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.
Bull has taken on the monumental task of recreating a collection of 100 ukiyoe-style woodblock prints using techniques from the Edo era.
The collection that Bull chose is from a rare book published in 1775. The book contains portraits of the Hyakunin Isshu poets made by Katsukawa Shunsho. According to Bull, Shunsho was "the leading designer of the 1770s just before Utamaro."
Bull, a 37-year-old Canadian, claims to be the only foreign carver and printmaker in Japan working in the intricate ukiyo-e style. He says he has always had a great passion for Japanese woodblock printing.
"Although I did not have any background in art," he says, "I developed a strong interest in traditional woodblock printing eight years ago, when I was still in Canada."
Seven years ago, Bull made a three-month trip to Japan, learning as much as he could about the art from professionals in the field. In 1986, his interest in the art and a keen desire to develop his skills finally lured him and his family to Japan.
Bull's decision to take on the current project, however, came by accident.
"It all started when I came across the book last year at a Tokyo museum," he says.
Bull says he fell in love with the 18th century volume the minute he saw it.
"What is special about the collection is that the characters are portrayed not in a stylized, expressionless manner, as was frequently the case when depicting historical figures of this type, but as individuals with personality and character," he says.
"The lines of the gorgeous kimono sweep across the page and are balanced by the delicate calligraphy of the artist Shunsho, who in addition to the figures, also drew the poetry."
Although Bull's original intention was to produce copies of the collection for his own personal enjoyment and study, it was not until he completed the first print of the series that he decided to seriously take on the project.
"This January, I completed the first print of the series," he says. "When I showed it to a friend, he told me that he wanted a copy, too.
"It was then that I perceived the completion of the entire collection as an opportunity to not only perfect my skills, but a chance to actually earn a living as a real shokunin (craftsman)."
To capture the spirit of Shunsho's drawings and calligraphy exactly as they were produced more than 200 years ago, Bull decided to reproduce the entire series page by page using traditional techniques and materials used by Edo-period carvers and printers.
The greatest challenge for Bull, however, is having to juggle the tasks of carving, printing and publishing.
"Traditionally, these tasks were done by three individual artisans," Bull explains.
As a result, progress on the project has been slow. Since March, Bull has only been able to produce five prints.
"At this rate, the project will most likely take me a good 10 years to complete - it will be a lifelong project," he says.
But speed is not what Bull is after.
"As I see each print in the series come to life under my hands, I experience a tremendous thrill of satisfaction and accomplishment," he says. "I want to get better with each print."
Bull says he has no desire to produce his own original designs.
"My only desire is to be a good shokunin, like those in the days of Edo."
There are only 20 carvers in Japan still producing woodblock prints in the traditional art form, and Bull is the only foreigner among them.
Because half of those carvers are well into their 70s, it appears that the best chance of preserving the art lies in the busy hands of David Bull.
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 ...
'Youngest' Ukiyo-e Craftsman
Ukiyoe, the Japanese art form most familiar to foreigners, was not always highly appreciated. In its earlier days during the Edo period, ukiyoe prints were used to wrap fish, similar to how people use newspaper comics to wrap garbage. Though its reputation gradually improved, mainly due to its popularity with Westerners, it may be to no avail. Ukiyoe and the traditional woodblock printmaking craft is dying in Japan. With less than 40 members in the crafts guild, all of them over 60 years old, and no apprentices, this art form is close to extinction. (1992)
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. (1999)
Traditional Craft, Crisis or ... ?
As a worker in the field of traditional Japanese crafts, one of the most common things I hear from visitors to my workshop is, "Isn't it a pity that wonderful crafts like this are dying out nowadays." We sometimes tend to view traditional crafts as being superior to modern ways of doing things, but I have to wonder about this. I am sure that the craftsmen of old did not view their work in special terms. I think that they were simply people 'doing a job'. (1994)