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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.

TV Listings

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 ...

David Bull, Woodblock Printmaker

When I arrive at David Bull's home in Ome in Tokyo's western suburb on a cold but sunny morning in late March, he is checking a huge delivery of kiri wood boxes from China. But this time he is not quite satisfied ... (2007)
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13 Another Lucky Number

David Bull is as insistent as he is stubborn. No sooner has he sat me down beside his workbench (the only warm room in the house), with younger daughter Fumi (16) creating a Web page on the computer on top of the "kotatsu," than he is demanding how much I know about "hanga" (woodblock prints). "Hanga were never made to be framed and hung on walls," he states. "Premodern Japan had no such tradition. Prints were objects, not images, to be looked at in natural light. The best way for the art of the craftsman to be appreciated is in your hands, at a window." (2002)
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Enchanting Japan

Colourful woodblock prints - for people all over the world, to hear this phrase is to think of Japan. Japan has a long history of woodblock printing, or hanga, originally for illustrations for books. By the late seventeenth century, hanga in the ukiyo-e style came into its own as an art form, and prints came to be appreciated on their own merits. The many woodblock prints that accurately depict life in the Edo period are excellent examples of this tradition. Whether a print of a geisha, a kabuki actor strutting on stage, or even a completely modern image, the woodblock printing technique seems to provide the perfect means of expression to capture the essence of things Japanese. (1998)
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