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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #33 - Autumn 1998
Contents of this Issue:



Hyakunin Issho' time again!

I had a bit of feedback on the previous issue, in which I did nothing but talk about a 'printing day'; it seems that my fears that such a story would be too 'boring' were generally misplaced, and most people seem to have enjoyed it. But don't worry, I won't be doing the same thing again in this issue - we've got the usual mix: 'Halifax to Hamura', a collector's profile, and then a bit of a different 'Visit to a Craftsman ...', in this case, a visit to a craftsman's mother!

I hope you find something interesting inside ...

From Halifax to Hamura

Because of my experiences giving 'clinics' for the music store, many people in the area knew of me not just as a flute player, but also as a conductor, and I was contacted one day by the parents' committee of a youth band located in the small town where I had lived before I left home. This band had actually been started up by my father many years before this, but after he had retired it had been directed by a young conductor for a while, and this man's inexperience at working with children had led to a decline in the standard, and a fall-off in enrollment. The committee was now looking for a new conductor, and it would be the new leader's job to try and rebuild the group.

I can't say that I jumped at this chance, because I was somewhat uncertain about the wisdom of trying to 'fill' my father's shoes. He had established a pretty special rapport with the kids, and I knew that my own personality was different. If I was being hired because they expected to get a younger version of the 'old man', it would be a mistake ... But although I knew that I couldn't do things the same way as he had done, I did think that I could do a good job, so I accepted the position, and one Saturday morning, found myself in a community centre hall surrounded by a mob of little kids, all blasting away on their instruments.

It was quite an education for me, as the two experiences were so very different - visiting a school to do guest conducting was really just a 'motivation' job, but having to work with the same kids week after week, teaching them all the details of how to play their instruments, was a lot of hard, basic work. There were three separate bands: beginner, junior and senior, and my experience with each of these was quite different. The 'little kids' were no problem at all; they were just happy to be there making noise and having fun. As long as we were enjoying ourselves while we were learning, they were fine. The older kids were more difficult. For one thing, they remembered my father being there, and I was always being compared to him, and for another, I was still pretty young, and the difference in our ages wasn't really wide enough for them to have much respect for me.

So I had mixed success in the job. Saturday mornings, when the younger groups rehearsed, were great fun and very satisfying. These groups developed well, and we did lots of little concerts here and there, in shopping centres and local community halls. The weekday evening rehearsal with the older group was more of a struggle, and although this group too did some concerts, we didn't have much fun together.

This conducting was of course only a part time job; it paid my rent, but not much more. I needed to find something else to do. A couple of friends who repaired musical instruments had set up their own business at about this time, and I started spending time in their shop. I was very interested in working with the mechanics of musical instruments, and they gave me a space in their workshop where I set up a small workbench. Although I had no special training or skills in instrument repair, there were some simple jobs that I could handle, and they gave me bits and pieces of work to help pay my bills.

I moved into a small apartment above the workshop, and the wife of one of the two guys (who also lived in the same building) decided that I needed a bit of 'fattening up' and started giving me dinner every night. She was Vietnamese, and an incredible cook, and even now twenty years later, I can still feel the taste of her sauces on my tongue!

So my rent and food were thus provided for ... and who needed to buy anything else? And downstairs in my corner of that noisy and busy workshop, I had plenty of time to think about some interesting ideas ...

Collector Profile


This particular 'Collector's Profile' is quite late - about nine years late! I first spoke to Kato-sensei that long ago about visiting him to do this story. So why did it take me so long to get around to writing it? It's because Kato-sensei is a school teacher ... and although my image of a school teacher is that of a person with quite a lot of free time, here in Japan things are different. Every time we tried to arrange a bit of time together, he had meetings or school activities that made it difficult. And he is also a 'full time father', sharing the home-making work and child-rearing with his wife. But we finally did get a chance, and I dropped over to his place one day a couple of weeks ago ...

Kato senseiI felt right at home there, because just like in my own place, wherever you turn there are books everywhere. I guess that's normal for a school teacher and I should have expected it - but what I couldn't have expected, was the type of books I would see. Because in addition to the 'normal' books on the shelves, Kato sensei also enjoys collecting miniature books - tiny books about the size of an old matchbox. When he showed me a drawer full of these miniatures, I didn't understand at first, but then realized that they were real books, each page filled with tiny type. Now I began to understand why he is also interested in my prints - with their delicate detail!

