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 Canada and England has spent many hours bent over his woodblock, 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 One Hundred 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) led to the break-up 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 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.
By December, Bull was selling the 10-set print series to 102 people every month at 100,000 yen each. Since he completed the series, he has found more subscribers for 203 additional sets and 43 subscribers for his next project, a series in “surimono” privately published works.
Bull also said the project was worthwhile. During a recent exhibit of his series, he saw a woman around 70 years old begin crying. “She said that the prints made her remember playing ‘karuta,’ a card game based on the Hyakunin Isshu series, when she was a girl, and that she remembered her mother teaching her each poem,” Bull said. “I’m just printing pieces of paper and sending them out, and things like this happen. It’s pretty neat.” he said.