Feb. 04, 2019

“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.

He is fondest of his Chinese narcissus for the Year of the Tiger, because it reminds him of his grandmother in Hong Kong. “I would help her plant narcissus bulbs, and she would tell me, ‘If this blooms on the first day of the new year, you will have luck for the rest of the year.” When he immigrated to New York City at age 10, she stayed behind, and died later that year; he never saw her again. “She treated me like a prince,” he says. “She was everything to me.”In creating the first artwork, the red lanterns, he learned an important lesson: when painting for such a tiny medium, less is more. Those lanterns, shrunk to the size of a stamp, looked like cherry tomatoes. Art director Ethel Kessler solved the problem by zooming in on the image, and revealing Mak’s sensuous brushstrokes.

All 12 stamps were packaged in a limited-edition commemorative book, individually signed by Mak. Also, the stamps will be on display during the #IMPACT: The Future Is Inclusive exhibition, in FIT’s Art and Design Gallery, Feb. 12 through March 5. The original paintings are the property of the Smithsonian and are held in the National Postal Museum.

“I’m proud that an institution as big as the U.S. Postal Service is recognizing who we are,” he says. “Not every day do Chinese Americans see something in the culture that they can identify with. The stamps really brought the community together.”