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In Good Company ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 1:12 PM, April 15, 2015
Jed-san sent over some interesting information the other day, letting me know about an exhibition featuring our work that is starting next week.
It's to be at the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts. The theme of the show is 'Samurai', and our woodblock prints will be displayed alongside other work inspired by that theme.
But what adds a real 'cachet' for us are the other exhibitions also taking place at the Museum at the same time, featuring some other artists/designers you may have heard of ...
Great Wave video - part nine ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 8:38 PM, April 4, 2015
Great Wave video - part 8 ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 9:12 AM, March 20, 2015
YouTube milestone ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 12:35 PM, March 3, 2015
We reached a small milestone last night, after uploading the most recent video in the series documenting the production of the Great Wave print - the cumulative views on the channel passed a half million ...
Now I know that in the wider world of YouTube that's no big deal; there are people who do that with every video they upload. But for us, I think it's pretty cool. We were talking about this in the shop yesterday - a day when not a single person came up the stairs. The staff member who was there with me was kind of going, "Dave, what are we going to do?", and I simply had to remind her that this was still 'early days', and that we have plenty of arrows in our quiver. That same day that 'nobody' came in - over 3,000 people watched one of our videos …
(And I'm very glad that they watched from a distance, and didn't all try to climb the stairs!)
Great Wave video … part three
The next 'Great Wave' video ...
Which way will it go?
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 11:08 PM, December 31, 2014
Wrapping up the year-end bookkeeping ...
It's December 31st here in Tokyo. The shop closed a couple of hours ago, after a very busy day of Print Parties (two pre-arranged, and one drop-in) and general visitors. As all of our staffers have headed off to be with their families for the New Year, I've been handling things here myself for the past few days, and will be doing so until the 5th, when a couple of them return.
The guests at Asakusa today were all pretty relaxed about this though, and for a while there I had two of the Print Party attendees working away by themselves on prints while I talked to a couple of other people back in the shop. When I got back to the Party room, they were proud to show me the prints that they had made 'by themselves'. (The two of them and I had of course already been through the process for nearly a half-hour before the other people showed up ... so it's not like I had simply 'abandoned' them ...)
These Print Parties are turning out to be so much fun! I'm kicking myself for not setting this up years ago. We've got it set up so that people print the colour patterns first, and then print the black outline block last. (This is the reverse of our normal method of printing, but there are various technical reasons why it's better to do it this way during the Parties). I also don't have a sample of the finished print on display in the room, so the combination of these two things means that when the first person in line does finally lift the paper off the last block, it astonishes everybody just how good it looks. "Oh my God! Look what I made!" is a not uncommon thing for us to hear at that point ...
Here's a snapshot from the very first Print Party we held here, back on the day before we opened on November 1st, a family from Virginia (subscribers to our Portraits series, as it happens ...):
Smiles all around ... There is nobody who doesn't have fun doing this!
As I said though, it is now late in the evening of December 31st, and that means that my work for the next few hours is cut out for me. The year-end bookkeeping is turning out to be a massive job this year, as should be expected, what with all the new activities we've gotten tangled up with over the past 12 months.
I've been keeping up with it fairly well during the year - I'm not sitting here looking at a massive shoebox full of receipts that need to be sorted out - but the situation is so complicated (remember, there are now 14 people working for me!) that when I sat down this evening to make the final data inputs and to begin totalling up all the expenses, I myself was still not able to answer the 'big question' ... How did we do this year?
As I write, I've now basically finished one half of the final spreadsheet, the expense ledger. I can't close it off completely, because there will likely be a few more payments coming in over the next few hours before midnight, and that will mean some 'commissions' due to payment processing companies that will need to be included, but anyway, the basic total of how much we spent is now there on the table for me.
During the previous year (2013) we had a total of 13,597,568 yen of general expenses: labour, facilities, materials, publicity, you name it ...
The total for 2014? 24,118,017 yen ... up 77% over last year.
It seems that I personally - because this is a proprietorship - have spent more than 24 million yen over the past 12 months. And I was nervous last year when it climbed well past 10 million!
Now the expense figure by itself means nothing, of course. It has to be paired with another important number - our income. Working that out is going to take me another couple of hours, and as it's now approaching midnight, I think I'm going to take a break and go for a walk.
The large temple just around the corner from here - Sensoji - is one of Tokyo's major places for Hatsu Mode, the first temple/shrine visit of a new year, and all evening long I have seen from my window a stream of people heading in that direction. I doubt that I'll be able to get very close, but I think a stroll over there might be interesting ...
