Japan and Me
David Bull came from Canada to Japan three years ago to learn traditional ukiyo-e-style woodblock printing. When he first put his knife to a block of wood to try and reproduce the beauty that he saw in an Edo period Japanese print, he had never done anything like that in his life, nor had he any background in art. Now he is the only foreign carver working in the extremely intricate Ukiyo-e style and one of only 20 professional carvers in the whole of Japan, of whom at least 10 are over 70 years old. David does not aspire to be an artist producing original works; his sole desire is to be a shokunin, a hard-working craftsman - but the best in the field. He started his first full-scale project - to recreate a rare 200-year-old book - two years ago, and has finished two prints from the work.
"In 1775 an Edo bookshop published a series of portraits of the Hyakunin Isshu poets with illustrations by Katsukawa Shunsho, who was the leading designer of his day, just before Utamaro. We do not know if the book sold well or not, but few copies have survived and the book is extremely rare.
It is a very beautiful and interesting book. The poets are portrayed, not in stylized, wooden format, as was frequently the case when depicting historical figures of this type, but as individuals, whose personality and character come through in the images. The lines of the gorgeous kimono sweep across the page and are balanced by the delicate calligraphy of the artist.
When I first saw this book last year in a Tokyo museum, I fell in love with it. I wanted to own a copy. As this was not possible, I decided to make one for myself, and that is what I am doing now, page by page, using the traditional techniques of the Edo period carvers and printers and the traditional materials: cherry blocks obtained from one of the last suppliers in Japan, and handmade Japanese paper.
I developed my interest in Japanese woodblock printmaking while I was living in Canada. I first saw an ukiyoe-style woodblock print in a small collection in an art gallery, and I thought I'd like to copy it. I bought some wood and carved it. The result wasn't any good, but I was hooked. I just wanted to get better and better. Since coming to Japan three years ago, I've had the chance to see professionals at work, and my work has improved continuously.
But the technical level of Tokyo's professional woodblock carvers is nowhere near what it was in Edo and Meiji. The reason is simple. In those days, people used to start carving from childhood and did it all their lives. So even for someone like myself who is trying to learn the art, there is nobody alive now who can do the same job that they did in Edo or Meiji to teach me. I have to discover the skill again for myself.
I don't want to be an artist. I just want to be a kind of shokunin in this field. Presumably, artists are people who have something they want to say. They have some message to communicate. I don't have such a desire.
My simple desire is to become as good as I possibly can, and it would give me the greatest pleasure if, as I became better, people would visit me and say, "Can you show me how to do that?" And I would be glad to help anyone who wanted to learn this difficult technique, which is slowly dying out here in Japan.
The 'Woodblock Shimbun' has a full selection of TV programs on file. Videos available include some of David's news appearances, complete feature programs, and some short documentaries on his work. The files are in QuickTime format, and can be easily viewed with your browser.
Program listings are on the Index page ...
Woodblock craftsman combines old, new
Day after day, David Bull sits in his workroom almost all day long using his energy to make hanga or woodblock prints. His workroom, housed in his four-story house standing on the side of a riverbank in Ome, Tokyo, has yet to be completed because he is building the room himself by taking time from his busy production schedule. (2004)
Woodblock Man Carves Niche
Woodblock carver David Bull refuses to be called an 'artist' or 'sensei'. "I'm just the guy who carves a piece of wood," Bull said. "All I do is copy what the real artists did." Since 1989, the Canadian university dropout who once played the flute on the streets of London has spent many hours bent over his woodblocks, nose and beard almost touching the surface, as he carved toward a self-appointed goal: the recreation of 18th century ukiyo-e artist Katsukawa Shunsho's 'Hyakunin Isshu: Poems from One Hundred Poets' series. (1999)
'Youngest' Ukiyo-e Craftsman
Ukiyoe, the Japanese art form most familiar to foreigners, was not always highly appreciated. In its earlier days during the Edo period, ukiyoe prints were used to wrap fish, similar to how people use newspaper comics to wrap garbage. Though its reputation gradually improved, mainly due to its popularity with Westerners, it may be to no avail. Ukiyoe and the traditional woodblock printmaking craft is dying in Japan. With less than 40 members in the crafts guild, all of them over 60 years old, and no apprentices, this art form is close to extinction. (1992)