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Two Years in the planning ...
… 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 …
Who am I?
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 8:47 PM, July 23, 2014
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
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
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 ...
Quarter century ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 6:16 PM, June 18, 2014
Well, I can't quite believe it, but a couple of months back, I forgot about something that I had been thinking of - and looking forward to - for quite some time before. (I can't think of what might have pushed it out of my mind ... :-)
Long story short, this past April - I don't know the actual day - marked 25 years since I sold my first woodblock print here in Japan. I've now been an honest-to-goodness professional woodblock printmaker for a quarter of a century.
Thank you, thank you! :-)
Here I was, one day early that year, with one of the first tests of the first print in the long Hyakunin Isshu series. At this point, I had of course not sold any of those prints; I was feeding my family by teaching English classes (in that same room) four evenings a week.
We took this photo, had a bunch of copies run off, and sent it out, along with a short announcement - "Canadian woodblock printmaker David Bull announces a ten-year project to re-create the entire Hyakunin Isshu series of woodblock prints designed over 200 years ago by Katsukawa Shunsho ... etc. etc.", in the hope that somebody somewhere in the media just might possibly be interested ...
Somebody was, and within a few short weeks of sending out that little pamphlet, I was featured in newspapers, magazines, and TV news programs, in a wave of attention that lasted the full ten years, right up until the end of the series in December of 1998:
And of course, the ride didn't stop there ...
Anyway, better late than never, I'll raise a small glass this evening ... to 25 incredible years ... Kampai!
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 6:56 AM, June 3, 2014
An experience we don't want every day!
Something came up here the other day, and I've been thinking to make a post here about it. The women working here as printers don't think I should do this, but I think that as long as I don't mention any names, it shouldn't cause much problem for them. So ...
In (email) conversation with varous people over the past couple of months, more than one friend has brought up the question of whether or not we can maintain our 'standards' given the recent huge surge in orders for our prints ... It's a good question, one that needs to be addressed, and one that I have been thinking that I have addressed. We basically haven't changed anything here at present, simply we have taken on another group of printers to handle work for us, and these printers come very highly recommended and in any case, I'll be vetting their work very carefully.
So it was a bit of a surprise to me when I opened an email from one of our portraits collectors the other day, to find an image attachment - of the print he just received - along with this note:
Dear Mr. Bull,
I just received the “Bling” print. I just wanted to let you know that the carving looks impressive as always, however the printing doesn’t seems to have the usual quality. The black lines are a little too grey showing the underneath color and it seems that the grey key block was a little misaligned. On the whole this two problems gives a “blurry” feeling to the print.
It’s nothing to worry about, but I wanted to let you know this so that all future prints may retain the great quality and attention to details that is distinctive of your work.
Kind regards ... [name]
Here we are. No question about it, this is a print that should never have left this room. It is misregistered (look at his left leg), the keyblock is poorly printed, and the colours are mottled and weak. I myself check each and every print of the batches produced by our printers, and all I can guess about this is that when I was doing my yes ... yes ... no ... yes ... nope! ... yes .... I must have tossed it onto the wrong pile. The packing ladies then simply followed my instructions, and out it went. There is no one else here to blame for this but me.
Now we got very lucky here; the print ended up in the hands of a very enthusiastic collector of our work, a man who has everything we have produced - all the Ukiyoe Heroes, the Chibi Heroes, and now the Heroes Portraits. It could have gone to somebody as a 'first print' from us! And as you have read in his email, he understands who we are, what we are doing, and is gently concerned that we have headed down a wrong path.
Here is what I wrote back:
This is quite a surprise - that is an awful print, and should never have left this workshop. I'm the one who is supposed to check everything, and I have no excuse for that one getting through.
Our packing ladies are now preparing a replacement for you, and it will leave this morning (along with a little something else in the package). Once it gets there, please destroy the other one; it's not something anybody would want to keep.