(I'll be back in the morning)
That was quite a 'stroll' last night! It's going to be interesting to look in the newspaper tomorrow and see what the estimate of the crowd was. It must have been in six figures, easily …
I found myself a vantage point at one side of the stairs leading up into the temple, and watched as the police let go of the ropes and allowed the waiting crowd to surge forward up the stairs.
The stream then flowed continuously, with the police letting the river up into the temple in batches of a thousand people at a time, holding the rest back with their ropes. When I tried to get back home, I found my way back to Roku-Dori blocked by that river of people waiting, but the police had set up various 'crossings', where they held it back for a minute or so while people could get across …
Anyway, back to work on the books this morning, finishing up by downloading the year-long transaction reports from Paypal and Square, our two credit card processors. What did I say last night? 'Some' commissions will need to be included … Hah! It turns out that I have paid a total of 882,088 in credit card commissions during the year. Adding them in pushes the overall total of our expenses to 25,000,105 … not 77% up over the previous year, but 83%!
(I wrote about this high commission situation in a previous post here on the Conversations. I think the situation will be changing rapidly during this coming year, with the entry of Apple into the payments field. I don't know if the amounts I pay in commissions will be decreasing or not, but I suspect they will no longer all be going to Paypal …)
So … with the final transactions now all into the various accounts, it's time to look at the other side of the ledger - the income! I've got that broken down into various sources:
Dave's personal printmaking: 1,716,378 This is now a shadow of what it used to be. My personal collectors have probably all now pretty much given up on waiting for my next print, although I myself certainly haven't. The 'Arts of Japan' will indeed get completed, although it is clear to all of us that it will take 'a while'.
Mokuhankan online sales (single prints): 1,936,507 This is revenue from our online catalogue of prints, mostly blocks that I carved for my Surimono Albums sets, and which our young printers are re-issuing one by one.
Ukiyoe Heroes (single prints through Jed): 4,711,990 The main Ukiyoe Heroes series is actually published by Jed Henry himself. He 'orders' them from us - the manufacturer - in batches during the course of the year, at a wholesale price, and sells them from his own website.
Ukiyoe Heroes (subscription prints): 14,036,585 The Chibi Heroes and Portraits prints are our single largest revenue item. This is 'backwards' from the main Heroes series; I am the publisher of these, handling all manufacture, sales and shipping, and pay Jed a royalty on sales.
Kickstarter sales (the September campaign): 3,811,870 This is the gross amount subscribed to the campaign; from this I will have to deduct the part that will be retained by my son-in-law as payment for his two months of construction work, and the amounts that will go to Canadian taxes, accounting, Kickstarter fees, and credit card processing fees.
Asakusa shop sales: 844,298 The shop burst out of the gate in the first couple of weeks, but things settled down after that into a quieter mood. It's of course still running in the red, but we're not in the slightest bit worried about that. It's only been open two months, and will not see any major growth until we get covered in guidebooks and online reviews, both of which are looking very probable …
Adding it all up puts our gross income at 27,057,628 … or 77% up from the previous year, and leaving us with a nominal profit of 2,057,523 for 2014.
I say 'nominal' because there are a couple of rather major things not accounted for in the totals I just gave you. I booked the income from the Kickstarter, but have yet to deliver the 200+ copies of the Great Wave print. I have yet to make them! If the expenses for that were included, the 'profit' would be slimmer indeed …
And of course there still remains the fact that although my expense breakdown shows something on the order of 13 million yen going out for labour - to the 14 people I pay on the 1st of every month, there is actually a 15th person here, who doesn't get one of those pay slips.
My reward comes via email, blog posts, and even YouTube comments: "Mr. Bull, I'm in love with your process and the soothing manner with which you work. You are a legendary hero, at least to me. You are living the dream life as an artist and historian."
It's been an absolutely incredible year, and if you had told me a year ago that I would be sitting here on January 1st in my own Asakusa shop writing this I would have called the men in white coats to come and take you away.
I went back over to Sensoji in the afternoon of the 1st … they were still at it … the same groups of policemen letting people up the stairs in large batches. The Nakamise was still 'one way', and all the surrounding access was blocked off, to allow the river of people to stream from the subway station up into the temple uninterrupted …
Hundreds of thousands of people … all visiting Asakusa to pray for good fortune in the coming year … What do you think? Do I need to join them?
Sad News ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 8:50 AM, December 14, 2014
Good-bye to a long-time friend and supporter ...
I have some unhappy news to report today. Long-time collector/friend Anita Cage from New Orleans has passed away, at 80.
I mention this here, because she has been a frequent commenter on these Conversations over the years, and some of the regular visitors may remember her name from reading some of these.
