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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #45 - Autumn 2001
Contents of this Issue:


In the previous issue of this newsletter, I mentioned that I would be taking part in some department store events in the Kansai; those are behind me now, and you will find a little 'report' on them inside. An interesting aspect of the shows that I hadn't anticipated was the opportunity they would provide to meet many other craftsmen, both Japanese and foreign.

At the Osaka event, the men in the 'shop' next to mine were also carving wood, although in their case it wasn't blocks for printing, but name plates for people to put in front of their homes. We talked with each other as we did our demonstrations every day, and then one day near the end of the show, Mr. Shuichi Terao, 12th generation of his family to work in that craft, passed a little package over to me - he and his son had prepared a carved name plate for my new home as a present!

As soon as I returned home, I of course mounted it beside my front door. Instead of using English letters, they carved the plate using the Japanese phonetic 'katakana' syllables, so at last all my neighbours know how to pronounce my name ... no more "Debiru Buroo"!

From Halifax to Hamura

Bill had phoned me to come and discuss a computer system for his business because he was getting desperate - the paper system they were using was so overloaded it was severely disrupting their cash flow. Without prompt and accurate bills going out, payments from customers were chronically late or non-existent. The business was in trouble, and he had to do something about it.

The two of us had discussed computerization back when I was working as the Toronto branch manager, but the system I proposed at that time had been much too expensive and impractical. In the intervening couple of years though, things in the computer business had changed dramatically - new 'micro computers' had started to appear. These were more affordable than the large system I had looked at, but it wasn't completely clear that they would be capable of doing the large amount of processing required by the job. I sat with a notepad while Bill outlined the requirements for the proposed system; I already knew most of what was necessary, having worked for him for so many years, but I didn't know the latest figures - how many customers there were, etc. etc. When the overall outline was down on paper, I had to swallow hard, because it was clear he needed quite a sophisticated system: there were thousands of customers to be tracked, with hundreds of invoices to be produced each day. What was most worrying though, was the security aspect of the proposed system - once it was in place, it would have to work properly; if it failed, the entire business could be brought down.

Looking back on that meeting from where I sit now, it seems incredible to me that we actually agreed to go ahead with the project. Although I said to him, "OK, I can do it", I must have been thinking ... "Can I really pull this off?" And although he said to me, "OK, let's go!", he must have been thinking ... "Can he really pull this off?"

I ordered the hardware and had it delivered to my home, and then got to work planning and writing the huge amount of software needed. Next to the Hyakunin Isshu print series, it is the biggest thing I have ever done; there were many hundreds of pages of source code, all of which had to work together perfectly. The whole thing was a kind of massive puzzle which had to be meticulously planned and then put together. I had an absolutely glorious time with it ...

Once it was done and tested as well as it could be with sample data, we moved it over to the office and prepared to go 'live'. The clerks worked in shifts entering data from the old paper files into the machine - many thousands of customer records. And then finally, 'changeover' day arrived, and the system came to life. Watching the reams of invoices pouring out of the system printer is not something that I will soon forget, and I'm sure Bill still remembers it to this day. If I were to say that my programming work 'saved the company' it would be claiming too much, but that it had a dramatic impact on cash flow and financial stability is beyond doubt. That little microcomputer perfomed wonderfully; with only 32Kb of memory (about 1/12,000 of the memory in the machine I use for my own accounting these days!) it controlled millions of dollars in business over the subsequent years.

And me? Once everything was up and running, it was back to the previous bookish 'routine' - and some more experiments with printmaking! The next three prints followed quite quickly one after another. I still didn't have a clue what I was doing, but I had a lot of fun experimenting. When I look at those prints now I have to laugh at how artless and childlike they are, but I guess that's nothing to be embarrassed about ... I was indeed still an 'artless' child!

Collector Profile

It's difficult to know how to choose which collectors to feature in this spot - so many of you are doing interesting things! But what to do? Even if I featured three or four of you in each issue, I'd still never catch up with everybody! This month though, I can kill two birds with one stone - I can introduce you to one of the collectors, and I can talk a bit about my own work at the same time!

For the final print in last year's album, I made a reproduction of a Meiji-era 'kuchi-e' - a print that had originally been designed for insertion into a magazine. I intend to include more kuchi-e in future albums, and have become quite interested in the genre, collecting them when I find affordable ones in the print shops. But I certainly have a long way to go before my collection will match that of Mr. Tomoo Asahi of Mishima City. His mission is simple - to collect and document the entire output of Meiji-era kuchi-e - and he is well on the way to accomplishing that goal. We visited him recently at his home to see his collection and discuss the prints, and sat in amazement at the procession of beautiful images that passed in front of us as he brought out folder after folder of prints.

Other researchers around the world are studying the kuchi-e prints, but nobody has come close to Mr. Asahi in the scale of their work; his collection has become the most important in the field, and whenever books and papers on the kuchi-e are published, one usually finds a note appended - 'Illustrations from the collection of Mr. Tomoo Asahi'.

