you happen to bring to the table will be expressed in your work. I do think you have to be a bit 'handy', but given that as a starting place, pretty much anybody could make prints.

Dave the businessman/publisher:

So anybody can make prints, and thousands of people do. To make a living from printmaking though, requires the addition of a completely different skill set to the 'toolbox'. There are people who seem to think that 'commerce' is something to be looked down on, and that 'true art' should have nothing to do with money. I hold no such belief at all; our modern society is structured on the basis of a division of labour, and it is thus essential that there be a common standard with which we can calculate how to correctly exchange the products of our labour. This is called 'money', and is nothing more than a convenient and portable way to organize such exchanges. I give you a print; you give me money; the two - by our definition at that moment - are equivalent.

So right from the beginning of my printmaking career, I have tried to consider myself as a businessman also. When David is planning his new project each year, spreadsheets and financial analysis are just as much a part of the calculations as are such things as the design of the prints themselves.

But 'business' is not just about balancing the books; the leader of any business organization is like the captain of a ship, and he must be constantly aware of where the ship is headed, and of why they are going there. There must be present an overall vision of what the enterprise is all about. It is easy to make one print, and not too difficult to sell a few copies of it. It is a very different matter to maintain - over decades - a coherent stream of conception and production.

Dave the office clerk:

While the 'president' sits over there in his corner office building castles in the sky, the nitty-gritty daily stuff has to be dealt with. Invoices must be prepared, incoming payments must be processed, and the myriad small details of business taken care of. Is there enough toner for the laser printer to print the essays tomorrow? Are there envelopes and labels for the newsletter mailing next week? Which printing company will we use for the newsletter this time? Has the name and address of the newest collector been correctly entered into the computer? Was the collector database backed up properly last night, as scheduled?

Dave the computer programmer:

Ensuring that collectors have accurate and timely information about their accounts is important, and something that I neglected for many years, when I had only a single print series on offer. But in recent years, once my business grew to the stage where I had many different kinds of prints available and collectors located all over the planet, building a more sophisticated bookkeeping system became essential. There are no 'standard packages' available for my complex requirements, and I had to write the computer software for my billing/accounting system from the ground up, a job that would have cost tens of thousands of dollars if I had ordered it from a custom software company.

Dave the marketing manager:

Having the most wonderfully organized and smoothly operating outfit in the world won't help you one bit if nobody out there knows about the products you are producing. Large companies of course have entire divisions devoted to sales, marketing and promotion, but this is a vitally important part of even the smallest organization's affairs.

Nobody could claim that woodblock prints are something necessary for people to have, so as a matter of principle, I never 'advertise' my prints, in the sense of targeting people with the intent of making them feel "I want to buy this ..." My 'marketing' efforts are aimed simply at trying to get my prints out there where they can be seen by those who may have an interest. The annual exhibition is the mainstay of these efforts, along with the promotion to the media that accompanies it. Just which approach to take when it comes to media promotion is an incredibly complex and difficult calculation: letters, flyers, product samples, promo DVDs ... Specialists make entire careers of this; here at the Seseragi Studio it is just one more job to be done. And there is no budget to have such production done by others; whether it be a simple flyer, or a DVD complete with packaging, it all has to be created right here at this desk.

Dave the packaging designer:

Other printmakers send their prints to galleries for sales and distribution, so such things as display/framing/shipping are all handled by other people. But I have to design every single link in the chain myself; the mats on which the prints are mounted, the folders into which they slide, the cases in which these are displayed or stored, and the packaging in which they are shipped.

Dave the website designer:

Orders coming over the internet now account for around half of my business, and it is impossible to imagine making a living without having a website. To order a fully-built website from an outside design company is completely out of the question, so this job too must be tackled 'in-house'. But a poorly-functioning website is worse than none at all, so it needs constant attention and maintenance to keep it up-to-date and useful for the viewers.

