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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #76 - Summer 2009
Contents of this Issue:

I see that by the old traditional calendar we are now actually in ‘autumn’, but the weather here in Ome is quite hot and muggy, and after all, we are still in August, so calling this the ‘summer issue’ seems most natural to me.

The illustration you see on this page is the most recent of the designs from the My Solitudes series. I’ve been on a ‘slow but steady’ pace with the series, and there are now ten finished - only two to go!

The main story in this issue is the continuation of the imaginary documentary series; this installment may bring a bit of déjà vu to long-time collectors, as it is mostly a survey of the prints I have made over the past 20 years, but people newer to my work should find it to be a useful introduction.

We’ll also have a long-overdue Collector Profile episode, the usual Sadako’s Corner, and I’d like to ask you not to miss the story on the back page - an update on my two daughters’ business venture, which is going great guns!

Forgotten Beauty of Woodblock Prints (IV)

In the first three parts of this ‘documentary’ series, Dave introduced us to some of the reasons he has found the world of Japanese traditional prints to be so absorbing. In this episode, we’ll explore how this interest has expressed itself in the creation of his own works.

The Forgotten Beauty of Japanese Woodblock Prints

[Part Four - A 20-year Journey ...]

[Camera] We are in a darkened auditorium; a pool of light shines down onto the stage. Nobody is there at first. But as the camera moves closer we see that the stage is covered with a series of images mounted on display panels. Zooming in we see that they are woodblock prints - traditional designs of men and women in court dress, each person paired with a panel of Japanese calligraphy. David and an interviewer are talking as they look at the prints on display:

[Interviewer] “How many are there? Did you really make all these yourself? How long did it take you?”

[David] “Well, there are an even hundred of them of course - that’s why it’s called the ‘Hyakunin Isshu’ (One hundred poets - One poem each). And yes, I made the entire series by myself - working without any assistants at all - carving every block, and printing every colour. It took quite a long time indeed; at the very beginning I estimated that it would take me ten years to produce the entire series, and that turned out to be exactly true - January 1989 through December 1998.”

[Interviewer] “How old were you when you started this project?”

[David] “I was 37. I can guess your next question - how could I possibly begin a project that wouldn’t be completed for ten years! - but that’s actually easy to answer; it was because the project seemed ‘too big’ and too difficult! I had come to a point in my life where I was starting to feel that ‘Dave, if you are going to make a mark, you had better get busy; you aren’t getting any younger!’ I’m not so athletic - climbing Mt. Everest isn’t my style. So I kind of invented my own Mt. Everest - ‘There it is Dave, start climbing!’”

[Interviewer] “Was it possible for you to maintain your interest through a project that took such a long time?”

[David] “Oh, yes! There is so much depth in the set of designs that I selected for the project (created by Katsukawa Shunsho in 1775). The personalities of the individual poets are well expressed, there is endless variety in the clothing patterns, and of course learning to read the ancient calligraphy was a huge challenge too.

“The Hyakunin Isshu is one of the main pillars of Japanese classical literature, and creating this print series was the equivalent of giving myself a Master’s degree in Japanese culture and history!”

[Interviewer] “Did you get a grant of some kind to subsidize this large project?”

[David] “No, no ... I would never have done anything like that. In the beginning, I had no help at all; I was teaching English in those days, making prints in my spare time. But as the series became established, collectors joined one by one, and after a couple of years, I was able to put away the language textbooks and become a full-time printmaker. And do you know, a number of those early supporters are still with me, collecting every print that I have made! It also helped that the Japanese media found the project interesting, and during those years I was frequently featured on TV programs. I even used to get stopped on the street and asked for my autograph, something that hasn’t happened to me in years now! (laughs)”

[Interviewer] “What are your main memories of that period in your printmaking career?”

[David] “Well, it was quite a roller coaster; a lot of things can happen in ten years! In the early days there was severe financial pressure, and I was also far from confident in my ability to pull the whole thing off satisfactorily. But as the years went by, my skills - and my confidence - grew, and as I neared the end of the project, I began to feel quite sad that it was coming to an end!”

[Interviewer] “What did happen then? After all, once a mountaineer has climbed Everest, what can they do to top that?”

