Kam Mak’s Stamp on History
By Jonathan Vatner
In 2006, Ethel Kessler, an art director for the U.S. Postal Service, approached Kam Mak, professor and assistant chair of Illustration at FIT, to create a series of 12 annual stamps themed around the Chinese zodiac, to celebrate the Lunar New Year. Having seen a book Mak had illustrated, My Chinatown: One Year in Poems, she hoped he would bring authenticity to the project. The final stamp was released this year, on Feb. 5, to mark the start of the Year of the Boar.
“It was more than a job,” he says. “I got to tell the story of my culture through these stamps.”Mak’s first idea was to portray the animal associated with each year in the zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, and so on. But the animals had already been done, in a stamp cycle the USPS commissioned from 1993 to 2004, to honor the contributions of Chinese Americans in the history of the United States. The artist, Clarence Lee, brought each beast to life in exuberant, stylized simplicity. Mak thought back to his childhood memories of Chinese New Year celebrations—boisterous drumming, early spring flowers, the ubiquitous red money envelopes, fireworks lighting up the sky—and proposed a series based on those traditions. He depicted each in richly layered oil paint on 16-by-20-inch gesso panel. Because the zodiac needed to be acknowledged, Lee’s animals are reproduced in the upper left corner of each stamp, in gold. For the Year of the Rabbit, he painted gleaming, piquant kumquats, eaten for good luck. The Year of the Dog stamp, released in 2018, portrays the three spiral stalks of lucky bamboo, representing blessings for a long life, good fortune, and happiness. His painting for the Year of the Boar (or Pig) depicts a sprig of luscious peach blossoms, among the first blooms of spring. These paintings capture vivacity and movement in saturated color; even his inanimate objects feel irrepressibly alive.