U.S. Stamp Highlights Overlooked Female Physicist

The Chinese American nuclear physicist Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu may not be a household name, but FIT’s Kam Mak, assistant chair, Illustration, might change that with his painting for a new U.S. Postal Service Forever stamp, being unveiled on Feb. 11.

Dr. Wu (1912–1997), whose career spanned more than 40 years in a field dominated by men, was one of the most influential nuclear physicists of the 20th century. She was a determined advocate for women in science and made enormous contributions to the physical sciences, altering modern physical theory forever. Her work included important contributions to the Manhattan Project.

Mak was asked to do the portrait of Dr. Wu after painting every Lunar New Year Stamp for the USPS between 2008 and 2019, each depicting a different sign of the Chinese Zodiac. Now that the Lunar New Year series is complete, Mak says he is particularly proud to depict someone who was both an immigrant and a woman who achieved great things in a largely male-dominated field.

“With this stamp I hope to be able to share with people—everyone—that we are a part of the fabric of American society and that Madame Wu, with her achievements in nuclear physics, advanced scientific discoveries for the country,” Mak said.

The stamp art, which is approximately 8.5 by 11 inches, features a detailed portrait of Dr. Wu wearing a black-and-white high-collared traditional Chinese gown known as a qipao. Mak chose to do the portrait in egg tempera, a favored medium of 15th century Italian Renaissance painters, for its pigments and richness of color. The background was painted with the pigment lapis lazuli, a highly valued color historically used in artistic depictions of angels, nobility, and the Virgin Mary.

“This stamp was much more challenging than the Lunar New Year stamps, mostly with my process, because I was using egg tempera and not oil, which is what was used to create all the Lunar New Year stamps,” he said. “Egg tempera is a very unforgiving medium, and unlike oil painting it dries very fast, so to create a soft transition of color requires a great deal of brush skill and patience.”

Mak was given a single portrait of Dr. Wu to work from, and was asked not to look at other images of her. To get the nuances of Dr. Wu’s face just right, Mak said he asked his wife to sit for him, as she has a similarly shaped face. That helped him lay down the structure and form of the painting.

“I want the painting to evoke Madame Wu’s inner confidence, pride, strength, dignity, and kindness,” Mak said. “I have no doubt the Madame Wu stamp will empower and give pride to many Asian Americans and at the same time communicate that we have contributed a great deal to this country. This stamp being issued by the USPS is also a testament to the USPS continuing a commitment to celebrating the diversity of this country.”

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