Dave the computer security manager:

In the early days of the computers and the internet, a relatively unsophisticated approach was adequate, but in recent years it has become a more difficult environment. Although I do not have any need to store sensitive data on my customers/collectors in my computers (here in my home, and on the servers I rent in Tokyo and the US), the data I do have must be protected and secured. And the level of protection that was adequate yesterday will not be adequate tomorrow; this skill must be constantly and never-endingly upgraded.

Dave the writer:

Some printmakers/artists take the view that their work should stand alone without explanation. They may believe that if it becomes necessary to talk about their work, then they have perhaps failed at expressing their ideas properly. But because my own work is not 'original', and because most people do not have much knowledge about the 'background', I think it is essential for me to communicate well with the people who come in contact with my work. Every print that leaves this workshop thus goes out with accompanying explanatory material. And then there is this newsletter, which over the many years of its existence, has proved an invaluable means of helping cement relationships between myself and the collectors. Writing ... editing ... final layout ... all done right here on this desk.

And of course, because all these activities are taking place in - what is for me - a 'foreign' country, everything involves an extra layer of difficulty. Those who have heard me speak know that my Japanese speaking ability - although serviceable - is only at a 'certain' level, and every time I answer the telephone or open an email, it is far from sure that I will be able to understand everything that comes at me.

* * *

I have no doubt that if I were to sit here longer thinking about it, I would come up with still more things to add to this list of skills needed for this job (I haven't listed anything about the construction of my workroom for one ...). Looking back over what I have just written I am astonished by a couple of things: first at the wide variety of the skills listed. In the course of my daily work I just do all these things without particularly thinking about them, but when I make a comparison with a person who goes to work each day at a company to do a particular job, even I am now a bit surprised.

But over and above that is the astonishment I feel at finding that the printing/carving job seems to be such a small part of what I do! In my own mind, I'm not a web designer, I'm not a programmer, I'm not a salesman ... I'm just a guy who makes prints!

So what should I say to those people who write and ask for advice? If I were to tell them "You need all these skills before trying to become a printmaker," it would be a lie. I didn't have all these skills when I started. I think if there is any lesson at all to be learned here, it is that to be an independent worker in any field nowadays, rather than a company employee, one does need to be a fairly flexible person, open to trying different things, and reasonably good at 'picking things up' easily. With those skills on hand, anything is possible.

* * *

There remains an important coda to add to the story. I arranged the list of skills in such a way to highlight the work that I do here, but in doing so I left out some important parts of the overall story.

Tens of thousands of prints have been shipped from here over the years, and for well over a decade, most of these packages have been prepared and sent by my friend and neighbour Ms. Hiromi Ichikawa. If you own any of my Hyakunin Isshu, Surimono Albums, or Beauties of Four Seasons prints, you should know that she did more than just wrap your parcels; she actually made by hand, one-by-one, the folders in which your prints are stored. This year - because my scroll project is only one print - she doesn't have a lot to do, but hopefully, next year I will again be able to keep her busy!

And now I can make use of that wonderfully useful English expression "And last but not least ..." in acknowledging the contributions Sadako makes to my endeavours. She is a polite and self-effacing lady, and will perhaps have mixed feelings about being included here, but it would be boorish in the extreme of me not to speak about her role after making that long list you see above.

Sadako is always ready to offer assistance with anything that I ask, whenever I call on her for it, as I do frequently. The business decisions are of course mine to make, but I do not make them in a vacuum, and her input is always part of the process.

The newsletter you are reading now was of course translated by her, as are all the stories accompanying the prints. You may be thinking that translation work can be easily done by many people, but not the way we do it. She takes this job very seriously and spends a lot of extra time 'reading back' and re-writing to ensure that there are no errors or misunderstandings in the text (a process that has the 'side-effect' of helping both of us improve our language skills as we go along).

She has become an integral part of my life and work; if I 'count on my fingers', I see that she and I have been 'together' for nearly twelve years now ... just the beginning, I hope!

Annual Report: 2005

Time again for the Annual Report to 'shareholders', or as I am coming to think of it, the "I'm Still Here!" report ... I've got last year's report here on my desk as I write this, so perhaps it's easier if I outline how things have changed over the past year.

