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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #38 - Winter 1999
Contents of this Issue:


If all goes as planned, this newsletter should be reaching you just about the middle of January, shortly before the annual exhibition opens. As I write this in early December though, I am a long way from being ready ... I am still in the middle of making the ninth print of this year's surimono album, and as you can see, there is still even one more unoccupied circle on the right hand side of this page; I promised the collectors that there would be ten prints in this year's album! Just as soon as this surimono printing is finished, I'll first have to get busy designing, carving and then printing this year's New Year card, and only when that job is out of the way will I be able to start work on print number ten, to try and get it done before the exhibition opens.

Last year, when I was finishing up the Hyakunin Isshu series, working on the 100th print just a few days before the exhibition, I promised myself that I wouldn't get myself in such a jam ever again ... but here I am, in exactly the same situation!

Maybe next year I will somehow learn how to organize my work properly, to avoid this annual 'squeeze' situation ... Maybe ...

I hope you will enjoy this issue of the newsletter - the feature story is another in the 'Visit to a Craftsman' series. But this time I had to travel quite some distance to make the visit ... just about ten thousand kilometres!

From Halifax to Hamura

This 'story' has certainly wandered around a lot, hasn't it. Playing flute ... busking in England ... building guitars ... 'teaching' jazz ... playing bass guitar ... You must be wondering to yourself "When oh when, is this guy ever going to get to Hamura?" Well, if you're confused while reading all this, then that probably matches pretty well the real situation - because I was plenty confused while I was living it all! In the earliest days of playing flute, my 'future' was clear to me - I was going to be an orchestral flutist - so I had a good clear vision of what to do. But once that vision had faded out, I no longer had such a clear view of my life. As you have read, I wandered from this thing to that, nibbling at many things, but becoming deeply enthusiastic about none of them.

I was very fortunate in one major thing - that I lived in a society that understood and accepted this sort of behaviour. That this young man was still trying to 'find himself' must have been obvious to those around me, and they generally left me alone to find my own way. There was very little pressure on me to 'get a real job' or to find something 'useful' to do, neither from my parents nor from society at large. They all knew one of two things would happen - either this boy would finally find an interest in something, and thus become useful to society ... or he wouldn't, and would fritter his life away. In either case, there was nothing that anybody else could do about it. My society provided access to limitless opportunities - to make something of them was up to me.

(Personal pride causes me to interject something here - that unlike most of my peers in the same situation, I never sought 'support' in the form of unemployment insurance or government welfare money. I was (and remain) vigorously opposed to public money being used to support able-bodied young people who are in this stage of trying to 'find' themselves. They are certainly free not to take regular employment if they so choose, but not by taking handouts from the public purse.)

The activities with the rock band were of course just 'playing around'. Even in my daydreams, I knew that there was no chance at all of the group developing into a 'real' band. And when some of the members quit in order to return to school that autumn, the thing just came apart and faded away ...

During these years of doing this and that, I had still been called up to play the occasional musical 'gig', on either flute or saxophone. Late that summer, I had a call from a contractor (a man who books musicians for jobs) who hired me to play on a series of football games and parades at the big summer fair that took place every year at the town exhibition grounds. I was happy to get the work, which would pay the next couple of month's rent, but what I didn't know at the time, was that this phone call would turn out to be another of those major turning points in this story ...

I was playing the alto sax on these jobs, and when I got to one of the football games, found out that sitting next to me with a tenor sax in his hands, was Bill, the owner of the music store where I had previously worked for three years. We hadn't seen each other in a while, so chatted about this and that, and then he dropped a bomb on me: "Hey, why don't you come back and work for me again? I need somebody to take care of our new branch office in Toronto."

As I write this now, I really can't remember what my reaction was to this offer. Hesitant about becoming an 'employee' again? Eager for an interesting challenge? I really don't remember my feelings at the time ... But I do remember what the outcome was - a few days later, there I was on a plane headed for Toronto!

From Vancouver to Toronto ... headed directly away from Japan! Of course, at that time I had no idea at all that my future would lie in the opposite direction - across the Pacific. But although it seems that I was headed in the wrong direction, the next two years in Toronto would see the beginning of activities that would put me on a direct path to my current life as a woodblock printmaker.

To Hamura ... via Toronto ...

Visit to a Craftsman

Mr. Matt Brown

I have mentioned before in this 'Hyakunin Issho' newsletter how I have been in contact in recent years with printmakers in other countries via [Baren], the internet discussion group for woodblock printmakers which I started two years ago. This group has been steadily growing in size, and quite an international community of woodblock printmakers has come together. But typing messages to each other by email can sometimes be very frustrating - there are so many things we would like to talk to each other about. So recently, some of the members of the group have been getting together for meetings in various places in America, and last October, I too took a quick trip over there to meet one of the members, Mr. Matthew Brown. Sadako-san and I went together, and we had a wonderful time visiting Matt and then seeing the autumn colours in New England and in Quebec.