I'm not sure how much she would want me to write about this, but I certainly see no problem in mentioning a few things about my experience with her. It kind of goes without saying that she was a steady supporter of my work when it came to ordering prints; she not only basically took everything I made for the past decade or so, she made multiple purchases to give prints away to her friends and acquaintances.
But it was her open friendship, and willingness to contribute her thoughts and suggestions about my work that made it a pleasure to see her name in my email Inbox any given morning. She not only posted thoughtful commentary here on the blog, but she gave me plenty privately too, especially if she was concerned that her comments might possibly have been considered as 'criticism'.
I didn't know much about her personal life, but after reading some of the material that has been posted about her on the internet this week, it seems that I was very lucky that such a friendly and supportive person came to develop an interest in supporting my activities. Have a look a this online obituary … and this thread from the MetaFilter group, where the members learned of her passing. She was clearly a very special lady.
I am of course very saddened to hear that she is gone, but am very happy to have known her. I wish she would have given us a better chance to say 'good-bye' properly, but I understand why she did not feel able to do that ...
Two Years in the planning ...
We're ready to announce our new subscription series for 2015!
… and that 'two years' is no exaggeration. Jed and I have been thinking about a certain project for over two years now, right from the time of our first Kickstarter together.
He is a crazy sketcher, and I am a crazy woodblock carver. So it is a no-brainer that we should create a book of sketches, you know … a 'Henry Manga', along the lines of the well-known Hokusai Manga from years gone by.
But we haven't been able to figure out how to actually put such a thing onto the market. To make such a book would take at least a year …
Well, we have finally figured out how to make it happen, and no, it's nothing to do with Kickstarter!
The website is here!
Who am I?
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 8:47 PM, July 23, 2014
A request for feedback and advice from the fans ...
Here's an entire blog post with no images ... can you stand it?
Let's have a break from posts about the upcoming new shop, and deal with an issue that I have been postponing for a long time, but which I can't put off for much longer ... the question of 'identity'. Who am I? (publicly, that is)
A quick recap of the background, for those who aren't familiar with it:
- after some years of training and preparation, I sent my first prints out into the world in 1989, coincidentally the first year of the Heisei era here in Japan. There was no internet; I held an exhibition in Tokyo each January under my own name - 'woodblock prints by David Bull', taking subscription orders from the attendees (mostly Japanese, with a smattering of foreign residents of Tokyo also becoming subscribers). These were the days of making the Hyakunin Isshu series, and the prints I sent out had my signature, along with an embossing showing: Design - Katsukawa Shunsho / Carving-Printing - David Bull.
- in the summer of 1997, I got connected to the internet, and created a 'home page' for my prints, using the space provided for me by my ISP - Asahi-net - here in Tokyo.
- in May of 1998, I registered the domain name woodblock.com, and moved my website to that location, using servers in the US (far cheaper than the Japanese services at that time). 'Woodblock.com' kind of became my 'brand'.
- in 2000/01 I moved my residence to Ome, and because the building had a separate room for a workshop, and also bordered a small river, I began using the term 'Seseragi Studio' ('Studio of the Rippling Brook' might be a literal translation ...) in the materials that accompanied the prints going out. The poets series was now over, and I was making the Surimono Albums series of reproductions. On these prints I embossed a 'baren' mark, and also added my signature. All the work - carving and printing - was done by me personally. There were no assistants of any kind.
- in the spring of 2006, I decided to widen my world a bit, and began issuing some prints made in cooperation with other people (the first printer I worked with was Shinkichi Numabe, and the first outside designer was Gary Luedke). In order to differentiate these prints from my personal (100% self-produced work) I sold them under the brand name Mokuhankan. 'moku han' is literally 'wood block', and the 'kan' is a term implying a (rather substantial) place where that activity takes place. ('Bijutsukan' - Art Museum - is thus 'place of the arts' ... 'Toshokan' - Library - is 'place of reading materials' ... etc. etc.). I registered the domain name mokuhankan.com, and later the Japanese version mokuhankan.jp.
- I added a few prints to the Mokuhankan catalogue, but over the next couple of years, as my personal printmaking didn't go so well (both the scroll project and the My Solitudes project were minimally subscribed, and also took far longer to produce than anticipated), I was in the red for quite a long while, and the Mokuhankan project languished.
- My 'Mystique of the Japanese Print' series (2010-11) was far more successful, and put my bank account back into a more healthy situation. In addition to this, I was facing an oncoming 'milestone' in my personal life. I was about to become 60. That's no big deal these days of course, but it did seem to be that it was time to make some decisions. Namely decide between two possible majorly different life streams:
- keep going as a 'solo' craftsman. Some years the earnings would be good, some years bad ... no pension ... and an inevitable slow degradation in the ability to produce work.