If it's OK with you, I'll probably blog about this a bit later this week (I won't use your name, of course). We're having quite a difficult time keeping things together smoothly with the recent huge burst in popularity, and this is a perfect example of how not to move forward, and a very good reminder to us to pay more attention to our core mission - making beautiful prints!
My apologies again for this experience, and I certainly thank you very much for your reasoned response to receiving that defective print!
I'm not sure what else to add at this point. In one sense, it's not a bad thing that this is happening just now, early on in our growth spurt, when we can take the lesson to heart and try to make sure we do better. If people don't let us know about these things, it would be more dangerous, for sure.
Making stuff is difficult. Making good stuff is even more difficult. All we can do is try our best, and then on those occasions when we fall short of our goals, hope that we have built up enough 'merit points' with our supporters, that they will be patient with us.
About that 2nd floor ...
Still no formal news about our Asakusa workshop plans ...
I had hoped to bring an update on the Asakusa workshop situation this weekend, but as I still haven't been able to nail things down firmly yet, it's better if I hold back. A number of people have asked about my plans for the 2nd floor of the building, and I can certainly point you in the direction that my thoughts are moving.
Here's the headline from a news item in 'The Japan News' the other day:
... and a quote from the story (which is here):
The estimated number of visitors to Japan in April jumped 33.4 percent from a year earlier to a record 1,231,500, the Japan National Tourism Organization said Wednesday. The visitor total grew for the 15th straight month and marked a record monthly high for the second consecutive month.
The JNTO expects overall visitor numbers in May to reach a record high for the month on the back of Japan’s eased visa policy and the Haneda flight increase.
Here's another one, from the 'Japan Real Time' blog:
... and a quote:
Tokyo has triumphed over the Big Apple and the city of Gaudi as the best destination for travelers across the world in an online poll.
According to a survey of over 54,000 travelers conducted by Internet travel site TripAdvisor, Tokyo beat out New York and Barcelona as the city with “the best overall experience.”
Tokyo ranked among the top 10 in 13 out of the 16 sections in the survey, and topped five of them, including the categories “helpful locals,” “best taxi services,” and “cleanest streets.”
It seems pretty clear to me that having a presence in Asakusa - one of Tokyo's major attraction zones - is something that carries the potential to transform our business. As I mentioned the other day in a previous thread, it's not the 'tourist trinket' market that we are going to chase; simply we want to make good woodblock prints available to these people, and also - up on our 2nd floor - provide them with an enjoyable, entertaining, and instructive woodblock experience.
I can't wait to get started!
Now on Facebook ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 6:43 PM, May 22, 2014
Mokuhankan is (finally) on Facebook ...
Just to let people know ... we're going to be keeping a bit more active profile over on Facebook from now on. Although I've had a basic presence there for years, I myself don't use the site, as it's simply too distracting to have all the items that the 'friends' post every day pushed at me in a constant stream.
But I have to be the first to admit that Facebook itself has been a huge help to our business. The 'Ukiyoe Heroes' page that Jed set up over there in the runup to our Kickstarter campaign a couple of years ago has been the single most important driver of fans to our work. Bar none.
And now that Mokuhankan is going to have a physical presence here in Tokyo, working on our own public face apart from the work we do with Jed is going to be more important. So there we go ... and the new page has been started.
No exciting and original content is there yet, but I'm going to try to get the staff as involved as possible in creating some ...
When it Rains, it Pours (III) ...
Some background information on our plans for the new building ...
It's now quiet here this evening after a very busy day of work ... not so much by me - I didn't get much chance! - but by the crew here. We had a very rare 'total full house' with all five printers busy, the packing ladies also hard at it, and me trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to get some of my own work done at the same time.
I didn't think to take any photos, which is a bit of a shame, because it was a hugely 'fun' day for us all, and it would have been nice to have some pictures (or video!).
The first person arrived at just around 8:30 in the morning, before I had even begun to prepare the room, and the last one left just after ten in the evening, and I could shut things up and come upstairs and try to relax a bit ...
