A chilly day one year ago in New York’s Chinatown reminded Kam Mak of the impact of his work.
On the first day of the Chinese New Year, the Postal Service had set up a mobile truck to sell the newly released stamp commemorating the Year of the Ox. Thousands of people showed up for a signature by the artist, stationed at a table outside the truck.
“It was cold and windy, but adrenaline and excitement kept me going,” Mak recalls. “I’ve never seen so many people who were so receptive. I was there four hours and signed every one of the stamp panes.”
The success of the series, he says, can be found in the way it crosses both Chinese and American traditions, rendering images that are deeply significant to Chinese culture — such as lanterns, a lion's head and narcissus flowers — with art techniques grounded in the West.
Mak’s artwork is highly detailed, almost photographic. The rich colors reflect a discipline that traces back centuries to artists of the European Renaissance. He creates his illustrations using layers of color painted onto traditional gesso surfaces that Mak prepares himself. With these techniques, a painting can take as long as two months to complete. View Mak’s process for the Year of the Ox stamp.
For the images used in the series, Mak called upon his own childhood memories — drawing more from Chinatown than from Hong Kong. In fact, even though Mak has published a book based on his childhood (My Chinatown: One year in poems), he considers the stamp work to be even more meaningful. “It’s an opportunity to showcase our culture to the country and the whole world.”
And it has meaning closer to home as well. “This is the only project in my whole career that my mother can actually relate to,” Mak says. “She doesn’t understand a lot of the work that I do, but she understands the Lunar New Year postage stamp.”
Hong Kong and New York City are 11 time zones apart, but they come together in the life and work of one artist — and in a community that is flourishing as a bridge between two cultures.