The Bellefonte Art Museum for Centre County embraces its reputation for celebrating multicultural artists with “Interpreting Poetry,” an exhibit of woodblock prints by the late Japanese artist Haku Maki.
Maki is best known for his abstract calligraphic prints in which he distorted and rearranged characters and strokes to produce striking and serene images. His techniques were innovative and he made use of classic woodblock techniques as well as cement, collage and paper block in printing.
This exhibition of Maki’s works includes 29 pieces on loan by Penn State sociology professor John McCarthy from his personal collection. They were collected by John and his late wife, Sharon McCarthy. The show will also provide information about block print making.
“One thing is very true: When you see his work, you recognize it immediately from then on. You know exactly what it is,” the exhibit’s guest educator Nancy Toepfer said.
Maki studied printmaking under leading artist Koshiro Onchi. Widely considered a self-taught artist, Maki began showing his work in the 1950s in galleries in Japan and in the United States, benefiting from opportunities created by the United States as part of its cultural reparation activities after the war.
“Maki’s work was created during his life in roughly four different periods,” museum director Patricia House said. “He interpreted the poetry, then started experimenting with woodblock print techniques, then focused on color and still life, like his famous series of persimmons. Lastly, he developed a unique style of layering papers to create a more textured print; and most of the work were prints of ceramics.”
Maki created works that were poetic to him and constructed original visual interpretations of calligraphy, objects, and scenery using old Chinese and Japanese kanji characters, which he refined into abstract compositions.
Early on, Maki began to explore different themes and methods, with his early works reflecting a search for a distinctive style. As his early style started to evolve during the 1960s, Maki began to create prints in themes including memories, wood grains, letters of the alphabet, symbols and God, for which he later produced embossed prints on thicker paper approximating calligraphy.
“One of the main themes of Maki’s work came from the interpretation of ancient Chinese poetry,” House said. “He created visual representations to accompany poetry translations and also used his artwork to interpret ancient Chinese symbols, which had complicated interpretations.”
In 1967, Maki was commissioned to do a series of woodblock prints to be included in the publication of a translation of a set of ancient Japanese poems, resulting in the book “Festive Wine: Ancient Japanese Poems from the Kinkafu.” The book included the translation of 21 ancient poems called “Kinkafu” or “Music for Wagon Songs,” and were accompanied by Maki’s prints. Maki referred to the style he developed for creating the prints and illustrating the poems as hieroglyphics.
Toepfer said Maki was not literally trying to create images from the poems themselves, but rather providing an interpretation of them.
“He’s not illustrating a poem at all, he’s interpreting it” she said. “You’re not looking for the narrative in it, so you have an emotional response to it.”
In the mid-1970s, Maki began creating prints in a realistic style with a more modern feel, the most popular being the persimmons series. These works were done in luscious variations of orange color with leaves covered with a lacquer-like substance. His success with this series led him to create a variation of the persimmons print almost every year throughout most of the 1980s, as the compositions changed from black background to snow-covered branches to shadowed leaves.
As his work evolved through the years, Maki changed the subject matter of his art, but he did not change the technique. Instead he refined the technique, perfectly unifying the visual language with the literary language.
“If you are attracted to them, it’s to their clean lines, to the depth of colors in them, the marvelous blacks, for which he used no special ink,” Toepfer said.
During the last years of his life and career, Maki created a large body of work, sometimes crafting more than 100 pieces a year.
As his health declined in the 1990s, Maki slowed down, and it was thought that he now preferred to create for himself rather than for the market.
“Not a lot is written about Maki, but it seems he wanted to share ancient traditions and values — the importance of simplicity and a focus on natural things,” House said. “During his life he created a lot of works — maybe over 100,000 prints.”