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David Bull: Woodblock Print Artist

"Japan is such a fascinating country! Individual energy is balanced, so that individuals and society operate in step with each other. I'm not going home to Canada. I'm grateful if I can carve woodbIocks, and I'm delighted to see my skills improve - nothing gives me greater pleasure!" The enthusiasm shown by David Bull (47), an English-born Canadian, is enough to make any Japanese happy.

As a child, Bull moved from place to place with his saxophonist father. He studied music at the University of British Columbia, but quit after a year. He also studied flute in London, but soon returned to Vancouver on the west coast of Canada, where he found employment in a music store.

One day he saw some ukiyo-e prints in a small gallery in Toronto, and was immediately hooked. Later, on the transcontinental railroad that spans the North American continent, be met a Japanese woman, whom he later married.

His wife agreed to return with him back to her homeland, where he wanted to study woodblock carving. They brought their two daughters with them, little Fumi strapped to mommy's back, and Himi led by the hand.

To support his family, Bull opened an English conversation school and, using his multifarious talents, made and sold handcrafted wooden toys while teaching himself the art of woodblock printing.

"I was watching the children play with traditional Japanese playing cards, which I had never seen before," he recalls. "Some of them reproduced prints by Ogata Korin, Kitagawa Utamaro, and Katsushika Hokusai. The ones that really caught my eye, though, were by Katsukawa Shunsho, who was active in the mid-Edo period."

"Each of the men that Shunsho depicts has his own individual character. Their faces are similar, but their clothes and gestures are different; it was the character of his men, and the poses of his women, that attracted me to his prints."

Bull has been studying Edo-period woodblock printing for the past 18 years. In the Edo period carving and printing were two separate occupations, but Bull does both, using only technologies that were available when the originals were made over 200 years ago.

"There was a division of labor between carvers and printers, but that era is over." he says decisively. "It's just a natural result of the changing times. If you don't maintain communication with your audience, the quality of your work won't improve. It's no wonder that the old-style artisans have no successors."

Last January, Bull finished carving and printing his reproduction of the last print in Shunsho's masterful series, One Hundred Portraits.

That 10-year project now completed, he's set his sights on new horizons.

With the rapid development of computer technology, Bull is reaching out overseas via the Internet and has created a group called 'Baren' (named after the round pad used to press the paper against the inked woodblock) where members exchange opinions and information about different techniques and materials and with the participation of professional artists overseas, operates on the cutting edge of the woodblock print world.

"lt's just a personal thing," he says, "but I'd like to try my hand at carving four or five lines within the space of one millimetre."

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 ...

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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Shokunin vs Craftsman

During the seven years that I have been living here in Japan and studying woodblock printmaking, I have visited many shokunin and have enjoyed long discusions with them about their life and work. I have been surprised by many of the things they have said, and have come to realize that their thinking is sometimes quite different from my Western conceptions of a craftsman. (1993)
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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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