[David] “Well, the mountaineer comes back from Everest, and heads out onto the lecture circuit to talk about his achievement; perhaps he even writes a book about his adventure. I could have done much the same sort of thing. Because of all the media attention, orders were stacked up to the roof, and everybody wanted to hear about this guy and the ‘big’ thing that he had done. I heard the expression ‘your lifework!’ again and again.

“But you know, I really wanted to avoid the situation where I would always be known as the ‘Hyakunin Isshu Man.’ I was only 47; who wants his ‘lifework’ to be over at 47?”

“So although I of course enjoyed the attention that came my way at the close of the project, I began another project immediately; I announced the creation of my Surimono Album series, and had the first print done not even one month after the final exhibition of the Hyakunin Isshu project.”

[Interviewer] “Another Mt. Everest?”

[David] “Well, yes and no. I didn’t propose another ten-year project; this was an open-ended series, that turned out to comprise 50 prints issued over a five year span.”

[Interviewer] “What was the theme of that series?”

[David] “When I was just starting out on it, the basic concept was to produce ‘delicate, finely-detailed prints, without regard for the economics of production.’ That pretty much describes the surimono prints made in the old days. But as things got going, a different kind of focus became clear - the series turned into a kind of five-year-long ‘post-graduate apprenticeship’ for me.

“During the ten years of the previous Hyakunin Isshu series I had always been ‘held back’ by the fact that - because those prints were a unified series of designs - I was unable to explore the use of many of the varied techniques of making woodblock prints. I was ‘trapped’ in 1775, as it were. The Surimono Album series thus became for me an opportunity - no, a challenge - to train myself in all the wonderfully varied techniques used over the past three hundred years, by both carvers and printers.

“For each and every one of the 50 prints, I selected a design with that kind of thought uppermost: ‘How on earth did they do that?’ or ‘Am I really going to be able to carve and print this?’

“I worked completely without a net; there was no backup plan for each print. The collectors - who had pre-ordered each annual set of ten prints - waited eagerly to see what would be in each package. It was up to me not to disappoint them!”

[Interviewer] “And how did it work out?”

[David] “That’s difficult for me to answer. Not because I don’t know the answer, but because I’m supposed to be modest!

“But OK, speaking honestly, I think the set of 50 prints represents a stunning achievement - much more so than the previous set of 100 Hyakunin Isshu prints. There are prints in this series that are carved with a taste and delicacy fully characteristic of the finest work of the old days, and yet I am only a ‘part-time’ carver - I also did all the printing!

“When I look back at it now, the phrase ‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing!’ comes to mind. The series represents a physical ‘encyclopedia’ of traditional Japanese printmaking techniques. I issued ten prints each year - most of them with many colours - in batches of 200 copies each. It’s perhaps a bit too soon for me to say this, but I suspect that I will never again have that kind of boundless energy!”

[Interviewer] “I’m a bit nervous about asking you what came next; surely you’re not going to talk about another Mt. Everest!”

[David] “No you’re right, I think I had better stop using that expression. The print series that came next - Beauties of Four Seasons - was in a sense, simply an extension of the Surimono Albums. The difference was in the scale.

“The printing process becomes exponentially more difficult as the print size increases. Working at the relatively small scale of the Surimono Albums was all very well, but it was time for me to try my hand at something larger. Each print in this series - there were four in all - depicted a classical beauty from a different period in history, and was chosen to fit my habitual criteria: be a personal challenge to produce, be of artistic interest, and be interesting to the collectors.

“I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here, but yet again, the project met all these expectations. Perhaps the best way for me to explain the way I feel about my ‘Beauties’ series is to say that if there were a sudden fire in my studio, and I could carry out only one folio of prints ...”

[Interviewer] “I see ... Well, I promise not to tell any of your other ‘children’ what you said! You mentioned earlier that you have been making a new set of prints each year; can you elaborate on that for us?”

[David] “Well, everything we’ve discussed so far worked that way; the Hyakunin Isshu series was broken up into annual sets of 10 prints each, as were the Surimono Albums. It’s a reflection of two things: first, that all through those years I held an annual exhibition each January to showcase the prints completed in the previous year, and second, that each of the annual sets represented a convenient ‘package’ for the collectors. I never sold the prints individually.

