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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 ...

Artist Recreates Surimono Woodblock Masterpieces

Fascinated by the beauty of Edo-style woodblock prints, Canadian artist David Bull began carving and printing his own versions of traditional Japanese prints almost 30 years ago, just to please himself. Now living in Japan, Bull is one of a small group of craftsmen working to reproduce Japan's popular ukiyo-e and other woodblock prints. (2001)
Full Story.

The Blue-eyed Ukiyo-e Craftsman

Midnight is the best time. The noise and confusion of the day's activities has died down, my two young daughters are lost in their dreams, the roar of the traffic passing on the road outside has dwindled away to an occasional murmur, and my hand is now steady and ready for the challenge. The easy parts are done, the kimono designs, the lettering, the outlines. Tonight I will carve the face - slicing away the rock-hard cherry wood sliver by sliver, and watching as the delicate features of a 10th century court lady gradually take shape in the wood. (1992)
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Woodblock Prints in a Different Light

"Let me ask you a silly question: Have you ever seen a woodblock print before?" ukiyo-e printmaker David Bull asked me. "Of course you have. But do you know how to look at a woodblock print?" He held a postcard-sized print under the fluorescent light in his cluttered kitchen. "Is that a woodblock print, or is it printed by a machine, or is it a photograph? (1999)
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