- try and take the whole venture to a different 'level'. Hire people; train people; publish prints produced by other workers; build a structure that would (hopefully) be able to continue operating once I was no longer able to be productive myself. Within that (stable) structure, I could 'run my time out' peacefully, and the degradation of my own personal skills wouldn't matter so much, as I would be surrounded by capable people.
- So in the spring/summer of 2011 I decided to give it a go, and hired the first trainees for Mokuhankan. (These events are all covered in a lot of detail in the back postings on the Mokuhankan Conversations blog, accessible from the 'Table of Contents').
- At this point we don't need to get into the dramatic ups and downs of the next few years; we nearly hit bottom, but came up to the surface again after meeting Jed Henry, and are now doing quite well. If you have seen recent posts here, you know that we are now about to open a retail space / event space / workshop down in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.
But - to finally get to the point - we have to decide 'who' we are. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the brand name 'Mokuhankan' that I created a few years back has some major problems:
- it's meaningless to people who don't know what it means (if you see what I mean ...)
- even for people who do have some idea of what it means, it's an overly long word, and difficult to remember.
- the symbol I chose for our logo mark (the baren you see at the top of every page of our site) is meaningless to people who don't know what it is. I showed a Photoshop mockup of a proposed sign for our building a while back, but more than a couple of people have suggested quite strongly that I not do that, because most passers-by won't have a clue what's behind it. People have suggested I use a large illustration of some famous Hokusai print ... something recognizable by everybody who comes by. (NO! Not in thousand years will I do _that_!)
Should I abandon 'Mokuhankan' and go back to using my own name? I really don't want to do that, for a couple of reasons:
1) I have kept my own name (and signature) strictly for prints that I myself produced (all carving and all printing). I don't want to confuse that issue ... I am very proud of that work, and am terrified that future viewers will be saying, "Oh, that Dave Bull guy ... you know of course that he didn't do the work himself. He hired people to work for him ..." To avoid this, I intend to maintain an absolute separation between the 'Seseragi Studio' work - with my signature and baren embossment, and which I produce totally alone - and the Mokuhankan work, which is 'all hands on deck' ...
2) what happens later, when I'm no longer part of the picture?
So there we have the conundrum - what identity to use for this venture moving forward. It's clearly a decision that has to be made as soon as possible. What should the sign say; how should we identify ourselves; what web address should we use ... who are we?
1) Mokuhankan - home of fine woodblock prints. (URL: mokuhankan.com)
2) David Bull, woodblock printmaker (URL: woodblock.com)
3) Maybe we could even use the domain as the business name - a large sign reading [WOODBLOCK.COM] - surely people could remember that one.
4) Starting just yesterday, a new option became available: [WOODBLOCK.TOKYO] That's also easy to remember, although I have no idea if the use of .tokyo as the domain name would just be too confusing, as everybody is used to the standardized .com style ... (Try typing the words woodblock.tokyo into your browser location bar ... I think it should have propagated through the DNS system by now ...)
Anyway, I would very much like to hear your thoughts and advice on this question. I myself really have affection for the Mokuhankan brand that I have created over the past eight years or so, and am resisting the idea of abandoning it. But if it won't work in the marketplace, then I should clearly bite the bullet and move on.
Grab Bag ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 12:05 AM, July 14, 2014
A catchup of recent activities ...
Here's a random catch-up on a few of the activities on (and around) my desk this past week or so ...
You might remember that I mentioned a recent 'flood' of orders stemming from a video blogger chatting about the Portraits series a few weeks back ... Well, having a bunch of new orders is nice, but this is where the rubber hits the road ... one by one by one ...
We're now caught up with the first three prints in the series for these new collectors, and are ready to start work on #4 - working in tandem with our current carving and printing of the newest one, of course.
But the Demon King isn't the only SuperHero on my bench this week; I'm also doing a batch of 120 copies or so of one of the reward prints from Jed's Edo Superstar video game Kickstarter project.
This should have been mailed some weeks back, but there was just no way to fit it in. But I hope the collectors won't be too disappointed when they receive it; at least they're getting a copy hand-printed by the workshop master here! :-)
While I was printing those this morning, I was 'interrupted' by something walking along in the river below, so I grabbed a quick snapshot of the visitor ...
These are called ao-sagi in Japanese, so I guess this must be a Blue Heron? He comes and goes quite frequently, but he's very difficult to get photos of. If I crack the door just a smidgeon, to try and get out on to the balcony to get a better photo, he's off in a flash ...