  • 2004: the major series for that year (Beauties of Four Seasons) accounted for only 27% of the income, and I was kept afloat only by continued subscriptions to 'back issue' prints.
  • 2005: the major series (Hanga Treasure Chest) doubled to 56% of the income, while the back issues contributed the remainder. The Treasure Chest was wonderfully successful!

  • 2004: I sent out 1,235 prints - a rate of 3.4 prints per day.
  • 2005: because of the frequency of the Treasure Chest print schedule, I sent out 3,488 prints in total - a rate of 9.6 per day. 2005 was an incredibly busy year for me.

  • 2004: although overseas collectors accounted for nearly half of the total of prints shipped (by quantity), they provided only 23% of my income. (This is because the Hyakunin Isshu prints - purchased mainly by Japanese collectors - are more expensive items).
  • 2005: overseas collectors now provided 40% of my income. This is partly because the Treasure Chest was very popular overseas, and partly because my internet business in general is growing steadily.

  • 2004: quite a tight year; the Beauties series did not do so well, but I still incurred considerable expenses in making it.
  • 2005: just the reverse. Because the Treasure Chest series sold well, there was no particular money 'pinch', and you can see by this Income/Expense chart that I actually had funds 'left over' after the main expenses were covered. What I didn't have, was time. The 'pinch' came in the print schedule; no sooner had one print gone out the door than I had to immediately start work on the next one. This isn't a complaint, as I knew exactly what I was getting into when I planned that series. I wanted a good solid year of printmaking work, and that's exactly what I got!

Income/Expense Chart for 2005

This chart is actually very similar to last year's, with a few things to note:

- the amount I had to pay in taxes and medical insurance was down considerably, as these things are calculated based on the previous year's income, which was so poor. (They have now come back up, based on this 2005 income, and I am paying much more this year).

- I now have extra income from the postage that I am charging on the prints going out. This does not yet cover all my outgoing postage costs, as I can't very well start charging long-time back number collectors for it, but this has made a wonderful difference in my income, and indeed, this one change alone meant that there were no money worries during last year.


Here is an update on what prints I still have available:

Hyakunin Isshu

I still have sets of the prints set aside, to be sold only in complete sets of 100. I also have a few of the annual sets of 10 reserved for the benefit of previous collectors who 'missed' them at the time, and who would like to complete their collection.

Surimono Album

The first album is now sold out. There are a couple of dozen of Album #2 still here, along with plenty of stock of the other three sets.

Beauties of Four Seasons

I still have plenty of these prints available ...

Hanga Treasure Chest

I made 200 sets, of which about 140 have been sold. Anyone who wishes one of the remaining sets can purchase it either as a single package, or can have the prints sent out one at a time, just as they were during the year in which I made them.

Coming up ...

One slight 'problem' with these Annual Reports is that they are quite a bit out of date. The numbers presented here show what happened last year. What will that chart look like a year from now? Well, it will be very different; the general gross income level of around 10 million yen per annum that I have managed to maintain for more than a decade, is coming to an end this year.

I made a conscious decision at the end of 2005, when deciding what project to undertake for 2006, to 'exchange' time for money. I decided to challenge the long project of making the Kaigetsudo scroll, knowing full well that this would not be anywhere near as popular an item as the Treasure Chest had been. My income this year will be very low. But in exchange for that, I am enjoying a more peaceful - and somewhat more relaxed - year of printmaking work. I still work many hours each day, but without the constant push of deadlines, the whole mood is different.

It's actually a bit dangerous; I have tried to calculate carefully the time it will take for the various parts of the scroll project, and have spread things out across my planning calendar so that the job should be finished in time for the next exhibition, but whether or not it will all proceed so smoothly remains to be seen. So far I am exactly 'on schedule' with the plan, but perhaps I'm going to end up in a wild frenzy of deadlines come December!

We'll see!