They're printing Portraits, and more Portraits, and more Portraits, and are having fun doing so, as these designs - by design - are right in the 'sweet spot' for them. There is enough difficulty to offer a challenge and room to learn new techniques and grow, and yet these prints are not so difficult that most of the sheets get spoiled.
Orders for the series are still pouring in after the major publicity hit we took last week, and we now stand at exactly 333 subscribers. As I mentioned the other day, this is far beyond our own capacity to produce (we had been planning to cap out around 250 ... or 50 per person), but we have another workshop lined up ready to print the new augmented edition, and as long as they turn out to be capable, we should be OK.
Now, about that photo I uploaded the other day, showing the building in Asakusa ...
The situation is very fluid still, and I haven't signed a lease contract yet, but have made a verbal agreement with the owner and the estate agent that I will take a two-year lease on the property (renewable, of course). I'm not permitted at present to publicize the actual address, because there are other tenants currently in the building, and we don't want to be bothering them in any way whatsoever with our own plans, but I can certainly divulge that it is very close to the heart of Asakusa, less than a minute's walk from Sensoji, the temple that is the center of the district. We're not going to be on the main Nakamise - the row of shops that lines the approach to the temple - nor do we want to be. We certainly couldn't handle the staggering rent that such a location would incur, and - honestly speaking - it's not going to be the 'tourist trinket' business that we will be aiming at.
When I talked about this the other day, it was with the suggestion that I would be joining forces with some other people to make a move like this, but it has turned out that such a thing will be neither appropriate nor necessary. The space that is available is too small for all of us, so I will be taking it on my own. There will be room for a small shop, a printer's workroom, and as for remainder of the space, I'd like to be a bit coy at the moment and hold that in reserve.
It may seem a bit overly dramatic of me to do that, but after studying the territory - and by 'territory' I mean 'print shops here in Tokyo' - I have realized that we here at Mokuhankan have a kind of 'secret sauce' that we can bring to a venture like this that the other companies are not utilizing (although they certainly could if they thought of it ...).
As we get a bit closer, I will certainly be talking more openly about our plans; I will need to do so, in order that we can hit the ground running. At that time, I'll put up the budget plans, etc. etc. so you can all go over them with a critical eye, in the hope that you can either find holes, or perhaps help convince me that we do actually have a workable business plan.
The timetable is good; the current tenants are (hopefully) clearing the building by the end of October. I would take possession on November 1st, and we should be open in 'test' mode a few weeks later, with the official opening perhaps on December 1st. It's still a bit too early to call. That means of course that Oct/Nov/Dec will be beyond insane for us; we'll be doing gangbuster business with our Gift Prints online just then (although preparation for that will have been done beginning in late summer), and we'll also be getting the new 2015 Heroes Subscription series ready for its January startup (working on the first print and on all the publicity).
In the meantime we have a ton of planning now on the table: a lot of spreadsheet work, project charting, staff training, cabinet building, on-line reservation system programming, store designing, etc. and (infinitely) etc.
And I also have to figure out which technology to use for building our sign, perhaps a canvas one like the small one on our present building, or perhaps a more permanent fully built-out 3D one ...
For now, a quick little Photoshop runup will have to suffice!
New Yoshida prints in the catalogue!
Two brand new editions of a traditional Yoshida design are now in our catalogue ...
How long has it been since we added prints to the catalogue? Don't ask!
But even though much of our time and attention is turned to the Ukiyoe Heroes work these days, we're not completely forgetting our main mission - to continue producing interesting woodblock prints in a variety of genres, and I can announce that two new designs ... er, one new design, two new prints ... are now in the catalogue!
Many of you will recognize this instantly of course. It is the well-known 'Traditional Sailing Boat' design created by Hiroshi Yoshida, and used by him on a number of occasions. This particular version appeared as inserts in the book on Japanese printmaking techniques that he published back in 1939 (in English). A number of actual prints were bound into the book, with the accompanying text giving many details of their production.
