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... On Subscriptions ...

'At the Gallery - Part II'

A continued conversation with a guest at one of my exhibitions. Part I is here. (These were originally written in 1998 - and before the opening of my Mokuhankan print shop - but are still an accurate representation of my thinking on these topics.)


Guest: Excuse me again, Mr. Bull ...

Dave: Yes?

Guest: It was interesting talking to you earlier. I've been enjoying looking at all the prints, and I really like that one with the woman in the long kimono. It would go very nicely on one wall of my living room. I'd like to buy one please.

Dave: Well, thank you but ...

Guest: Oh, are you out of stock?

Dave: Oh no. I have plenty left. But ... ...

Guest: Excuse me, I don't understand. May I buy one please?

Dave: No. I'm sorry.

Guest: What's the problem? Are you upset because of my comments earlier about limited editions?

Dave: No, no, not at all. I quite enjoyed chatting with you. It's just that ... you see I never sell single prints from this series. Never.

Guest: You mean I have to buy the whole set?! Are you crazy?

Dave: Maybe ... I don't know about that. But anyway, I never sell single prints, but only by subscription, and the minimum order is a single set.

Guest: Why do you do things this way?

Dave: Well, it's a bit of a long story, and there actually are a number of reasons behind this. Mostly though, I guess it's because I'm selfish ... I love these prints very much, and I can't stand to see them become 'decoration'.

Guest: Ah ... it's because I mentioned putting it on the living room wall!

Dave: That didn't make any difference, my answer would have been the same. This is the way I've been doing things ever since I started. But that's a good example. If I sold you one today, you would take it home, get it framed, and then hang it on the wall. That first day you would no doubt look at it many times, and feel quite pleased at having it there. The next day too, no doubt.

But what happens after that ... You know what happens! After a few days ... weeks ... it just fades from view - it becomes just part of the wallpaper. That print - a print that I and twenty other people used all our skills to make - just becomes an unseen piece of wallpaper, gathering dust!

Guest: Twenty other people? I don't understand. You said that you made these prints by yourself!

Dave: Yes, I carve them, and I print them, but do you think for a minute that I could create such works without the cooperation of a block planer, a papermaker, a blacksmith, a baren maker, a brush maker ...

Guest: Oh, I see what you mean! But those people are all just 'background'. Of course we know that you need tools and supplies to do your work, but their contribution doesn't show in the finished print.

Dave: Not if we put it in a frame behind glass, and stick it up on a wall, it doesn't! But that's not how prints should be seen. If I do what you want, and let you go ahead and hang this print on the wall, then the artist who sketched the design would be happy, because his contribution will be clearly visible, but all of the rest of us will feel that our labours have been wasted. You might just as well take a poster of the print and stick it up there. It would look the same. But when one looks at a woodblock print properly, then it takes on incredible life and depth. And the work of every one of those men is apparent!

Guest: What do you mean 'properly'?

Dave: Simply look at the print in the same sort of environment that was common in the days when these prints were born. No electric light shining down vertically onto the paper. No glass frames ... Pick up the print! Touch it! Hold it near a window or a low lamp so that the light falls horizontally across the surface. Then you will see the texture of the paper ... the sharpness of the incised lines ... the absorption of the pigments ... Then you will see a real woodblock print!

Guest: OK, let me get this straight - you don't want people to hang up your prints, so you don't sell one by one. I still don't quite understand the connection. I think the subscribers who are buying your prints are quite probably hanging them up in their homes.

Dave: Yes, of course they are. Many of my collectors have an 'easy-open' frame in which they hang up the most recent print, changing it every month or so. The prints thus become less 'stale', hanging on the wall for a shorter time ... I don't like this, but there's not much I can do about it. But it goes beyond just this business of hanging on the wall ...

Think about it - if I had sold you the single print you requested, we would never have had this conversation. And this is what happens with my collectors. As they are receiving the prints one by one, month after month, and carefully putting them into the case that I provide them with, they are also reading my accompanying essays and newsletters. I talk about this sort of thing constantly, and during the course of their year-long subscription they develop an understanding of my ideas. They 'meet' the other craftsmen, they hear about my experiences while I work and learn about this craft, and they gradually come around to my way of thinking. They learn what a beautiful object a woodblock print really is, not just what a beautiful picture it is. This would never happen if they simply bought one print and then walked away ...

Guest: This sounds wonderfully idealistic. Why did you say a few minutes ago that such an idea is 'selfish'?

