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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.

Hyakunin Isshu is part of Japan's literary canon with some of the nation's best-loved 31-syllable tanka. However, it was the different personalities he saw in each of the 100 figures in Shunsho's drawings and not the poems that drew Bull to his project.

What began as an exercise in printmaking soon grew into determination to reproduce the entire 100 print series at a rate of 10 prints a year. His project ended in the third week of December.

But the 10 years have not been without struggle. "The decision to remain in Japan to do this work (against the wishes of my then wife) pretty much led to the breakup of my marriage," Bull writes on his home page.

Was it worth it? The answer from the Japanese public has been a resounding 'yes'. His 10-year feat has won Bull wide recognition in Japan. He was one of the two foreigners invited to attend the Utakai Hajime, the annual New Year's poetry reading held at the Imperial Palace on Thursday. In the ceremony, tanka written by the Emperor and his family as well as selected poems from the general public are read aloud before a small group of guests.

By December, Bull was selling the print series to just over 100 people every month, at 10,000 each. Since he completed the series, he has found more subscribers for 203 additional sets and 43 subscribers for his next project, a series of 'surimono' - privately published works.

Bull also said the project was worthwhile. During a recent exhibit of the series, he saw a woman around 70 years old begin crying as she looked at the prints. "She said that the prints made her remember playing the 'karuta' game when she was a girl, and that she remembered her mother teaching her each poem," Bull said.

"I'm just making a piece of paper and sending it out, and things like this happen. It's pretty neat." he said.

"I had to stick to a standard printing and carving style during the course of this series. After a while this got frustrating. I can't wait to try different styles of print," Bull said. According to the carver, the series was just training. "There's still a long way to go," he said.

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 ...

Japan and Me

"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." (1989)
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David Bull: Printmaker

The classic woodblock prints made famous by Hokusai and others depict a stylized, long-lost Japan. A chance encounter with woodblock printing at an exhibition in Toronto more than twenty years ago led David Bull down a path that has made him the only artist, Japanese or foreign, working to reproduce those classical prints. (2000)
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Recapturing Edo Images

Squatting in front of a photocopy of an ukiyo-e print in the light from a 50-watt bulb, David Bull puts his carving knife carefully to a block of cherry wood. Under his blade, the image of an elaborately robed Heian minister slowly begins to emerge. "The hardest thing about making woodblock prints is the carving of intricate lines - you have to be able to use your knife like a brush in order to do justice to the fine lines," Bull says. (1989)
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