By the year 2000, Yoshida's work was just coming free from copyright protection, so I was able to cut my own set of blocks for his design, and included it in the Surimono Album (#2) that I published that year. Those blocks - plus one more added now to produce some of the tones for the Night version - are now being used again for this new edition.
I have not done the printing work myself this time, but asked Mr. Kenichi Kubota to make this edition for us. He is one of the best printers in the country, having worked for many years for the Adachi company. He's sort of semi-retired now, but we cajoled him into taking on this job (along with some more that will be appearing soon ...)
Please head to the Mokuhankan site, and look in the catalogue under the 'Landscape' or 'Contemporary' categories to find the two new prints. And I can perhaps mention that for particularly enthusiastic collectors out there, we are offering a reduced price if you want both of them together!
When it Rains, it Pours (II) ...
An update on some recent publicity ...
When I sat down earlier this evening to write the previous blog post, I hadn't intended to write about the Asaka-san visit, but the stream of what came out from my keyboard went that way by itself.
So before I crash for the night, I should perhaps take a few more minutes and finish up what I had intended to write about.
I began the post by talking about bloggers, etc. covering our work, and that the resulting publicity had resulted in such a good stream of orders for our Portraits series that our printers were now stretched to the limit.
I had then intended to write about this:
Out of the blue a few days ago, a torrent - and that is the only appropriate word - of accesses began to hit our various websites, notably the Ukiyoe Heroes shop run by Jed. Over the following hours, and then days, my email Inbox was deluged with requests for new subscriptions to our Portraits series.
It turned out that one of our recent new subscribers - a gentleman who uses the handle 'Total Biscuit' - had received his prints, had been very impressed by them, and decided to include a segment about our woodblock prints in a recent video blog of his.
The video - a podcast nearly three hours long - is here on YouTube (our segment starts at about 9:00). Just who can possibly spend the time to listen to such things as three-hour podcasts is something I don't quite understand, but I am clearly in a minority here, as the YouTube page shows that he has upwards of 500,000 subscribers to that channel!
In any case, Mr. Biscuit clearly has influence in his community, and - at the moment of writing this - we have received more than 50 new subscription requests for our prints coming from his viewers, and they are still coming in, almost every time I check my email.
I mentioned before that our printers were overloaded, and that we were in need of more people, and I can now add that we are desperately in need of more craftsmen to work for us. The visit to the new Kyoto workshop that I will be making soon is going to be a very important meeting indeed.
If it turns out that they are competent, capable, and willing, then we can get through this. If not, then I have a very big problem on my hands! This project of Jed and mine to revitalize the craft by making woodblock prints based on popular culture might begin to founder on a submerged rock we hadn't foreseen ... getting too popular!
As I said ... when it rains, it pours!
When it Rains, it Pours (I) ...
Things here are really cooking this past couple of weeks!
... and it's raining so hard here the past couple of days, that we're scrambling to survive!
It's not uncommon at all for our work - especially the recent Ukiyoe Heroes prints - to be blogged about by other people. In truth, Jed and I have had to do very little in the way of promotion - game fans all over the world are so eager to do it for us! There's never a day goes by without somebody blogging about us, or posting images to Tumblr or Reddit,
These mentions of our work help to keep a steady stream of people visiting our websites and YouTube channel, and X% of such visitors (it varies widely) will decide to collect our work. Because of this, the number of subscribers to our current Portraits series has grown steadily, and has recently begun to approach the limits of what we are able to produce, given our current makeup of staff.
The five women working here as printers are now stretched to the limit, and the three outside professionals that we have been hiring are also pretty much doing all that they can for us (they also have to accept other jobs - it would be dangerous for them to take only work from us ...)