And for our last photo today, I'm just in time, because the staff here has got to the bottom of the box on this one very quickly, and there are only two left ...
This one was funny actually. I spent the best part of two days working with the NHK crew last week, far more than I should have. (The program in question doesn't feature me much at all; simply I am one of the people they contacted to add 'colour' to their main plot ... the program is about the Japanese art genre bijin-ga, and as there is an overlap there with my world, they asked me to contribute.)
The NHK people have my financial information on file, and at the end of any given session of filming (for the recent Journeys in Japan episodes, etc.) the producer simply asks me if there have been any changes, and when I tell him 'none', a deposit will arrive in my account sometime in the following month. They're a public broadcaster, and don't pay 'top' rates, but they do take care of you ..
But this time was different. As they were packing their truck at the end of the final session, the producer approached me, and I noticed with some trepidation that he was carrying a small shopping bag. No! But ... yes ... he gave me the bag, thanking me profusely for my time and trouble, and a minute later, off they went.
Well, at least they were tasty ...
A 'spot' of trouble ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 5:11 PM, June 24, 2014
We _desperately_ need more (capable) printers...
About six weeks back, I made a few posts in a row about Raining and Pouring, in which I mentioned that because of some recent wonderful publicity tossed our way in the gaming world, we have had a dramatic boost in subscribers to our Heroes Portraits series. To handle this, we need more printers, and I talked about how I had been given an introduction to a workshop down in Kyoto - a place that was highly recommended as being completely capable of handing our level of work.
I followed up on the introduction, made a quick Shinkansen trip to Kyoto for a day, and set things up with the workshop master. He is about my age, has been running the workshop for most of his life, and (I understand) inherited the thing from his father (and perhaps previous generations; I'm not sure about the exact history of the place.)
At the time I visited, his own workbench was bare, but three printers were busy beavering away on a variety of different prints; one was making some kind of buddhist image on commission from a temple (he told me), a young girl was making some kind of small tourist-type prints, and a young man was working on quite a large stack of Hiroshige ukiyoe prints. These guys seem to be covering a lot of bases!
I discussed my requirements with the master, showed my sample image, the blocks, and my stack of paper (enough for 150 copies of the design). He inspected it all carefully, we discussed details of the work, talked a bit about price and deadlines, etc. etc. and agreed that they would take on this job.
While I was sitting there, a phone call came in - it was from the carver back in Tokyo who did the introduction. He was a tad worried that I would not be able to properly explain my requirements, so was adding his voice to the mix. He explained to the workroom master just what kind of printing job I was expecting to have done - specifically mentioning that this was traditional 'ukiyo-e' type work, with rich smooth colour, printed with transparent pigments, fitted properly into strong outlines. (It was worth emphasizing this, because a lot of work done in the Kyoto tradition is different, utilizing opaque pigments gently applied on 'top' of thick hard paper.)
But the communication seemed to all go well, so I left the job there and returned to Tokyo. I guess you can perhaps guess why I am blogging about this today ...
Yes indeed. We received the package of 150 prints the other day, and they are all unusable. Here are a few images; first, the sample we gave him (printed by one of the ladies working here):
Here is one of their prints (a random choice, not specifically 'bad' or 'good'):
All 150 of these prints have not been sold in advance, 'just' around 80 of them, so we hit the Action Stations button right away, cut and moistened a stack of paper, and I myself printed up enough to cover the immediate requirements for this week. Here's one from my just-completed stack:
At this small scale they don't look so different, but popup the three enlargements and compare: the overall colour tone (theirs is speckled and ugly all over the print), the registration (their red block is completely off register, including the eye!), the beard ... the hairlines ... It's an absolute mess, and if this was presented to me by one of the apprentices here, I would just look back at them in astonishment ... "Are you kidding me?"
So now we're in a jam, a real jam. Our three outside pros are all tightly booked up for at least the next few months (both with work from us - Ukiyoe Heroes - and from other publishers). The ladies here are all working at the limits of the amount of time that they have available, and it gets worse: Ayumi-san is heading back to her parents' place in the country for the month of August, Shiba-san is off for three weeks now, and Teiko-san has been assigned to working on the planning for the Asakusa project.
As to why this has happened, why they would turn in such obviously bad work, I have no clue. The price I offered was very fair, my deadline was not tight, and I provided the best paper in the country, cleanly carved blocks, and a clear sample. There is absolutely no excuse for what happened. And it wasn't that they had decided that they didn't want our work, because during the (very difficult) conversation that I had by phone with the workshop master earlier today, he actually asked when I would be sending the next job ...