Forgotten Beauty of Woodblock Prints (VI)
So, here we are at the final episode in our long six-part 'imaginary documentary' series. This one will be the most difficult for me to write, as the others simply described things that happened in the past, but we now look forward into the future. And as we all know, there is no single future, but an infinite number of possible futures. Which one should I describe?
The Forgotten Beauty of Japanese Woodblock Prints
[Part Six - Into the Future]
[Camera] David and the interviewer are sitting side by side - not in his workroom or library this time, but outdoors, on the edge of the riverbank, their legs dangling down towards the water. All around them are trees and bushes. During the course of their conversation, the camera catches different angles and scenes: we see the river running by just below their feet; a small waterfall some meters away provides a backdrop for a long distance shot; green branches sway in the light breeze. A bit later in the conversation, when we look over their shoulders from behind, we see that they are sitting on the bank just opposite David's workroom, and the building towers over them as the camera pulls back. This is their conversation ...
[Interviewer] "We've seen so many of the prints that you have made over the years; you must be quite proud of them. How many have you made?"
[Dave] "You mean different designs? Well, not counting the 'training' stuff in the early years, it comes to 212 different prints. And if you were to ask how many in total, that needs some calculation, but it comes to something over 32,000 copies. That's prints made for sale, not including thousands and thousands of new year prints and other miscellaneous items. What do you think - was that a worthwhile way to spend 20 years?"
[Interviewer] "Hey, I'm supposed to be asking you the questions! How would you answer that one?"
[David] "Well, considering that I am - as much as possible - trying to look at life as a 'journey', rather than something with an end goal, it should be pretty easy to answer. Let's list a few things. [He checks these points off on his fingers ...] I had fun; I brought up my kids happily and safely; I created a lot of things that didn't exist before, apparently bringing pleasure to many people in the process; I made a living along the way, paying my taxes and other obligations to society; and - mostly due to the low-tech nature of my work - I did it all with a pretty low 'footprint' on our planet's resources.
"Have I missed anything? As far as the twenty years being 'worthwhile' or not goes, I guess the answer has to be 'yes'."
[Interviewer] "I notice though, that you didn't mention 'preserving the tradition of printmaking' among the points you checked off."
[Dave] "Ah, that's because I'm not trying to 'support' printmaking - I'm just making prints! If there is any preserving being done, it just comes about as a side effect. But don't get me started on that topic; I talk about it too much recently!"
[Interviewer] "I noticed that in the list of things you just mentioned, 'having fun' was the very first item."
[Dave] "Perhaps 'fun' was not the best word to have used. I listed reasons why I felt that my work has been worthwhile doing, but underlying was something that I left unspoken. The question of why. At various stages over the years, my printmaking work has given meaning to my life - in different ways. For example, at the time that I took on the huge ten-year Hyakunin Isshu project, I was clearly looking for something 'big' to do. I had an internal confidence that I could do something 'spectacular', but I think probably everybody feels that way. I needed to prove it, and I did. As you and I discussed the other day when looking over all the print sets that I have made, each one of those projects - in its turn - provided me with some particular motivation and meaning.
"This has been a real blessing - all the way along there has been an intense feeling that my activities are all meaningful, something that some people - especially those working at a desk job in a large organization - do not seem to feel, but with this blessing also comes a kind of 'curse'. I have to constantly keep re-inventing myself!
"Back when I was involved in the world of classical music, I read a great deal about composers, and sometimes would read about a composer who we now think of as a wonderful genius, but yet who suffered agonies over his work. No matter how well his previous composition had been received, the day would soon come when he again had to sit down before the blank paper. But he couldn't simply repeat what he had composed before; he had to - each and every time - create something new, and meaningful, and interesting. And so do I.
"My work is subscription-based, and many of the collectors have been with me for many years - some even since the very beginning, more than twenty years ago. Each time I sit down to create the concept for a new print series, I think of these collectors. What on earth can I do that will still be of interest to them, to people who own more than 212 of my prints!? This is a hugely difficult problem to solve, and I must solve it again and again. At this very moment I am at such a juncture. The 'My Solitudes' series will wrap up in a couple of months, and from April I must begin a new series."
[Interviewer] "Have you decided what to do?"
[Dave] "Well, yes ... I do have a concept for a short series that I think should be of great interest to everybody, both current collectors and people who have never purchased any of my prints, and I will be making an announcement about that soon. But even as I have been putting this together, I have been trying to look beyond it. Quite a way beyond it.
"I sat in my little 'library' the other day, looking at the prints and albums on the shelves, among which are my own productions from the past twenty years, and I tried to imagine what these shelves may look like at a point twenty years in the future. Will there be 212 more of my prints there? Really?