“The next series I created was also a one-year project - the Hanga Treasure Chest. What an adventure that one was! Not four prints, not ten prints ... this series had 24!”

[Interviewer] “In one year? That’s just about one every two weeks!”

[David] “Yes indeed! That’s exactly the schedule I set out to meet - promising the collectors that they would find a ‘present’ in their mailbox every second Monday morning. And they did!”

[Interviewer] “These must have been smaller prints?”

[David] “Yes of course; these were the Japanese hagaki (postcard) size. But as usual for me, even though they were small in dimension, they weren’t small in ‘concept’; they cover a great deal of ‘territory’ in their selection, and again, are full of interesting detail. It was a glorious year of work, but as you might imagine, the two-week deadlines created quite a bit of pressure. When it came time to plan the next project, you can perhaps guess what happened ...”

[Interviewer] “Back to the ten-prints-a-year pattern?”

[David] “No. I over-reacted; I proposed a ‘series’ with just a single print - a reproduction of a wonderful design from the early 1700s by Kaigetsudo Ando, mounted as a scroll.”

[Interviewer] “Why do you say ‘over-reacted’?”

[David] “Well, the idea was to get it carved and printed, mounted in scroll format, and sent out to the collectors all during the calendar year, but that turned out to be impossible - it was just too much work. It took me nearly a year and a half in all, throwing my long-running ‘one set per year’ tradition out of whack, something I have not yet managed to get back in order!”

[Interviewer] “Before we move on to have a look at your current work, I’d like to ask about the people who are purchasing your prints. You keep referring to them as ‘collectors’; are these people mostly ‘art collectors’ then?”

[David] “Not for the most part; I think that very few of them would refer to themselves that way. They are not specialists at all. Their particular motivations vary, but all of them seem to share a feeling that what I am doing is of value to our society and thus deserving of support.

“And as my appetites are modest, my prints have never been expensive, so it is easy for them to help!”

[End Part Four]

In the next issue, in Part Five, Dave attempts to answer the question he was frequently asked during those years: ‘How can you be satisfied being ‘only’ a craftsman ...?’

Collector Profile

I’ve been so selfish with this newsletter in recent years! Long-time readers may remember that I used to have a ‘Collector Profile’ a couple of times every year, but it has been quite a while since we last had one - let’s fix that right now!

Today’s guest, Mrs. Yoko Tauchi of Higashi Matsuyama in Saitama Prefecture, is not just a collector of my work, she is actually a collaborator of mine. I was first introduced to her when she came to one of my exhibitions, and the moment she passed me her name card, I knew that we two could have a future together!

The card was made from a fine handmade paper, and was hand lettered, not printed. Now although I myself have absolutely no skill with a Japanese brush, I have spent many hours studying (and carving) fine calligraphy, and I needed no more than a glance to tell me that this was top-class work. And I was correct; in addition to being a specialist instructor in Heian-era kana work, Tauchi-san is a professional calligrapher ‘on call’ - with her name in the Rolodex of publishers, printers, TV companies ... anybody who needs specialized calligraphy, and usually needs it ‘right now’. She has no idea just what will be crossing her desk on any given day; her daily work is thus a wonderful combination of professional craftsmanship and artistry.

Tauchi-san is not the only member of her family involved in artistic and literary activities; her husband is a university professor with award-winning novels under his belt, one son is a much published translator into Japanese, and the other is an artist specializing in original mandalas, and whose wife publishes cookbooks! As you would expect, their home reflects all these interests, with paintings, photographs and drawings hanging in all the rooms, and rows of bookshelves everywhere you turn.

I mentioned that Tauchi-san has been involved with my work, and the print image shown here is just one example. I wanted to make a print incorporating a certain old poem, and she graciously consented to write it for me. I was very happy with the work, found it a joy to carve and print, and have had no hesitation in calling on her on other occasions; she did the calligraphy for the covers of the books in my current ‘My Solitudes’ series, as well as doing the lettering by hand on all the paulownia boxes for my scroll project - a very large job indeed!

During my recent visit I had hoped to learn more about her work, and at first, it seemed that I was going to be able to do so; she showed me some beautifully crafted albums made with her calligraphy - renditions from the Man’yōshū and Hyakunin Isshu. But at one point, when I asked her about an attractive kind of paper that she had used, she jumped up and brought out a few large boxes from her storeroom, and what a treasure she showed me!