Here is our 10,000 kilometre 'Visit to a Craftsman'!

* * *

When we arrived at the airport in Boston, late on a chilly October evening, Matt was waiting for us in the arrival area. In order to pick us up, he had driven many hours from his home up in rural New Hampshire - it seems he was just as eager to meet this printmaker from far-away Japan as I was to meet him! As we drove through the dark streets of Boston and headed out into the countryside on the way to the place we were to stay that night (with family friends of his), he pointed out various sights for us, including his alma mater, Harvard University. Unlike my own truncated university career, Matt's was full length and full of honours ... it seems that there are many possible paths to take to arrive at the same place!

When I first 'talked' to Matt somewhere around two years ago (on my computer screen), I had thought that here was a person with whom I could enjoy an interesting and productive exchange of ideas, and now that we were meeting in person, I found out that I had been correct - the conversations that first evening would have continued all night, had not the other people around us finally suggested, at nearly two in the morning, that it would be better if everybody went to bed ...

The next morning, he took us over to the famous Walden Pond, a place I have always wanted to visit, and as we strolled around its banks we picked up the conversation where we had left off the night before. What did we two printmakers talk about so intensely? Things like what chisels to use, what kind of wood is best, technical points like this? No, not at all. Although later in the week we did move into that kind of discussion, in those first few days we had much bigger fish to fry; what does it mean to be a printmaker, how can one be sure he is creating a coherent body of work and not just a scattering of pretty pictures, are we just making little 'decorations' for people's homes or is there a deeper significance to what we are doing? Big, and difficult questions ... But questions that must be asked ...

I see though, that I am getting a bit ahead of myself in telling you this story. Before I can tell you about Matt's ideas, I have to give you a better picture of who this man is. Japanese readers of this newsletter, even those without deep knowledge of printmaking, know that here in Japan the world of printmaking has two quite different 'faces': the world of traditional printmaking, with its strict divisions of labour, and the world of 'sosaku' (creative) printmaking, with the artist being personally responsible for every part of the work. When sosaku printmaking began, back in the earlier part of the 20th century, those 'creative' printmakers made a conscious rejection of technique in their work; they refused to try and carve beautiful lines, or to print smooth colours. In their minds - the rougher the better. They had to do this to distance their work from that produced in traditional ways.

Everybody reading this newsletter of course well knows my place in this picture - I am not a creative artist; I am a traditional technician. But where does somebody like Matt fit in? About seven years ago when he started to develop an interest in woodblock printmaking, he was working as a cabinet maker, a trade he had taken up after graduation. He got the printmaking bug pretty seriously though, and it wasn't long before the cabinet making started to fall to one side, and the printmaking began to devour more and more of his time and energy, until he reached the point, just as I did around fourteen years ago, where he decided to make the switch and become a full-time printmaker, giving up the other work.

But Matt, unlike the sosaku printmakers here in Japan, has no need to make a specific rejection of anything. He is unencumbered by the heavy history of Japanese printmaking, and thus has free access to any imagery, or any technology. Does this landscape design 'need' a beautiful traditional gradation in the sky? Then use one ... Does this particular print 'need' to be printed on 'hosho' washi, instead of a European paper? Then use washi ...

So Matt is completely free to explore the entire world of the woodblock print, to select what he considers the most suitable elements, and to study them deeply and use them in his work. He enjoys perhaps the best of both worlds - he is a creative and original artist, working with themes that owe nothing to traditional work, but he can be completely willing to accept and use traditional techniques where he feels that he can make better prints by doing so.

This explains of course, why he was so interested to have me visit his home and workshop - for Matt, I am a 'window' into the deep Japanese tradition, a window that he wants to keep open as wide as possible, not one to be closed off and hammered shut, as so many other printmakers do.

Despite this basic difference between us, in other ways we are quite similar - Matt too has a young family (mine are girls ... his two are both boys). He too is self-taught, working mostly by trial and error, but being willing to accept advice from more experienced workers at every opportunity ... He too, is making a living from just his woodblock printmaking activity, something very rare in any country ...

Another area where we share the same philosophy is that of the need to 'educate' our collectors. From many years back, I have considered it very important to make sure that the people collecting my prints know as much as possible about 'how and why' they are made; Matt too, does the same thing. His task is more difficult than mine; here in Japan most people have a background that includes some knowledge of woodblock prints - they basically understand what they are looking at - but over in America, people have no such knowledge - Matt has to 'teach' them what a woodblock print is, right from the ground up. Every time he has an opportunity to show his prints, either at exhibitions or New England craft fairs, he sets up a series of panels that show something of the history and process of woodblock printmaking, and of course he does demonstrations of the process whenever he has a chance.