Dave: Because if I left the discussion at this point, I would be being less than honest with you. There are other reasons ...

When I was first calculating whether or not my ten-year project to make a series of a hundred prints would really be practical, I ran into what seemed like a major stumbling block. For the series to become reality, I needed two things to happen, and they at first seemed mutually exclusive: I needed to make the prints - and I needed to sell them.

These prints are extremely complex and full of tiny detail. It takes many many hours of work to finish one. And not just 'time', but time spent at my carving bench in a relaxed, quiet and peaceful frame of mind. The carvers who worked on prints like these in the old days just sat at a carving bench all day long. They didn't worry about printing, marketing, designing, etc. etc. So of course the lines they carved reflect their peaceful environment - the work was beautifully done.

But if I were to work like this: Monday - carving, Tuesday - visit to a department store to promote the prints, Wednesday morning - carving, Wednesday afternoon - telephone conversations with a gallery owner about discounts and display problems ... etc. etc. then what would happen? Perhaps I exaggerate, but you get the idea. There is simply no way that peaceful and delicate work can be done in such circumstances.

So I hit on the idea of doing it by subscription - on a minimum one-year basis. For me December and January are a whirlwind of exhibition preparation, media attention, conversations like this one we are having now, and suchlike. It's all great fun, but soon the end of the 'exhibition season' comes, and I clean up and head home. If things have gone well, I carry with me a sheaf of orders for the coming year's work.

Then from February until the end of the year when the prints in that set are finished, I sit in my quiet room, carving, carving, carving ... I no longer have to even think about the 'business' end of things; for the next ten or eleven months, I can focus purely on the work. I'm not always successful at that, as I tend to get a bit sidetracked by other projects sometimes, but at least I'm not in a constant whirlwind of business and sales ...

Guest: So each year you have to start from scratch again?

Dave: Well it doesn't work out like that. Quite a number of the collectors enjoy receiving the prints very much, so when they get my letter at the end of the year, thanking them for their support and letting them know of my plan for the next year, they send me a note asking for 'One more year, please'. Of course, some people do take just one year's set, and finish in December. So at the end of each year the collector list drops a bit, and usually picks up again at the exhibition in January.

Guest: I see ... This starts to make sense. And this plan has been successful?

Dave: Well as I said to you earlier this afternoon, in the early days it was tough. There simply weren't enough subscribers. But recently it has been OK. I'm certainly not getting rich at this, but I am making a living at it. And for a woodblock printmaker, that's enough of an achievement ...

Guest: So when your poetry series is finished, your next project will be a series too? No chance for me to buy 'just one'?

Dave: Well it certainly won't be another series of 100! No more 'ten years' for me thanks! But yes, it will be a subscription collection, and again for a year at a time. Please come back to visit the final exhibition of this poetry series - I'll be making some kind of announcement then!

Guest: I'll be there! Thanks for your time today ...

Dave: Not at all. I've enjoyed bending your ear! I'm sorry I can't help you with the print you wanted, but perhaps sometime in the future ...?

Guest: We'll see ....

Addendum (added 2007): I still make and market all my own prints on such a subscription basis. After finishing the long ten year project mentioned above, I spent five years making Surimono Albums, and then followed that with some varied collections of quite different prints. In recent years, I haven't managed to get things to 'line up' very well with calendar years, and my current project - My Solitudes - is going to take a few years to complete.

There has been a major change though, in the 'never sell one copy!' policy, with the creation of my Mokuhankan print shop. This is where I put on a different hat - instead of sending prints directly from my workbench to subscribers, I am sponsoring the creation of prints by hiring other craftsmen to work with me. These prints are not sold by subscription, but as single items. Yes, I suppose some purchasers are indeed putting them on the walls, and I really don't like that much, but we're getting to a stage here in Japan where if somebody doesn't do something pretty soon about getting some work for these craftsmen, the whole traditional printmaking world is going to disappear right in front of our eyes. There's more discussion of these issues over at the Mokuhankan website ...

So for the foreseeable future, I've got the two streams running in parallel:

  • my own work - every step of which is carved and printed totally by me, issued under the Seseragi Studio label and in subscription sets only (no single copies), each print containing my 'baren' embossment and signed by me. This includes whatever project I am currently working on, and all my previous series, which are still available as 'back number' subscriptions, which can start anytime.
  • the Mokuhankan prints, made by other craftsmen working together with me, which have their own separate mark, and which are single items of commerce, sold retail through the Mokuhankan website, and wholesale through shops.

We'll see how this plays out over the coming years ...