They were sheets of hikibaku, the decorated washi paper that forms the underpinning of a traditional Nishijin kimono sash, and she had saved them from being thrown out when a long-established weaving workshop was closed down. As she flipped through the stack of sheets, a river of beautifully toned gold and silver lacquered patterns flowed across the tatami mats. Her original interest had been in using these as calligraphy papers, but she now recognizes that these once commonplace but now very rare items need to be preserved as they are. (I’m looking forward to the day when she shows these papers at one of her exhibitions, because these beautiful objects remain completely unknown to the general population.)

And that was how the rest of our afternoon passed - the room filled up with scrolls, books, calligraphy ... I have frequently written in this newsletter how I am happy that my own work is mostly collected by ‘non-specialists’ - just part of ‘daily life’ - but seeing my prints displayed in Tauchi-san’s home side-by-side with so many other beautiful objects was undeniably a pleasure.

I’m looking forward to the next time I can ask her to unsheath her brushes for me!

Sadako's Corner

'Body and Mind'

Back in early July I was on the way to my usual beauty parlour, when, through my own carelessness, I took a tumble and broke my left elbow. It was a drizzly day, and I had been walking carefully because I thought the path would be slippery, but I came to grief on the very last step before the entrance; my foot slipped on the tiles beside the welcome mat, and the next thing I knew, I was flat on my back. Having heard a clear sound from my left arm, I had a presentment that there might be something wrong, but when I got to my feet, with the assistance of the beautician who rushed quickly out to help, I seemed to be alright. I felt though, that it might be a good idea to visit a local clinic to get checked. On the way I happened to see my reflection in a shop window - the skin of my arm was being pushed out by a broken bone! So I changed my plans, and had the owner of the beauty parlour drive me to a large hospital, where I was admitted directly, undergoing an operation under general anaethesia the next day.

This was all very well, but it was what came next that caused problems for me. I - who moves around a lot in my daily life - was stuck in the hospital bed day after day; my appetite disappeared, it was difficult to get a sound sleep, and my mood became gloomy. Of course I tried to do stretching exercises on the bed, or walked up and down the hospital stairs, but I began to feel depressed about how my whole body was feeling weaker by the day.

Finally, after a two week stay, I received permission to leave and was driven home by a friend. My garden was a jungle, with the tomato and okra plants being hidden among the weeds, but still it felt wonderful to be home! I was instantly recharged, and eagerly plunged back into my regular routines - flinging the windows open to air out the house, throwing clothes into the washing machine, and heading out into the garden, all with my left arm still in a sling. Luckily, I am right-handed and had no problems pulling the tall weeds with only one hand. My appetite instantly returned, and I slept very soundly that evening.

My elbow is still wired up, and I need to attend rehabilitation sessions every day, as a full range of motion has not returned to the arm yet. Whenever the rain continues for a few days I tend to feel a bit depressed. It is yet impossible to resume my regular exercise routine, but I have been trying to attend some light classes where it is possible to protect my left arm. I don’t know how other people handle this kind of situation, but I have learned that at least for me, daily exercise is indispensable for both my physical and mental health.

And I have to mention one more thing. Trying to learn from this lesson, I have stopped running when I move around the house! There has to be something I can take away from this episode!

David & Chiyo

About a year ago in this newsletter, I included a small item introducing you to a new activity that my daughter Himi was then involved with - making purses and selling them online.

Well, a lot of water has flowed under that bridge since then, and I have been remiss in keeping you up-to-date with what has been happening. Himi has been joined by her sister Fumi, and the original small hobby has now exploded into a flourishing business.

They have created a number of very interesting ‘lines’ of purses and clutches, and are marketing them internationally through their own website and locally at fashion events in and around Vancouver.

They are getting very enthusiastic press reviews on their products: newspapers are running stories about the business, well-known ‘fashionista’ bloggers are raving about the clutches, they have been included in fashion shows, and the girls have even started to get TV coverage.

Just where this is all going to lead I can’t imagine, but Himi and Fumi have no doubts at all - they intend to turn ‘Davie & Chiyo’ into a major brand name in the fashion world.

Please visit their site and take a look!