Perhaps the most basic of the many questions we wrestled with during my visit was the idea of 'theme'. Some members of my internet printmaking group consider their printmaking to be a vehicle for social change; they make prints expressing political or activist viewpoints. In my case, I have no such desire at all. Yes, there is ugliness and injustice in the world, but I will battle such things with words, not images. So for me, there is no theme to my work - practically any image will do; my theme is the woodblock print itself - to show people its inherent beauty. But Matt is an artist, and although he too may enjoy prints for their beauty, the image is the important thing. Is he then, a member of this 'activist' group? Well as you can see from the illustrations accompanying this story, he is not. His prints reflect the things he sees around him: his family and the surrounding countryside.

Now what do you think about such a theme? Those activist printmakers I mentioned a moment ago would perhaps say "Waste of time! Just pretty pictures!" (They of course have even stronger words for my reproductive printmaking work ...) But is it a waste of time for a man to hike among the mountains behind his home, to take his sketchbook with him to try and 'catch' the things he sees, and then when he returns home to try and interpret these things in wood, pigment and paper? Well, if this is a waste of time, then I would have to admit that all art is a waste of time. There is a time and a place for battling the injustices of this world - and there is also a time and a place to 'stop and smell the roses', as the expression goes. Those who can find no time for these things in their own lives - for their family and the nearby fields and mountains - are surely missing something very important. It is Matt's mission to keep reminding us of them, and to help us understand how important they are to us. A suitable theme indeed, for a man's life work ...

After nearly a week of most enjoyable discussions, the time finally came to leave New Hampshire, and to say goodbye to Matt and Elizabeth, to 'birthday boy' Nathaniel (he was seven that week) and two-year old Asher. But the goodbye was only temporary, because I'll be back. It won't be easy arranging future visits, not with 10,000 kilometres separating us, but there is no question in my mind that I'll be back here again some time, to climb Smarts Mountain with Matt, and try together again to wrestle some of those big questions into submission. Questions that don't really have answers, but which do need to be tackled ...

See you then, Matt!

Space to Live ...

It is nearly fourteen years now that I have been living in this Hamura apartment. Japanese readers of this newsletter know what a 3DK apartment is like, and hearing that I live here by myself, will probably think "Wow - all that space for just one person!" Western readers however, if I give them the information that the entire area of the apartment is just a fraction over 600 sq. ft., may have a different reaction, and the phrase "all that space" is not one that will readily spring to mind.

Now a 3DK apartment does indeed provide a reasonable amount of living space for one person, but 'living' is of course not all that I do here ... this is also a workshop - a very very busy printmaker's workshop. On my tax return last year I charged 50% of the expenses of this apartment against my income from printmaking, but in reality that figure is far too low. Walking around the rooms now, to try and make a more realistic estimate, I see that 90% would be closer. Every room is jammed with printmaking tools, books and supplies; woodblocks are stacked everywhere; the closets are all full of prints and more blocks; a mountain of envelopes and cardboard wrappers for shipping prints fills another room; three large crates of beautiful washi are lined up in the entranceway ... In truth, the only areas here that aren't directly involved with printmaking are the kitchen sink and the toilet - and even a workshop needs those!

Now I'm not complaining about all this - I have chosen to live in Japan, so I must accept (to some degree) a Japanese living situation. But that trip I took to visit Matt in New Hampshire certainly left me shaking my head and wondering what to do about this ...

We stayed the first evening with family friends of his who live in the town of Concord, just outside Boston, and there we had quite an eye-opening experience. Their home sits on a tract of land so large that one can't see the neighbours' house; the building itself is wonderfully large and comfortable, and there is a completely separate workshop area in an outbuilding. Japanese readers are saying to themselves "Of course! America is such a huge country. Japan is so small ...", but that is not an easy explanation for what I saw. Even here in Japan these days there are wide areas of unused land, and indeed in many parts of the country de-population is becoming a major problem. It is not specifically a question of 'how much land' is available. If I were willing to head out into the deep mountains, or live in an isolated village, then I too could have a wide area of land on which to live, even here in Japan. But was that beautiful home in Concord out in the 'wilderness'? Not at all. It was a few-minute stroll into the town ... a town with all the modern amenities one could need: food stores, restaurants, banks, post office, community swimming pool, bookshops ... All just a few minutes away by bicycle ... And the metropolis of Boston was only about 30 minutes away by train, for those times when one needed things that only a major city could supply.

And were the homes in this community all owned by 'rich' people, who could afford to buy such a luxurious life? Well, you know the answer to that too ... Although the very largest homes were presumably owned by people who had accumulated some means, there were plenty of very livable homes owned by 'average' people.

After returning home from the trip, I thought about this a lot. I too, am a person of 'average' income. But can I ever own my own home here in this pleasant community of Hamura? Well, with the recent drop in land prices I could perhaps afford to buy a 3DK apartment like the one in which I live now. But I don't want a 3DK concrete 'box', I want a 'home'. A home that fits my modest needs - a small workshop for my printmaking, storage for tools and materials, a couple of 'private' rooms for my books and personal time, some green space around it ... But what an impossible idea here in Hamura! The only option seems to be to head 'out' into the deep mountains; that is the only place where the land becomes cheap enough to allow me to build such a home. But to do that, means to give up living in society; it means becoming a hermit ... Yes, I would still have an 'internet' connection with the world, but that is a poor substitute for a real community ...

What kind of society have we built for ourselves here in modern and rich Japan, where 'average' people have to choose between these two extreme options - living in a rabbit hutch (and paying a lifelong mortgage for it), or living out in the wilderness? What kind of insane social structure is this?

Some time ago I was discussing these points with a friend, and this person suggested a place in Japan that matched the situation I described: a town with plenty of amenities, but which also provided peaceful green space. A town with restaurants, food shops, swimming pool, reasonable access to the big city ... all the things on my 'want list'. That town is Karuizawa, in Nagano Prefecture. I've been there before, in summer, but last week I took another trip, to look around more carefully and talk to some of the real estate agents ... And now Japanese readers are laughing, because they know what those agents told me ...

They told me, of course, that in order to enjoy the 'privilege' of living in that pleasant community, I would have to pay more - much much more - than even here in Hamura, in the suburbs of Tokyo. Only multi-millionaires, or large companies, could even think about owning land in a place like Karuizawa.

Well, that was quite a shock, although I suppose I should have expected it. But something else I saw during that trip made me wonder if there is perhaps another solution to my dilemma. Karuizawa is a summer town, and as I rode my rented bicycle around I saw that nearly every residence was boarded up for the winter; the people would not be back until next summer. But I also saw a great many homes which appeared to be abandoned, with no one coming to live in them even in the summer, and there were also many empty lots with no buildings on them. The real estate agents explained that in these years following the bursting of the real estate 'bubble' some time ago, many of these owners could no longer maintain their property, and wished to be rid of it.

To me, this seemed like a good opportunity: surely these people must be willing to knock the price down, sell off their property, and move on. But no, that's not the way it's done in Japan. Once property has been valued at some high level, no matter how unrealistic that level may have been, these owners are not willing to accept anything less ... As a result, the situation remains frozen; they have land they cannot use, and someone like myself, who is eagerly waiting to use it, is locked out ...

I then thought that there might be another solution to this dilemma: a land lease. I am now 48 years old; if I were to take a 50-year lease on one of these properties, both sides would be happy. The land owner would retain ownership of his land, and I would be able to build myself a home/workshop in this livable community. The agents again shook their heads. Not in Japan, at least not here in this town ...

So I came back home to my little concrete box, and here I still sit, working away on my prints but daydreaming about the comfortable lives I see my friends overseas living ... Why on earth can't we here in Japan learn to distribute our population more evenly around the land, so that we can live comfortably in a natural environment, and yet still enjoy the benefits of reasonably sized communities? I suppose I shouldn't let this bother me. As I said, I have chosen to live here, because my printmaking work is so tightly connected with this country, so I guess I should just 'bite the bullet' and accept my rabbit hutch life. But I don't feel ready to give up so easily!

Any suggestions? Any advice?


For this year's exhibition I'm planning something a bit special. Those of you who attended last year's show will remember that I prepared a small enclosed area at the back of the room, in which there was a small shoji screen and a sample of one of my surimono prints. I wanted to try and show everybody how beautiful a woodblock print could be when looked at under the proper lighting.

Well this year, I'm going to do something similar - but instead of just one small area of this special light, this time it will be most of the gallery. The entire set of the new surimono prints will be on display in front of screens. It's going to be a lot of work to get it ready, but I think the result should be well worth it. (And for those of you who missed the chance to see them last year, the entire set of Hyakunin Isshu prints will also be on display again ...) As always, I will have my printing tools with me, and will be doing demonstrations each day.

This year's exhibition should be somewhat quieter than last year's show, as of course that one was something special for the end of the long series. But whether many people attend or not, I myself am going to be very content with what I see. A year ago at this time, the idea of making a 'Surimono Album' was just that - an idea. Could I really make the prints? What would the album look like? Would such a project really be worthwhile? Well, I think those questions can now be answered ...

I hope to see you there at Takano in January!