Unlike the old ukiyo-e, good kuchi-e prints are still readily available in print shops, so such a collection could perhaps still be amassed by somebody who chose to do so. Mr. Asahi though has gone far beyond just simple accumulation; he has spent endless hours cataloguing the history behind each print - which issue of which magazine it was published in, and other details important to research on these interesting prints.

My visit to his home had nominally been with the intention of 'interviewing' him for this little story, but that didn't happen ... I hadn't been there more than two minutes before we were deep in discussion of important issues on how these prints were made, and we didn't quit until somebody noticed that it was dark outside and that our stomachs were growling! So I can't tell you anything specific about him except that he runs a food processing company and that he is active in the local 'International Cooperation' organization. His wife Yoko-san spent some time at the print table with us, and it seems that she is quite tolerant of his print-buying activities; there are far worse things that a husband could be spending his money on, and she is just happy to have a partner with an 'enthusiasm'!

I had taken with me a folder containing the kuchi-e prints I have collected in recent years, and was pleased to find that a couple of them were not represented in Mr. Asahi's collection. I myself have been the recipient of so many books, prints and tools from people who said "These things belong with you!", that it was easy to pass them over; I'm happy to be able to help his magnificent project get a few steps closer to completion. I didn't come home empty-handed though; Asahi-san was of course easily able to fill a hole in my small collection!

I'll be back to this room in Mishima again - and sooner rather than later. During our conversations that afternoon, we explored some most interesting research avenues, and I think that we can make some important contributions to developing an understanding of how these beautiful prints were produced, something that is currently wrapped in mystery.

Oh, and I shouldn't forget - thank you to Mr. Asahi for continuing to collect my own prints, even with thousands of the 'real thing' already stacked up on his desk. It's nice to be in such good company!...

Takashimaya Report

The 'Exhibition Reports' in this newsletter usually appear only in the spring issue, but this year there's a bit extra to report on! As I mentioned last time, I was invited to take part in an 'Exhibition of Traditional Japanese Crafts' held this summer in the Takashimaya department stores in Osaka and Kyoto. Each show was six days in length, and consisted of about 50 booths showing the products of craftsmen from all across the country. This year, for the first time, a group of foreigners were invited to join the event - myself and four others. It seems as this annual exhibition has been running for many years, the organizers were looking for a way to 'freshen' it up a bit by including something a bit different.

Whether their plan worked or not I have no idea - but it was certainly fresh to me! I have been having my own exhibitions for twelve years, but this event was completely different from any of those. I faced a number of challenges in trying to do a good job at Takashimaya and first among these was creating the display. I am sort of 'spoiled' by using the Takano gallery in Shinjuku for my exhibitions; it is so wide that even when I show the full Hyakunin Isshu print set I can fit everything in. For this event though, I had a space only a few square meters in size, and I realized at the start that my usual method of displaying 'prints + stories' just wouldn't fit. I was saddened by this, because I feel having them displayed together encourages viewers to spend enough time with each print to be able to 'absorb' it properly. But it was obvious that in the department store far and away most of the people would simply be strolling around, and they would have no particular interest in my prints, unlike my Takano shows, where the only people there are those who specifically come to see my work.

So Sadako and I tried to prepare something that would catch the eye of the passers-by and draw them in to spend some time looking over the prints. We devised a display combining some of the screens we built for last January's exhibition and some stands we asked the Takashimaya people to build for us. It looked a bit crowded when it was all set up, but it was effective - viewers did find the prints attractive and easy to look at.

Over and above that initial challenge though, was the question of what the viewers would do once they had inspected the prints. Most of them of course, would just walk away; because of my insistence on never breaking up the albums, I never make 'casual' sales. So I really didn't expect to meet too many new collectors at these events; indeed, during the initial discussions with the Takashimaya people I had emphasized this. They were paying my hotel and transportation expenses, and I wasn't sure if they would get enough back. They hadn't seemed overly concerned though, and I guess from their point of view, they weren't really expecting to make a lot of money from the five foreigners; this was all pretty much an experiment on both sides ... During the course of the shows, we five joked among ourselves that we were the 'pandas' - an attraction to bring people in the door, people who would then spend money with the other displayers ...

By now you must be thinking that I'm about to tell you I was 'shut out', and that I didn't meet any new collectors at all. Actually, that wasn't the case, and among the people who stopped to talk about the work there were indeed a few who decided to collect one of the albums. I'm happy to have had this opportunity to meet them, and the fact it didn't happen very often made it all the more special!

Being part of an event in a department store like this gave me a bit of a different viewpoint on this question of being a craftsman. Making a living these days as a craftsman requires that one be good at two very different activities - making the product, and selling it. Not only do these two activities involve very different skills - they are completely incompatible with each other time-wise. You can be in the workshop concentrating on the work, or you can be out in a store showing things to people. You can't be in both places. At the time of my first exhibition more than twelve years ago, I had already worked out my 'solution' to this dilemma - I would never sell prints one-by-one, but only through annual subscriptions. This would keep me out of the 'store' and in the workshop.