This of course was one of the main questions that I had for Kato-sensei: just why was he collecting my work - love of the Hyakunin Isshu poetry, or ...? To answer, he showed me some more of the art objects that he has made part of his life - nihonga style paintings, some hanging on the walls in various rooms, and others carefully packed in storage boxes waiting for their 'turn' to come out for display. He happily pointed out to me what he liked about each one - how the sky on this particular painting was attractively done, and the bamboo on that one ... But although there was no question that he enjoyed the paintings (and prints!) for their own sake, I did detect another motivation; Kato sensei is a teacher, and most of his waking hours are devoted to the care and education of young people - both his own children, and the children of his school and community. He spoke of feeling uncomfortable at the sort of influences they receive from TV and the general culture around them. These are not all bad - these young people will of course make their own life out of the materials around them - but he feels that extra effort is necessary to ensure that they also receive adequate exposure to cultural influences other than manga and television. I think he is right in this idea, and am glad that he chose to make my work part of his 'education' plans!

I rather suspect that Kato sensei is perhaps my most 'typical' kind of collector - he has a mix of motivations for collecting my prints. Part of it is of course the personal pleasure he gets from the prints; added to this is his belief that this kind of cultural activity benefits the young people of society, and of course he also feels that the project I have undertaken is an interesting one and worthy of his direct support.

A couple of times a year, I answer my doorbell and open the door to find Kato sensei standing there. He rarely has time to come in and chat, but he always brings a big bag of vegetables from his garden. He is 'feeding' the young people of our community with his teaching work, is 'feeding' the development of this Hyakunin Isshu project with his financial support, and still finds a way to help 'feed' my stomach!

All this support is very much appreciated ... Kato-sensei, thank you very much! (And with the new pair of reading glasses that I just bought this month, perhaps now I'm ready to look at some of those little books of yours more closely ...)

Visit to a Craftsman

Nearly a decade ago, back in the very first issue of this 'Hyakunin Issho' newsletter, I said "I plan to introduce you to some of the 20-odd other people who are involved in the making of the prints that you are collecting ..." In that same issue I then started this 'Visit to a Craftsman' series, with a short description of the work of Mr. Shintaro Shimano, the man who provides me with the blank woodblocks for my carving. Since that time, there have been a lot of visits in this series, and I have very much enjoyed meeting these people and introducing them to you the readers of this newsletter.

I had originally thought I would run out of craftsmen to visit long before the ten-year printmaking project had finished, but now that I am here just a couple of months from the end, I find it is exactly the opposite that is the case - I still have a long list of people to whom I want to introduce you. There are so many skilled craftsmen involved in the production of a woodblock print, that even in ten years, I haven't been able to cover them all in this series! I am beginning to think than even if I continued this series for another ten years, it wouldn't be enough time ...

But we'll leave such worries for the future. For now, let's drop in and visit another of those people without whose hard work and dedication these prints could not exist. Today's story will not be a very dramatic one, but it is about a very important person ...

*         *         *

First we have to step back in time about 70 years ... to a special day for the Iwano family of Otaki village, in the mountains of Fukui Prefecture - the day the new bride for the young man of the house arrives. The young man is the eighth generation of the family to work in the traditional trade of papermaking, and can we guess the young lady was perhaps proud to be joining a family with such a long history behind them, and with such a good reputation for their 'Echizen Washi' paper? But maybe she wasn't really concerned with such things - all her thoughts were perhaps about the young man whose partner she was about to become.

She well knew what it meant to become the o-yome-san for a family working in a traditional craft - that in addition to all her work as a homemaker, cooking and taking care of the family needs, she would have to carry a share of the papermaking work too. There would not be much rest for her over the coming years ...

Her life with that young man did indeed turn out to be a very full one. The war years of course brought considerable disruption to the family routines, but once things had become more stable after the war, the family found itself inundated with work. During the occupation years, and for a considerable period after that, woodblock prints were one of the souvenirs of Japan most prized by all the foreigners who then flooded the country. Of course, extra demand for prints meant extra demand for high quality paper, and the Iwanos worked 'overtime' to try and fill the constant demand.

The men of the family did the muscular jobs - beating the steamed kozo until the fibres were all separated, and the heavy job of dipping the actual paper itself, but there was plenty of work remaining to be done by the women. One of those jobs was that of picking out from the raw kozo fibre, the tiny pieces of dark bark that still remained in it.

The people who prepare kozo before shipping it to papermakers try to eliminate most of the dark outer bark, but plenty still remains, and it is essential to the quality of the finished paper that every tiny scrap be removed. In the papermaker's workshop the raw kozo is dumped into a vat of running water, and the person doing the speck removal then kneels in front of the tub, reaches in and swishes the kozo back and forth under the surface of the water, carefully inspecting each and every strand in turn, picking out specks as they appear.

