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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 ...

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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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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World of Japanese Craftsmen: Printmaker David Bull

"Have you ever seen a woodblock print?" asked printmaker David Bull, with a twinkle in his eye. Up until that point, I thought had seen a fair few. He then turned off the light overhead and steered me toward the sunlight streaming through the window, putting one of his latest prints in my hands. Sure enough, what had seemed a lovely design under the harsh fluorescent lighting took on a new depth in the soft glow of the winter sunshine. The colors were richer, the fuzziness and subtle grain of the handmade paper was readily apparent and the impression left by the wood-blocks used to print the design could be seen to full advantage. (2001)
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