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!