"This led to further thoughts. Most days, I spend the bulk of my time down in the workroom, quietly carving or printing, usually listening to the radio as I do so. It's a pleasant life, quite peaceful, but actually very solitary. Do I want to spend the next twenty years - until I am 78 - sitting by myself in that little room? Will that be a healthy thing to do?"
[Interviewer] "Why bother about such questions? As you have said before, there really isn't much point about trying to plan too far ahead; because there are so many unknown variables, things will almost certainly not go the way you expect."
[Dave] "Of course. But remember, if you don't think about where you want to go, you'll certainly never get there. I think back to the time when I was a company employee back in Canada. I had a kind of vision about the sort of life that might be possible as an independent worker, and after a lot of careful planning, and then sticking to the plan, it did actually come true. If I hadn't tried to look ahead and create a future for myself, that future would never have happened. It seems to me that I may be coming to another such juncture in my life, a time to look forward, think about what kind of life I would like to be living in X years, and then work steadily toward such a goal.
"That phrase we used a few minutes ago - about looking at life as a 'journey' - does imply that you have at least some idea of which direction you should be moving, even though you might never get there!"
[Interviewer] "Well, if you have been thinking about this, are you ready to share some examples?"
[Dave] "I don't mind talking about some of the ideas, as long as you keep in mind that these are not so much plans, as speculation, along the lines of 'I wonder what it would be like if ...'
- A lot of my thinking about the future centres around my Mokuhankan publishing venture. My own subscription print series are a completely one-man show - I carve every block, and print every colour of every sheet - but the prints I issue under the Mokuhankan label are produced with the cooperation of other craftsmen. I haven't published very many prints there yet, and would really like to expand that catalogue. But because making my own prints takes so much time, Mokuhankan hasn't been able to grow as much as it could have. In the future, I would like to find a way to adjust the balance between these two activities.
- Exhibitions. I have had many exhibitions here in Japan, both in Tokyo and Kansai, but never anywhere else. I am sure that there are many people in London or New York who would be interested in seeing my prints. At present, I can't imagine how I would ever afford to hold shows in such places, but I think it's time to start thinking about how to make it happen.
- Although I have many ideas about possible print projects and ways to expand this 'business', it is impossible to turn them into reality as long as I remain a 'one-man' shop. I am chained to my workbenches, and the fact that I do absolutely all the production by myself is severely limiting the scope of my activities. But if I started to work together with other people, a lot more things would become possible. The Mokuhankan project - just to take one example - could be so much more than publishing; Mokuhankan could be a place: a workshop with a group of young printers and carvers, with a shop and gallery attached.
"There are all kinds of ideas about how I could be involved in such interesting projects in the future; no end to them!"
[Interviewer] "Well, I must say, this isn't quite what I expected when you and I sat down today to have this little talk to 'wrap up' our documentary program. I thought you were going to tell us that you were looking forward to many more years of peaceful work here in your riverside studio. We've even got the final scene all planned - the camera watches you carve, then pulls back to include a view of the gently rippling water, while some peaceful music plays in the background. It would be a wonderful scene!"
[Dave] (laughs!) "Well, let's film it that way - it's perfectly true! I am indeed 'living the dream' here in this workshop, making beautiful prints, and sending them out to appreciative collectors all over the world. Please understand, those plans I mentioned were just 'ideas', not real. When you and your crew leave here later this evening, I'll be back at my bench a few minutes later, working on the next print. This will be my life for quite some time to come.
"Perhaps I should do a 'flashback' here, to the time when I was working on the huge poets' project. In my newsletter at that time, I quoted a famous GB Shaw dictum, that There are two tragedies that can befall a man in his life. The first, is to never attain your dream. The second ... is to attain your dream. The implication of course, is that once you have got what you wanted, you find you are still unhappy. Am I trying to tell you that I am still 'unhappy', even though I am living my dream? No, of course not. Anytime I start to feel like that, I only have to remind myself of what many of my neighbours do every morning - fight their way onto a packed train for the rush-hour trip to downtown Tokyo. But there is no denying that it is very difficult to remain 'stable'. And remember, we are these days hearing all kinds of advice to the effect that as we grow older, it becomes very important to keep challenge and stimulation in one's life.
"Perhaps we might think of a space rocket - you know, the type that burns brightly for a while, soaring up into the sky, then just as it seems to be running out of fuel and starting to fade, yet another stage is ignited, to push it to yet a higher level. Yes, that sounds like a very good analogy; I think I'll start using that in my conversations from now on!
"Anyway, it's getting a bit late, and I think we had better go indoors and film that last scene for your program. And let's edit your idea just a little. You can film me carving quietly, but then as the camera pulls back, instead of focussing on the stream flowing by unchangingly, pan upwards past some of those trees over there, into the open sky. Let's see where we can fly! :-)"