I have been casting around for other people who are capable of working to the level that we require, and a couple of weeks back, made a visit to Takumi Hanga, the workshop/classroom run by my friend, the carver Motoharu Asaka. He is a very capable carver, in truth the only other carver 'out there' who I would consider for our projects. In the past I have been able to send a bit of work his way, one example being this job:
That was a commission by US artist Moira Hahn, who had called me a few years ago to see if I would be able to make prints for her. I was too busy at the time with my own projects, so introduced her to Asaka-san, who - together with his partner, printer Hishimura-san - produced that edition for her.
When I knocked on the door to Asaka-san's place a few weeks ago (having made an appointment with him for a time when he wasn't going to be occupied with students, etc.) I had a few things in mind. The first was to get his advice on my hunt for capable printers. Perhaps his partner Hishimura-san might be willing to do some work for us, or failing that, could he recommend anybody? The second was to ask (yet again) if he himself might possibly have some time to do some carving for us. And the third was to plant a seed in his mind as to the possibility of sometime in the future perhaps combining forces (my publishing arm, and his classroom business) to open a facility together somewhere in Tokyo. (I'm still trying to creep slowly towards the Mokuhankan 201x vision ...).
I said that this visit to Asaka-san was a couple of weeks ago, and the reason that I haven't blogged about it until now, is that I have been too busy to even think about such a thing. Busy because ... I 'scored' on all three points!
Let's try to chew through the news ... as I said up top, when it rains, it pours, and I wasn't kidding!
The first of the three is easy to cover, as I don't yet have much to report. While I sat there in his room, he made a phone call to a workshop he knows well from his own days living and working in Kyoto, and which he feels is capable of doing my jobs. He described my work to them, emphasizing the kind of quality level and printing styles that I will be requiring, and the upshot is that I will be jumping on the bullet train to visit them next week, with a sample job in my backpack.
He is quite confident that they will come through, and I certainly hope he is right, because (as I mentioned above) I not only need more printers, I desperately (as we will see in another post soon) need more printers. I'll report more about how this turns out after my meeting with them ...
The second point is also easy to report. Yes, he finally agreed to take some of our work! Yippee!
What has happened to cause him to change his mind? Has he become desperately short of work? It doesn't seem so, as he appears to be steadily busy with a mix of carving jobs and his own classroom activities. What has changed is that - now with three/four months of 'history' at this end of having another carver on our payroll (young Kawasaki-san, who is doing much of the carving of the Portraits series) - I was finally able to put some numbers on the table, to show how my 'pay the carvers a royalty' system is working in practice. I was able to show him exactly month by month how it works: how her initial payment was somewhat lower than a traditional 'pay for the blocks' would have been, but how that has been supplemented month by month with recurring payments every time we have taken more impressions from the blocks. And how that will continue endlessly into the future as long as those prints continue to be popular.
He was impressed. And then when I took away the next barrier, by telling him that my 'deadline' for the next job in our Ukiyoe Heroes project was a good two months away, he signed on. I have now sent him a blank block and the hanshita for one of our upcoming designs, the one Jed calls 'Gift of the Dragon':
Now both of these things are very good news, and if these had been the only things resulting from that visit, it would have been well worth my train fare :-) but it was the third thing I tossed his way - the idea of a future collaboration between our two organizations - that has caused the biggest splash.
I didn't spend much time on it during my visit; simply I suggested that because rents and buildings in Tokyo were so expensive, a collaboration might be an interesting concept to explore; I - half jokingly - suggested that with me using space for a shop/workroom; with Asaka-san using space for a classroom; with our friend Ueda-san the used book/print dealer taking space for his own products; with 'somebody' taking space for a café ... etc. etc. ... it might just be possible to find a building somewhere ...
We batted this around a bit over our lunch, and I then left for home, being quite satisfied to have made progress on my two main reasons for the visit, and not really expecting anything to come out of the other suggestion.
But he called me back a couple of days later, and when I heard what he had to say, I jumped on a train and headed straight downtown for a quick meeting on a street corner in Asakusa.
The next part of the story is going to take some time to tell, and I have to get back to my bench tonight, so let's just leave it here for now, with this screenshot from Google maps: