Mike Lyon visits BarenForum founder, David Bull

Crowds near Asakusa Shrine, Tokyo.

My Mom, my Dad, my sister and I planned our first "nuclear family" vacation in 35 years. Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto, and Amanohashidate. Twelve days. WOW! What a great trip this was! While my Mom and sister had a free day of their own in Kamakura, Dad and I spent our second day in Japan, April 20, 2003, visiting David Bull.

We were staying at the Imperial Hotel in central Tokyo. Dad and I took the train from Tokyo station West to Ome City, where David lives. The trains themselves were an exciting adventure even though Dave had given good directions. I neither read nor speak Japanese which was something of a hindrance to efficient travel. For example, when we got to the train station there didn't appear to be any way to purchase a ticket. No information desk. Nothing but fancy pay phones and a long row of automated entrance gates. So, after studying the situation for a minute I noticed that some of the gates appeared to be locked open. I just walked through. The gates are highly automated and remain open so that ticketed passengers can move through quickly. But they are rigged to snap shut if you go through without sliding your ticket into the slot. When the gates closed (and I tripped over them) and the alarm bells rang, I immediately saw there was a guard stationed nearby (to catch foolish gaijin illiterates like me). He waved me over and I used my 50 words of Japanese to explain that we wanted to go to Ome. He calculated the price of a ticket to Ome and showed me the amount on the screen of his calculator (I think he'd done this before) and then pointed me back to the fancy pay phone in the entry which turned out to NOT be a pay phone, but rather an incomprehensible ticket machine of some sort, with destinations and instructions all neatly and electronically displayed… in Japanese. I couldn't make heads nor tails of ANY of it, of course. With a sigh, the guard helped me pay for two tickets to Ome city and we were off! Later David Bull demonstrated how to push the "English" button on the Ome version of the same machine which miraculously translated all the text into… English!! But I overlooked that feature the first time.

Eventually we managed to change to the Ome train at the right station and 90 minutes after we departed Tokyo, we arrived in Ome, a very beautiful suburb of Tokyo nestled up against the mountains right at the Western periphery of the city. What a charming and very beautiful town! I handed David's address to the Taxi driver outside the train station, but he didn't seem to have a clue where we wanted to go. Dave's phone number was there along with the address, so the driver called Dave, got directions and five minutes later we pulled up to David Bull standing next to his house awaiting our arrival! My Dad and I felt very accomplished to have so successfully navigated all the way!

When I stepped out of the cab and said "hey!" and shook David's hand, his first words were something like, 'gee… you are not at all what I expected! Your voice is much softer than I expected! I imagined you'd be loud and somehow more gruff! You're not at all the fit and macho guy I imagined!'

For my part, I had in mind the image of a man 5'4" or 5'5" David Bull. Tiny and bird-like and precise with limitless energy. But Dave is more hawkish than bird-like and much taller than I'd imagined – nearly six feet, I'd guess. Precise and limitless energy do hit pretty near the mark, though. Dave seems to be a very straight forward, opinionated (in a good way) and outspoken guy. A dynamic no B.S. sort. Seldom wrong, never uncertain.

Dave shows off a late 19th century woodblock printed magazine insert from his collection.

Dave's smart. Very smart. Very well and very widely read. Mostly self-educated. Huge library. Huge! The books on wood block printmaking alone occupy about eight feet of bookshelf. I didn't have a clue there were so many books written on the subject and hadn't heard of most of the titles. And he's focused. Doesn't waste much time on stuff which doesn't move him toward his goal of becoming a better printmaker. Not that he isn't already a good printmaker. Over here we'd label him a "master printer". Which he denies, of course. I think Dave views himself as an intermediate printmaker. He compares himself to the old printers he's met and he falls short in his own estimation. But there's no question in my mind that he fits the "master" mold. With more than 20 year's experience as a moku-hanga printmaker, he's certainly put in the time.

David and his printing area. Baren collection to his right.

David made us coffee and showed us the ground floor of his home on the mountainside. It's tiny by US standards. Tiny kitchen, a half-bath near the front door – actually half bath is incorrect. It's a room just large enough to houlse a toilet. But the top of the tank is concave with a drain hole in the bottom and a chrome plated water spigot which extends up through the drain hole and then curves back down. So when you flush, the tank is refilled from the spigot with the tank lid doubling as a small wash basin. Very efficient! There's another bathroom off the kitchen, and the large bath inside provides the only winter-time heat (other than a 500 watt light bulb). Before bed, while chilled through from working all day in the zero-degree house, Dave warms the bath and climbs in to soak. Then races into the futon before he cools down again! Ascetic? You bet!

Downstairs. Blocks from prior prints stored in cabinet behind.

There really is something monk-like about this guy. He lives frugally and mostly alone, I think (girlfriend Sadako has her own home and her own interests). He tries to waste nothing. Wood scraps from his on-going home improvement project are stacked for later re-cycling. Newspapers, lumber, scraps too small for blocks, etc. etc. are neatly stacked in his downstairs storage room. There's no unnecessary heat, light, water, wood, paste, pigment, paper, etc. Dave saves his money to buy the best pigments and paper and tools he can find. He's received several gifts from the families of deceased craftsmen. He carefully keeps the slab bench given to him from the widow of a man who specialized in smoothing planks with a plane. He uses a knife passed down to him by the family of an old master carver. He treats these tools with the greatest reverence and respect. As a printer he's completely uncompromising.

David and my Dad talked together for a good hour or so after we arrived. About glass casting. About good books. About politics and the economy. David described his many years-long printing of the works designed by other artists, mostly long-dead. Every ten or fifteen minutes our conversation was interrupted by the blaring of a van-mounted loudspeaker. Elections were coming up soon. Two weeks before the elections, the candidates campaign non-stop. Driving through town announcing all the good things they will do once elected. I couldn't understand a word, of course, but it was LOUD for sure!

Dave showed off some of the prints from his surimono albums. And my Dad said, "Just one thing about all this would drive me up the wall… I mean, don't you ever have the desire to design your own…" And without hesitation, Dave fairly leapt across his small printing table (where he'd been sitting and quietly printing a beautiful copper metal powder onto his current surimono) and thrusting out his index finger as if to impale my poor father he almost shouted, "Hey now! Don't YOU start up with me, too!"… My 78 year old Dad was so surprised! He paused in mid-sentence, fish-faced. His eyes wide open, his mouth opened and closed, he started to speak several times but nothing came out. David leaning into a strong wind, arm extended, finger pointed, so intense. It was quite a moment. And I collapsed laughing. And we talked about it. Design and process. Creativity and craftsmanship. The honing of one's skill.

Dave and my dad. That book case Dave leans on is exclusively books on woodblock printmaking!

I'd brought a bunch of my prints with me to show and get Dave's input which went something like, "Too wet, maybe. Too dry, perhaps. Wrong paper -- nobody could make a decent print on that stuff! Not enough pressure. You didn't carve far enough around your printing areas. Etc." If this sounds like Dave was being critical, nothing could be further from the truth! He was gentle and supportive and his comments always constructive. It was great! Dave demonstrated how he squeezes the 'handle' of his baren to increase its convexity and so put extra pressure on a very small area. We looked at the braided cord of an old and very great baren. I learned that the cord must be placed into its cover in exactly the spot it came from in order to maintain its 'broken-in' feel. Each time the cord is rotated or flipped over, a whole new set of 'high spots' contact the paper and these must be pressed back down over time to break it in again. Eventually, the cord loses its strength in printing (no more bumps in the braid) and must be replaced.

Dave showed me an excellent baren which had been re-covered by the Kikuhide Workshop (top-notch). The bamboo sheath itself was much thinner and finer than any I have received here in Kansas City, and the sheath was tied on extremely smoothly and well. It was a thing of incredible beauty and utility.