I have stuck with that system for all the intervening years, and the experiment of participating in these shows reminded me again just why I have. Success in a department store is measured by one simple thing - "What was your sales total today?" Every morning during the shows we were given a printout showing not only our own sales for the previous day, but totals for other participants as well. But 'sales totals' are not how I wish to measure myself. I don't want to sound naive and idealistic, and of course selling my prints is an essential part of the process - that's why I went to Takashimaya - but when selling becomes the most important thing, and when the people who attend are seen only as potential buyers, as I saw all around me during the course of these shows, then I wish to step aside ...

Takashimaya treated us wonderfully: they paid a raft of expenses, wined and dined us endlessly, were as friendly and supportive as they could possibly be, and never overtly pressured us about selling. They did everything very professionally indeed, and I can't find one iota of criticism for them. I learned though, that in their world I was the odd-man out, and I suppose this will be the end of my department store career (at least until that far-off future day when they decide to hold a special exhibition of my life work!)

With nearly ten hours each day spent working in the store, there wasn't much chance for us to see much of Osaka or Kyoto beyond the path to the hotel, but we did get a chance for some early morning and late evening walks to make a reacquaintance with some Kyoto back streets ... All in all, going to these Kansai shows was a worthwhile experience, and the friendships we made among the craftspeople will last a lifetime. Now though, with more than two weeks 'chopped out' of my schedule, and the January exhibition looming ever closer, I've got to get my nose back down to the blocks!

Sadako's Corner
Another View

As a man gets old - after living about half a century - a few eyebrows start to grow longer than others. Is this also a barometer of how stubborn he is? In August David participated in a Japanese Traditional Arts and Crafts fair at two Takashimaya Department stores in Kansai but wouldn't alter his method of selling prints - they were still only sold in albums (10 in each) and no individual prints were on sale.

In the Osaka show, among 50 other booths David's was in one corner of the floor. Although there was quite a large sign hanging from the ceiling - [Woodblock Print Maker: David Bull] there were still people who asked such questions as "Are these something like woodblock prints?"

I think David would be one of the last people to do business in a pushy way. After assisting him for many years I should be able to understand his feeling but I felt depressed when I looked at him. How was he? As usual his face showed strong pride and confidence. On the contrary, I had a somewhat faint heart and kept repeating to myself "Everything is experience, this is also experience!"

All day long at the booth just in front of us, middle aged women were bent over looking into the showcase; sales people were running around with money in their hands. Meanwhile David continued quietly doing his printing demonstrations. As he was sitting on a low platform his eye height was just at the level of all those bent-over bottoms! He muttered "Not a very nice view..." and he was very happy when plenty of people surrounded him to see his demonstration!

In Kyoto, the feeling was a bit different. More people showed interest in his prints, but that didn't mean many people bought them. One of the organizers of the event finally came up to David and said "David-san, I have a good idea. Why don't you split up the albums and sell them piece by piece .....?" The man with a few long hairs among his eyebrows replied, "I'm sorry, but ..."

Although the participation in those events in Kansai was actually not so remunerative, it was true that we did meet people who enjoyed his prints very much and said "How beautiful they are!" And yes, a few of these people not only enjoyed them but also purchased some.

What was our harvest from those events? The biggest thing was of course that we learned something about the character of Kansai people, but a more precious thing was that we were able to become friends with many craftsmen. I would really like to keep in touch with them.

Studio Diary

Construction under way at last! It's been more than half a year since I moved into this place, but just haven't been able to do much so far. It's been a question of time and money of course. The parts of the job I want to do myself need time ... the parts I must 'order out' need money ... and both of these commodities have been in pretty short supply this year!

But I've got to get started sometime, or things will drag out for years. So here we go! The first step is to cut an access hole in the concrete between the two basement levels so that I can build a stairway to get down to the lower level. That is where I want to build the printmaking workshop, but at present, the only access is from outside. More importantly, the airflow through the basement will be much improved by having internal stairs. This is very important, because with the river flowing by just outside the window, damp will be a real 'enemy'.

Cutting through concrete and steel is not something I really want to do myself. I initially thought about renting tools and trying it, but friends who have experience of such work all recommended that I 'call in the pros'. So here they are, cutting, drilling and smashing their way through the thick concrete slab.

After they are done, it'll be my turn ...


One of the main stories in the previous issue was a kind of 'letter' to my daughter Himi. After publishing it, I heard from a number of readers that they felt a bit concerned that Himi might have been upset about the story - a teenage girl could perhaps have felt quite embarrassed to have her affairs discussed 'in public'. So I should mention that I had talked to her a bit about the story before I printed it, and although she didn't know exactly what I was going to write, she knows me well enough to trust that I wouldn't make her look foolish ...

But just as the newsletter was going to the printer, I got a surprise - she showed up here in Japan. Her sister Fumi had already been here for a month or so, and the three of us were able to spend about two weeks together before the two of them flew back to Canada.

Although two weeks out of a year certainly isn't 'enough' time to have together with your daughter - when you're expecting nothing, it's a wonderful bonus! I'll just have to keep my fingers crossed for next year ...