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'Hyakunin Issho'
Newsletter for fans of David Bull's printmaking activities
Issue #41 - Autumn 2000
Contents of this Issue:


Are you enjoying your 'Bunka no Aki'? Got time for a bit more 'culture'? Well, here's the autumn issue of 'Hyakunin Issho' to bring it to you ...

The 'Halifax to Hamura' story is still rolling on step by step. I received a bit of feedback from a reader a while ago who commented that he could never remember where the story had left off in the previous issue - after three months had passed he had always completely lost the thread. I understand the problem, but am not sure that there is anything I can do about it - I certainly can't start sending you this newsletter on a monthly basis! I too have the same problem when I sit down to write the story each time ... just where did I leave off? I have to re-read the previous issue to find out where to pick up the tale ...

Our main feature in this issue is a story that I have been meaning to write for quite some time, but have always postponed. Why? Well, it's a bit like the philosopher who manipulated his words in such a way that he managed to prove he couldn't exist ... and then vanished in a puff of smoke! I want to describe to you how my printmaking work is actually an impossible job, but as I do so, I'm looking around carefully to make sure that I'm still here!

I hope you enjoy this issue ...

From Halifax to Hamura

After that first glance at Japanese woodblock prints in the small gallery in Toronto I was quite interested in learning more about them. Of course I tried to find some books on the subject, but had no success; I was able to find a number of 'art' books showing illustrations of Japanese prints and discussing their history and subject matter, but I found absolutely nothing about the prints themselves, particularly information on how they were made, which is what I was mostly interested in.

So did I get a knife and a piece of wood and try making a print? No, that first experiment didn't take place until about a year after this; I had other things on my mind, namely how to get the organization of our business computerized. My researches and experiments with computer programming had convinced me that a computer could be not just an extremely useful tool for our business, but could transform it. Bill, the owner of the company, was just as convinced on the other hand that I was wasting my time exploring that avenue - he felt I should be concentrating on building up our present business, not worrying about some mythical future. In this he was absolutely correct, and I knew it. The problem from my point of view was that the skills needed to do that job of building up the business were simply not skills that I possessed. I was not a bad 'organizer', and the shelves and stock control in the store were well managed, but I was completely unable to do the other main part of the job - getting out into the community and getting people into the store.

Bill was very good at this - when he was in town he would jump in his car and drive out to meet potential customers, chatting easily with them, taking them out for drinks, etc. etc., and drumming up business. His visits always resulted in an upsurge in sales and increased activity all round. The two of us had known of this incompatibility in my character all along, and indeed the offer of the job as manager had originally only been temporary until somebody else could be found to do the job properly. But we had sort of settled into a routine, and I began to feel uncomfortable in the position.

So one day during my second year in the job, I told Bill that I would have to leave. I didn't just walk out of the job, but tried to line up a person who I felt would be able to do the job better than I had been able to. We made the transition and a couple of weeks later, I put my few possessions in storage, got on my bicycle, and rode out of town.

I was 28 years old. I had failed at flute playing, failed at 'business', and generally just fooled around with a number of other things. But I didn't feel heavy about any of this, and certainly didn't think of myself as a failure. I had no ties, no liabilities, plenty of basic confidence, and a generally positive outlook on life. I didn't have the slightest idea what I was going to do to support myself from then on, but assumed I would be able to think of something. And anyway, for the short term, I did have a plan. It was early summer, and I rode my bicycle out of Toronto that day with a clear destination in mind - a skydiving club on a farm near a small town in southern Ontario. On the back of my bike I had a full kit of camping gear; I had arranged with the club owner that I could use a corner of the dropzone to set up camp for the summer. This I did, and I spent the next three months throwing myself out of airplanes.

The first few jumps were, as one would expect, pretty terrifying, but I soon got over the raw fear and started to enjoy myself. Although readers of this newsletter may have an impression of skydiving as being something incredibly dangerous, it isn't like that at all. Most of my jumps (up to five or six each day) were made from an altitude of about 10,000 feet, and from that height one can fall for about 50 seconds before it becomes necessary to open the parachute.

