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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #15 - Spring 1994
Contents of this Issue:


No drum roll ... no fanfare ... just a quiet start to the second half of the 'Hyakunin Isshu Hanga Series' adventure. I had been a little bit afraid that it would be hard to get started on the work this year, because I now have a pretty good idea of just how long five years is, but things are already rolling along just fine, in what has become the regular routine - carve, carve, carve!

In this issue, we'll have a bit of an update on the recent exhibition, a few amendments to last issue, and I've finally got around to giving you your instructions on just how to look at my prints (!) I'm sure you didn't really think you needed instructions for that, but if you do try following the suggestions I include here, I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Exhibition Wrap-up

Back in the days when I lived in Canada, and was thinking about coming to Japan, I read many, many books about this country. I read a real mish-mash of books, new ones ... old ones ... anything I could find. The image I developed of Japan was actually very out-of-date, and not really very practical at all. (I would have been better off forgetting the books, and just trusting to my own eyes and ears once I arrived here.) But I do remember one particular fact that I read in a book on how to 'survive' in Japan. The author made comments to the effect that 'it will take you a minimum of about five years to get your venture established in Japan'. Now this was in a section that discussed business matters, and I didn't think at the time that it had much application to what I was planning - studying woodblock printmaking. But now when I think of the time elapsed since the fall of 1988, when I made my decision to 'shoot for woodblock printmaking' rather than making wooden toys, I realize that he was right ... about five years to get established.

Of course, the reason I bring this up now is that I do finally feel 'established' in my printmaking venture. The January exhibition this year was a wonderful success. The media attention was excellent in all fields: newspapers, magazines, radio, and TV; and this resulted in somewhat over a thousand people coming through the gallery over the six days. I had a great time explaining my work to them, and enjoying their comments. Some were hanga hobbyists who brought their own work to show me; some were just curious about this foreigner challenging a traditional Japanese craft; and of course most were fans of the 'Hyakunin Isshu', and these people were delighted to encounter Shunsho's interesting series. But exhibitions like this have two purposes, of which the 'show-and-tell' aspect is only one. I also very much needed to meet people who were willing to join the project as collectors. I am happy to be able to tell you that over two dozen of the visitors decided that they would like to collect some of my prints, and asked to join the project, some for a year, and some for longer.

This is just about a perfect result for me - not too many, not too few. It is a great relief to have the number of collectors finally at a point where I do not have to continuously worry about whether or not there will be enough money for the rent each month, yet it is certainly not too many to maintain at least some level of personal contact with each collector. After the exhibition, one of my friends was worried that, "Now you've got so many collectors, will the quality of the prints go down ...?" I just laughed at him. In terms of work hours, nothing has changed for me. The carving is exactly the same, and as for the printing, I still make 100 copies each month, just as I did before - only now, the number being sent out is finally greater than the number being stored in my workshop. (The two ladies who help me with folder making, wrapping and shipping will perhaps be pleased to have a bit more work ...) I will have to spend a bit more time reading and writing letters each month ... but that's fun, not work. All in all, I could not have asked for a better result from the exhibition.

So five years was right ... But actually, it has taken much longer. I made my first woodblock print just over 13 years ago, back in Canada, during my 'salaryman' days. It was a terrible print, absolutely terrible, just like a child would make. But I knew when I saw it, that I wanted to do more ... I wanted to get better ... I wanted to make beautiful prints like those I had seen exhibited somewhere ... I wanted to be a printmaker. And I guess that's what I finally am ...

There is an interesting quotation left by George Bernard Shaw to the effect 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. Well, although I have finally attained my printmaking goal after thirteen years of dreaming, please be assured that there is plenty of challenge left in life. Compared to the craftsmen of days gone by, and even to many of those still active today, I still have a long way to go. A long, long way to go.

I really believe Mr. Shaw's dictum is true. But I'm not worried about it. Neither about the first part, nor the second. Because I've learned a way to escape the paradox. Simply have multiple dreams: reachable ones ... but also ones that will forever remain outside your grasp.

Is it thus really possible that at forty-two years of age, I've found the 'secret of life'? Really? I've always had the idea that such thoughts were for white-bearded sages living off in seclusion somewhere. But when I looked in the mirror this morning, I realized ... perhaps that's me! Good grief, what a thought!

Enjoying your Prints

I got up this morning and opened the curtains onto a silent white-blanketed world. About ten centimeters must have fallen during the night, and my corner of Tokyo has once again been transformed beyond recognition. The traffic sounds are muffled, the scruffy back yard of my 'mansion' has become a beautiful sculpture garden, and my workroom ... has become an art gallery.

It's the light. There's just nothing like the light that accompanies falling snow for looking at woodblock prints. Indeed, to my mind there is simply no other possible way to look at woodblock prints. They are absolutely transformed (that word again!) by this light, from flat two-dimensional pretty 'pictures', into living, breathing creations. You think I exaggerate? You obviously haven't tried it. Get a case of prints out from the bookcase or closet where you have been carefully storing them (you certainly don't hang them on the wall, I hope!), and lay them on a low table in your tatami room in front of the shoji screens. TURN OUT THE OVERHEAD LIGHT! Open the folder ... and enjoy.

Enjoy the rich texture of the fluffy Japanese paper, physically palpable in this soft light; enjoy the deep embossing of the lines printed by the 'baren', made visible by the faint shadow along each carved line of the poem; enjoy the way the colours under this illumination completely blend together into a unified whole; enjoy the 'totality' of a woodblock print - not simply the design sketched by one man, but the collaboration of the group of craftsmen who created it - the paper maker, the baren maker, the ironmonger, the pigment maker, and yes ... the carver and printer. Enjoy ...

Once you have had this experience, never will you ever again, ever, be content with seeing woodblock prints any other way. On a gallery wall, under bright lights? Forget it! This is a great heartache for me every year, to hang my prints under those harsh lights, and then to have to stand back and watch people look at them, under those artificial, heartless conditions. They can only see Shunsho! They can't see me ... or Yamaguchi-san ... Gosho-san ... Usui-san ... Shimano-san ... all the rest ... They can't see a woodblock print!

I'm sure you're thinking, "This is all very well, but not very practical ... Can I really only enjoy my prints when it is snowing?" Well, I'll let you in on the second part of the secret - the important point is not the snow per se, but that the light be horizontal, and preferably diffused. You don't have to wait for these special, snowy days. The tatami room/shoji screen combination by itself will work just fine. Just please remember to extinguish all 'vertical' illumination - no overhead lights. Of course, back in the Edo-era, when woodblock prints came into being, there were no such things as overhead lights, and all illumination came from screened windows or paper-screened lamps. Prints back then were never framed and stuck up on walls, but were usually kept in drawers or some other 'out-of-sight' storage place.

Woodblock prints are not 'architectural graphic elements', a phrase I read somewhere in an 'art' magazine, but are objects of a more personal nature, to be held in the hand and enjoyed, not 'wallpaper', which is what they soon become after we put them in a frame and hang them up.

So please try it. Sit down in your tatami room (you do live in Japan, don't you?) and get acquainted with woodblock prints ... with your woodblock prints. See what you've been missing.

From Halifax to Hamura

So last month saw the 'genesis of this project...' column pretty much brought up-to-date, and I've been casting around for something to replace it. I've talked to some of you recently to try and get your ideas on what you would like to see in this newsletter, but I haven't found your comments particularly helpful ....

I'm not sure whether to be pleased or disappointed by these comments. They seem to tell me that either none of this stuff is interesting, or that it all is, and I can't believe that!

I considered for a while making this space into a 'how-to-make-woodblock-prints' column, with detailed technical information on printmaking. But it seems to me that although that information could be very useful to a few people, it would not be particularly interesting for the majority of you, so I'm saving all that type of material for the fat book on printmaking that I am going to publish one day. A number of people I spoke to though, had similar suggestions - go back further in the 'origins of this project' story. I have explained how I found 'Hyakunin Isshu' and started this print series, but just what was a Canadian guy doing in Japan fooling around with this stuff in the first place, anyway?

When I heard this suggestion, I thought, "Well OK, but just how far back do we go ... ?"

"It was a dark and stormy night. The wind howling across the Yorkshire moors drowned out the cry of the new-born boy ...."

Get serious! Nobody wants to read my 'life story' and I certainly don't want to write it. But the point those people had was a good one. If I perhaps talk a bit about the path that brought me from those Yorkshire moors to this west Tokyo apartment, it might help explain a few things. If I had followed my parents' footsteps there, I would perhaps have become a slave labourer in a garment factory, like they were for many years. I escaped that fate, but just how and why ....

So I think we'll try it for a while. Starting with the next issue, I'll try and put together an interesting series that will try and answer that 'how and why'. Western readers are probably thinking that this doesn't need much explaining, but it seems to be a never-ending source of amazement to most Japanese that I am here doing what I am doing. Anyway, it should be interesting for me to try and identify the events that shaped that pathway from England to Japan. Join me next issue for the first in the thrilling series ...

P.S. Now I have to wonder. Was it a dark and story night? Hey Mom, got a minute ....?

I'm Sorry!

In the previous issue I made a point of listing the names of all the collectors to date, to try and say 'thank you' to them for their support. There were a couple of omissions ... I listed Mrs. Yoshiko Sano, of Musashi Murayama City here in Tokyo, but neglected to mention her neighbour and friend Mrs. Yoko Koyama. I see Mrs. Sano regularly, and had thus forgotten that she was 'sharing' her subscription with Mrs. Koyama. But not only did Koyama-san not complain that I had omitted her name, when she came along to the opening party at the exhibition, she stayed quietly in the back corner all evening helping people with their coats! What else can I say ... I'm very sorry, Mrs. Koyama, and I'll try and be more careful in future ...

The second omission is more difficult to correct. It involves about half of the collectors! It really only came to my notice when I spoke that evening to a French couple who are collecting my prints - Stefan Nalletamby and Helene Matha. When I listed the names, I simply listed his, rather thoughtlessly omitting hers. Helene didn't complain, but I suspect that she was none too pleased ... Of course, now I have to wonder about everybody else on the list ... what about the husbands, wives and partners whose names don't appear there? I have to admit that I just don't know how to handle this. In English, "Mr. and Mrs. X" works fine for some couples, but not for others. To say in Japanese "Suzuki-san" supposedly includes both, but is too impersonal. "Suzuki X-san and Suzuki Y-san" is too clumsy ... I hope that everybody understands that my 'thank you' was intended for any and all who are involved with my work. I simply used the name of the person with whom I have most contact. I'm sorry for ignoring you Helene, (perhaps if Stefan's name hadn't been so long, I'd have found room for yours!)


My New Year's Resolution this year was to try and get this little newsletter turned back a bit more towards the craftsmen, of whom there are still many to write about. I seem to have missed this time, but I'm still resolved. One day, real soon now, I'll collect my notebook and camera and head off to visit ... maybe Ito-san the carver ... or perhaps Matsuyoshi-san at the pigment shop ... or maybe a couple of the young apprentice craftsmen ... or perhaps ... but enough talk, time for some work!

Every minute I sit here at my word processor is another minute that I'm not making prints. And if I don't make prints, there's no purpose to all this talking. So the intermission is over, on with the show ... Act Two. I ask nothing more than that the second half be as rewarding and interesting as the first - both in the work itself, and in the communication with the supporters and friends.

Thank you, and see you again soon ...