As each clump of kozo is cleaned, it is removed from the water and placed on a board by the worker's side, but such is the importance of this step that one pass is not enough to ensure that all specks have been removed; the whole batch must be processed at least once more, either by the same person starting all over again, or by the next person in the group. The tub is usually long and narrow, and a few people can work kneeling side by side. Every member of a papermaking family becomes very familiar with this work ...

The water of course is extremely cold, and after no more than a few minutes of work, one's fingers become almost completely numb. For a standard batch of 500 sheets of printmaking paper, about 25 kilograms of the raw kozo will be needed. 25 kilograms - picked over strand by strand under this freezing water - twice over ...

This is the work that faced that young bride all those years ago, and this is the work that today as you read this story, 70 years on, she is still doing, day after day.

For that young lady soon became the mother of the baby who would grow up to be the Iwano Ichibei who makes the paper I have been using to make my prints for some years now. How many years they have been working together! I can imagine the little boy running around the yard and coming into the shed where his mother was kneeling with her hands in the cold water. He would say 'I can help you! Let me help!' and perhaps she would have let him pull at the kozo fibres until he became bored a few minutes later and ran off to play ...

But for her there was no 'running off to play ...' The collectors were waiting for their prints - the printmakers were waiting for the paper so they could make the prints - the papermaker was waiting for his kozo so he could make the paper ... They were all waiting for this lady to carefully finish her job cleaning each batch of kozo.

I suspect that if I tried to use the word 'dedicated' to describe this lady's approach to her work, she would laugh at me. She is simply doing her job as a member of a papermaking family. The man she married was eventually given the honour of being named a 'Living National Treasure' for his papermaking skills, and after he passed away her son became the head of the family - the ninth of his line. And on the day I visited some months ago, her grandson was also working at the vat beside her; it seems as though the line will continue ...

When I visited that day I had my camera inside my bag, and had fully intended to ask permission to take a few photographs that I could print together with this story. But as I stood there watching her work, I found myself unable to make that request. Over the decades of her life doing this job, she has had many many visitors. They come into the workshop, peer into the cold water to see what she is doing, and always exclaim 'Taihen desu ne eeee!' (What hard work this is!). They then take a snapshot and walk away, out into the sunshine. But Mrs. Iwano does not walk away with them. She remains kneeling at the vat, her hands moving the kozo back and forth under the surface of the water as her eyes carefully inspect every strand, searching for the tiny spots that must be removed. The minutes tick by into hours ... the hours become days ... and the days become years ...

If I were to put her photo on this page, you the reader would be just like one of those visitors - you would peer over her shoulder for a moment, and you would then turn the page. But I don't want you to do that. Please put this story down for a minute, go to your shelf, and take down your set of prints. Lay the case on a table, turn off the overhead light, and then take a look at one of the prints. Do you see the soft and fluffy white surface of the paper? This beautiful beautiful washi ... Now close your eyes and think of this lady, with her hands in the water ... kneeling at that vat with her hands in that cold cold water ... for seventy years. That is why your paper is so beautiful. I could not simply 'steal' her image for this story. But I didn't need to - she is there in your room with you now, there in every sheet of that beautiful paper.

As you have come to understand from reading these newsletter stories over the years, there is a long chain of people behind each one of my woodblock prints. I, the man who signs each finished print and then passes it over to you the collector, am only the last link in this long chain. But I am no more important a link than any other. If any link were to be broken, the entire process would collapse.

I cannot show you her photograph, and I cannot even tell you her name, but I do hope you will join me in thanking this lady for her lifetime of hard work to help bring you these beautiful prints. Mrs. Iwano - we thank you very very much.


So here we are, now just a month or so away from the end of the Hyakunin-Isshu series. This is of course an extremely busy time for me - in addition to the work on the final couple of prints, I have to prepare the exhibition, and handle all the publicity, etc. As part of that media attention, I should mention to you that during the past couple of months (and continuing right up through the exhibition) a film crew has been 'following me around', preparing a 50-minute documentary program on my work and this series. I am not able to tell you the actual broadcast date yet, but if you watch your TV schedule in January/February, you should be able to see the listing for the program 'Human Theatre', on TV Tokyo. The documentary will appear on that program ...

And of course, there is one more thing that is keeping me busy - planning for the next project. Are you curious about what I will be doing? After reading those 'Halifax to Hamura' stories, you know that it is very common for me to stop doing one type of work, and start up something completely different. I have done that many many times. But what about this time? When this great project comes to a close, should I 'clean up' my printmaking tools, put them away in a drawer, and start 'fresh' with a new job - or should I continue to build on my printmaking skills, and make more prints?

Hmmm ... There are indeed, many other activities that I would like to get involved in. If I started to list them here, it would fill this page ... But on the other hand, there are also many beautiful prints that I would like to make. They would fill many pages ...

Which will it be - printmaking or ... ???