While we watched, Dave showed us how he applies copper powder to an area of his current surimono. The paper to be printed is in a damp newsprint stack on a low table in front of him (he prints sitting cross-legged in his "library") and printed sheets go into a similar damp stack to his right. Dave has some dilute hide glue in a bottle on a coffee mug warmer. He applies a bit to a white-glazed ceramic tile reserved for the purpose and he uses a baren-diameter leather "tamper" with a knob attached to pick up some of the glue, and then dampen his block. The tamper is used in place of a brush, as the block is covered in copper powder which would quickly gum up any brush. Then the glue is lightly printed onto the paper. Copper powder is 'spooned' onto the block with a long bamboo tea scoop. The powder is lightly brushed across the still-damp block and then the block is tapped over the pile of copper powder to recycle the excess. Then the paper is re-printed and when the paper is pulled from the block, a beautiful and extremely even copper (looks like copper leaf) has been applied.

"Careful now. Watch out!" Dave calls out to my Dad each time he prints. When I finally ask why he keeps saying that, he explains about health hazards associated with the metallic powders. Not that Dave is overly concerned about breathing the fine copper dust, but he takes a few simple precautions to minimize the amount he breathes in. A small fan -- the kind you'd cool a room with on a hot day -- is set against a low window and it blows outward. The suction side has cardboard taped to it to form an intake duct between the two damp stack tables. Dave's pile of copper dust sits right in front of the cardboard ductwork, so most airborne particles are exhausted outside. Simple and effective.

Dad and Dave enjoy some pickles and tea before lunch.

It's time for lunch. There's a noodle shop just across the street uphill from Dave's home. The proprietor/chef and his wife live there, I believe, but one side of the house is for guests. You enter through a typical shoji sliding door to find two low tables on the right and two on the left side of a relatively large tatami-matted room which is literally packed full of stuff. Live plants, dried plants, dried flowers, lanterns, beads, paintings, a guitar, posters, wreaths, baskets, photos, calligraphy, trees, ropes… Very charming and very alive! The menu is noodle soup. Noodle soup with pork (delicious). Noodle soup with egg. Noodle soup with beef. Noodle soup with seafood. The noodles are homemade as is everything else. This little neighborhood hangout was a highlight of our trip. Dave told us that the owner wasn't too happy to see him move in, as the guy who used to live in Dave's house was "quite the drinker" and the restaurant is a favorite haunt of the neighborhood men. Nightly drinking and socializing and drinking. Dave's not much into that. But it sure seemed to me that everyone got along famously in spite of Dave's relative temperance.

Dave and me after lunch. Dave left half his broth, I ate it all! You can tell by my more satified expression...

After Dave paid for our lunch (thank you so much, Dave, it was delicious!), we walked back over to the house and talked quite a while, then took a tour of the lower floors of Dave's house. His framed in future studio. His gorgeous view. His workshop/storage room. Some keepsakes. Maybe someday he'll buy the property next door. It's a small parking area adjacent to the road supported forty feet above the streambed by a metal framework of somewhat questionable durability. Maybe shoot a low and long dormitory through the scaffolding in order to house those who wish to become disciples – to visit and spend months or years practicing their carving and printing. But not in the house. Too disruptive. Takes time away from the object of everything: Printmaking. Let them be close, just not too close. Well, that's a dream of the future.

Fishermen in river near Dave's home in Ome.

Dave walked us back to the train station. A 15 minute hike through the neighborhood and down the mountain side, along a path and over a large bridge. It was Sunday, and there were lots of picnickers on the river bank and lots of fishermen wading and casting in the river. Gorgeous area! Then up the other embankment climbing through town on the other side of the river. "This guy's a politician. This guy is an amateur horticulturalist. The order of the candidates on the election billboards is determined by lottery." All the Ome gossip. Then suddenly we'd arrived back at the train station. And after chastising us for having bought a one-way ticket instead of the less-expensive weekend pass, or better yet, since we were heading for Kyoto, a week-long rail pass, Dave showed us the button on the ticket vending machine which converted everything to English! And we were off! Great visit, great host, great guy, great printmaker!

Almost time to say good-bye...

Thanks so much for your generous hospitality, Dave!

-- Mike Lyon, April 2003