I will never forget the experiences of that summer, those long glorious free-falls in the wide blue sky with things on the ground so far below that they were indistinguishable, the jumps with seven other people to form a 'ring' in the air as we fell, and even two occasions when things didn't quite go according to plan and I had to use my reserve parachute ...

All experiences never to be forgotten ...

Mission Impossible!

Unlike many people, I have a job that leaves a clearly visible 'trail' behind me that shows just how well (or not!) I am doing my work. 'Job performance' is not so easily measured for some, but in my case, it is an inescapable element of my life. There sit the finished prints - a long line of them extending back many years - and they constitute a record that can be easily examined by anybody who cares to ask the question "How well is this guy doing his job?"

The question is relative of course. The prints I made back at the beginning of my Hyakunin Isshu series look terrible to me now, although at the time I was very pleased with them. Back then I had no idea at all just how difficult this job was; I knew I was inexperienced, with a long way to go to develop my skills, but at the time I had not yet realized that this job - making reproductions of traditional Japanese prints - is actually impossible. I mean this literally - to make an accurate reproduction is completely impossible. Perhaps I should try and explain ...

* * *

One area where my work has greatly improved over the years is calligraphy carving. Here is an example from 1988 (on the left) compared with one from a few years later (over on the right).

The difference? Aside from the obvious 'chips' here and there in the older work, it is that the curves on the lettering on that one were carved in 'steps', with the knife pausing as it moved around each curve. As the years have gone by, my wrist has become much more flexible and can move around the curves without quite so many jumps and breaks. I have slowly developed the ability to make the lines taper and swell as needed. The lines on the older print look as though they were drawn by a clumsy robot; those on the newer one are carved.

This is a bit of a silly game though ... if one picks very bad prints for comparison anything will look good! Connoisseurs who really know what woodblock prints should be ... they are not fooled by a trick like this. Let's look at a closeup of one of the prints from my first Surimono Album, a design by Shibata Zeshin.

Those small curliques are ... what shall I say - less than elegantly carved. The curves are raw and ragged; they're not much better than the twelve-year old calligraphy sample I just showed you!

Here's a quote from William Ivins, a former curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (speaking here about nineteenth century reproductions of old European woodcuts, but in words that would apply to my own reproductions ...)

"Every line is different - every line is stupid - and the whole character has changed ..."

Aren't I being a bit hard on myself here? Those lines are extremely small; is it really possible for such tiny things to be carved with elegance? Well, if we change the verb tense in that question ... " was it possible for such tiny things be carved with elegance?" ... I can answer it easily: yes!

Take a look at this scan showing an enlarged small portion of a kuchi-e print from the Meiji era, carved by 'just' another one of the innumerable carvers of that era. We have no idea of his name - such things weren't considered important back then. But look at his work - every dot and line in this print is alive!

In defense of myself I have to point out that the old carvers and I have rather different approaches to our work. They started out at a very young age, apprenticed to strict masters, worked long hours seven days a week with time off only for festival days, and pretty much lived their life at the carving bench. My life is of course very different: I print as well as carve, I don't work anywhere near the long hours they did, I have never had a 'master' (strict or otherwise!), and I spread my energies among many other activities ... So of course they were good! Their world was very narrow, but very deep indeed. Mine is the reverse ... wider than they could ever imagine, but as a consequence, quite shallow everywhere.

But this sounds like I am making excuses for poor work, and I'm not going to do that; I've been working on prints for around twenty years now, and even though I spend a lot of time with other projects (the one I'm typing right now for example!), twenty years should count for something! No, my work is not as bad as I am suggesting here ...

I think we have to consider another reason for the difference between my prints and those spectacular old ones. The carver of the original print worked from what was known as the hanshita - a sheet of very thin paper carrying the design and which was pasted onto the block. This hanshita was the 'original' behind every print.

All that was necessary was for the carver to then carve it - seemingly a simple job. But I suggested that this job is actually impossible, and here is what I mean:

Try this experiment - take a pen and a sheet of paper and sign your name. No problem of course, and the pen sweeps and curves smoothly across the surface of the paper. Next take a sheet of thin transparent paper, lay it on top of your signature, and try and make an 'exact reproduction' of what you wrote the first time. It simply cannot be done. You have two choices:

  • (a) slowly and carefully guide the pen over each line, trying to make your copy. When you have finished, and inspect the work, you will find that though you may have been 'on the lines' the result looks nothing at all like your signature - it is stiff, wooden and lifeless. "Every line is different - every line is stupid - and the whole character has changed ..."
  • (b) now put your pen at the starting point, and quickly 'do' your normal signature again. When you have finished, you will find that although the result now has similar 'life' to the original, the position and details of all the lines has changed.

Faced with these alternatives it would seem that the best way for a carver to approach making a woodblock print from a designer's hanshita would be to take the lesser of the two 'evils' and work in the second method - not worrying too much about the absolute position of each line and dot, but simply trying to carve naturally. The resulting print would vary somewhat from the original design, but it should have the same character.

That sounds like a nice idea ... but there is one very large catch. Go back and play the signature game again, but this time try and make the reproduction of another person's signature! Now which of the two methods will you use? Neither one will work! If you 'stay on the lines' the result is lifeless; if you draw 'freestyle' you lose the individuality of character that was expressed in the original. This is what I mean when I say "... to make an accurate reproduction is completely impossible".

And this, of course, is the situation we traditional carvers face with every stroke and line and dot of every print we make. We must carve those Hokusai lines, Sukenobu lines, Hiroshige lines ... do it as closely to the original as we can, do it with 'life', and yet do it all in such a way that the artist's individuality still comes through! We carvers walk a very fine tightrope with every stroke of the knife, trying to find this balance between 'authenticity' (staying on the lines) and 'character' (carving living lines).

But my story does not end there, because there is one further thing to point out - the Edo and Meiji carvers had something I do not, and can never, have ... they had the original hanshita! All I can see of course, is the print that they carved from the original - I can see their interpretation of the original strokes, but I cannot see the original strokes themselves! My work is thus doubly difficult when compared to theirs ...

In those moments when I am sometimes feeling 'down' about my work, I wonder if I will ever be able to surmount this obstacle and produce truly beautiful prints. Yet at other times, when I enjoy looking through my completed albums of prints, I feel deep pride at seeing how far I have come along this path.

So where do I go from here? Will I ever be able to make 'good' prints? The answer to that question is unknown of course - I must just keep on plugging away. I may feel as though I live in one of Zeno's paradoxes - no matter how closely I approach the 'finish line' I can never cross it - but hey, the journey's the thing ...

Essay Corner
Cultivating a Satisfying Life

As I sat working on my woodblocks the other day, I tuned to the BBC World Service on my cable radio, and listened to a very interesting program about gardening. Now right away, anyone who knows me well might wonder about something quite strange in that last sentence; namely my juxtaposition of the words 'very interesting' and 'gardening'! I wrote recently of visiting gardens in Canada with Sadako-san, but of course those visits were at her instigation - left to my own devices, I would probably have gone hiking instead! Before all those among you who are blessed with green thumbs (including Sadako!) get angry at me, I should hasten to explain that it's not that I have any particular negative feelings about gardening - and indeed I quite enjoyed those visits - it's just that I've never really felt any good at it; I have enough on my hands simply trying to keep my house plants alive without taking on responsibility for a garden full of problems ...

Why then, did I find the program interesting? Well, it wasn't really about gardening, but rather about gardeners. More specifically, it was a half-hour broadcast made up of the reminiscences of a group of men who worked as gardeners on various English country estates in the first half of this century. They were thus very old men indeed, and as most of them were relatively uneducated 'countrymen', it was sometimes quite difficult to understand their speech. I nearly turned it off at first, but for some reason kept it on, and during the half-hour, became gradually more and more intrigued by what they were saying.

The stream of memories all revolved around one main theme: the incredible harshness of their life and work. They laboured from early morning through to evening, six days a week. They had no mechanical aids to ease the work, only the most basic of tools. They were treated almost as serfs by the 'gentry' who employed them, and of course the remuneration they received was paltry indeed. For 29 minutes this recitation went on, and although the story they told was unremitting in its depiction of the hardships and tribulations of their working life, their voices, old and cracked as they were, told a different story.

Not one of them spoke with any bitterness about his life. Not one of them had a single negative word for his past situation. Their voices rather, were full of pleasure in remembrance of these hardships ... and how they had come through them. This was a group of men very proud of the work they had done, proud of the obstacles they had overcome, and very proud of the beautiful gardens they had created.

And then, in the final minutes of the broadcast, the voice of one very old man, toothless and wavering with age, summed up their feelings. "I'd do it all again, I would. I don't regret one minute. I'd do it all again ..." For a man approaching the end of his life, to look back and to say this, seems to me to be the best possible indication that his was a life well spent. How many of us can say the same?

Our soft easy lives, our short working hours and frequent holidays, our multiplicity of creature comforts ... are these things really adding to our enjoyment and satisfaction? When we get near the end of the line and look back, will it be the 'free and easy times' that we recall with pleasure, or will it be those things we accomplished under adverse conditions?

What am I suggesting? That we all return to a life of medieval serfdom? No, of course not. But those words from this group of very proud men do serve to remind us that the easy path is not necessarily the best path. When the road is straight and level, we are inclined to 'switch off' and run on autopilot. We tend to coast, and anybody coasting is obviously going downhill ... We need challenge. We need hardship. We need firm, and even restrictive boundaries. And given these things, along with one more ... a job to do, a goal to reach ... we are at our best.

There is something of a paradox here. Over the course of many centuries, many men have worked hard to improve the lot of mankind. They have obtained their satisfaction from the creation of such things as medicines, washing machines, automobiles, telephones ... all those myriad things that make our life easier. Why is it then, that so many of us now sit here, in a modern world full of these things, and find it so difficult to find fulfillment in our activities? Although many of us do indeed think we have a 'hard' life, and complain about our employer, or our living conditions, or this and that, could the problem actually be that we have it too easy ...?

These days, most of us no longer meet with any real challenge or hardship in our daily lives. And in consequence, the days pass by, one after the other, in an eminently forgettable stream. And when we get to the end of the line, and are looking back over our life, will we be able to say, as that old gardener did, "I'd do it all again, I would."? Sometimes I wonder ...


You may remember that on the front page of the previous issue of 'Hyakunin Issho' I showed you a photograph of my family, taken during our summer get-together. I didn't bother giving any information about the photo because I assumed that readers would be able to figure out who was who. But quite a number of you seem to have been confused, so here's the cast lineup!

Daughters Fumi and Himi are at the bottom of the steps, and behind them is my sister's husband D'arcy. My mother is of course next, with my sister Sherry behind her. The jolly giant next in line is brother Simon, with my father behind him. Missing from the photo are Simon's partner Karin (who wasn't able to leave her job in Germany) and Sadako (who returned to work in Japan just the day before the photo was taken).

* * *

I am now completely buried in the end-of-year rush to get the prints finished in time for the annual exhibition, which luckily for me, is happening this time a week or so later than usual. ('My' spot in the schedule at the Takano Gallery is the second exhibition of each year, but the actual starting date varies with the ebb and flow of the calendar.) It will start on the 25th of January, running for the usual six days, and will feature the current Surimono Album, although as always many of my 'older' prints will also be on display.

There are going to be some very large distractions trying to keep me away from my work over the coming months (more news about this next time!), but hopefully I'll be able to have this year's album completed in time for the show!

I hope I will see many of you there!