Sadako's Corner

Short Time Travels

Smells are interesting things. We may talk about 'this smell' or 'that smell', but the environment surrounding us is full of smells, and just how we perceive them depends to a large degree on other factors such as humidity. Even though we may feel we use nothing but our sense of smell, we actually perceive smells with our entire body. It can happen that a particular combination of factors: temperature, humidity, clarity of the air, odors from leaves, one's psychological condition, and so on, will act to trigger a memory that can wrap around you like a drift of mist. This never happens when we move around busily, but if we are relaxed and happen to catch a subtle scent that reminds us of something, it can send us off on a journey into the past.

The other day I went to the local library, walking there for the first time in a while, and along the way all of a sudden, I felt this start to happen - something in the air was triggering a memory. I tried to bring it clearer, but it kept sliding in and out of view; It was as though I were holding a camera and trying to focus on something. I stopped walking ...

It was about the 4th year of elementary school. A good friend had invited me to her home, saying "Come on over as soon as you've dropped off your school bag. I'll meet you part way."

Her home was in the opposite direction to the way I normally went home from school. She had said that her place was simple to find - just walk along the road, cross the railroad track, and keep going straight until I met her coming out to meet me. I rushed home, dropped my school bag, shouted something to my mother, and then ran back towards the school. I was fine up to the school gate, but from there, everything was strange to me; it was my first experience to go in that direction. I started walking more slowly, and my heart began beating heavily. I came to the railroad and crossed, but my friend was not yet in sight. A few meters ahead the road split into two. "Which way should I go?"

I moved ahead hesitantly, then stopped. It was a steaming hot day, and the weeds were growing thickly at the side of the road, giving off a heavy odor. But just then I heard a cheerful voice, "Hey!" And there was that wonderful smile I always enjoyed, squeezing cheerful lines into my friend's freckled face. Her long braids hung down almost to her waist. I was safe!

This long-ago memory was like a time travel chance that comes once only every few years. During the few minutes I spent wrapped in it, I felt like hugging that little girl who was the ten-year old Sadako.

As we all know, such private memories can't be shared with somebody else, no matter how long you may have lived with them; these are sensations that only we can feel. In spite of knowing this, I still sometimes try.

A small pink soap shaped like a flower; I was lathering it in my hands the other day. "Oh, that scent!" David's two daughters were still only elementary school students, and his beard was still black. His eyes were so gentle, looking at his lovely daughters. This was the odor I felt near him every time he moved. The scent reminded me of young girls, and didn't actually fit a man at all. Maybe he was using the same shampoo as his daughters. The memory made me giggle!

A few days after this he visited me and I remembered this episode. I went to get the soap, brought it near his nose, and asked, "Do you remember this scent?" He didn't react. I then went to the sink, rubbed the soap over my hands, and spread them in front of his face. The only reaction I got from him was, "What on earth are you doing?"

Ah well, this was one time travel that we couldn't take together!

Mokuhankan Update

I had been certain that after the jam-packed year of work on the Hanga Treasure Chest, I would be able to find time this year to push the new Mokuhankan project forward steadily, but work has progressed much more slowly than I anticipated.

Things are getting done though, bit by bit, and dozens of prints have now flown out the door to (hopefully!) happy customers. Most of these are overseas, because I have been late getting the Japanese Mokuhankan website ready. That should be rectified any day now!



18th Annual Exhibition

Even during the hot summer, I can't avoid thinking about something that's coming up in January - yes, the next exhibition! We'll be back at the usual place - the Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan in Yurakucho in Tokyo - at the usual time, the third week in January.

Much of the exhibition will be familar to regular visitors, but there will definitely be some different twists to the show this time. Mokuhankan will be a part of this, as you might expect, but that's not all that will be new. I don't have all the details ready for you just now, as the printing presses have yet to start rolling ... Now what could this be about ...

More details in the next newsletter, here are the basic dates to mark on your calendar:

  • Exhibition: January 21~27, 2007
  • 11:00~7:00 (last day until 6:00)
  • Gallery Talk: Sunday January 21, 2:00 p.m.
  • Gold Salon, Tokyo Kotsu Kaikan, B1
  • Yurakucho 2-10-1, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo

As always, the show will run from Sunday through the following Saturday, with the Gallery Talk on the afternoon of the opening day. See you there!