Each fall, the Western Michigan University College of Fine Arts recognizes four alumni who have put their stamp on their field. 2017 Frostic School of Art Distinguished Alumna Mary Brodbeck has done just that. Mary's artwork, which employs traditional Japanese woodblock printmaking methods to transfer ink to paper, has received critical acclaim in both Japan and the United States. With a portfolio of celebrated work, a series of prints housed in the Detroit Institute of Arts' permanent collection, and an extensive career of teaching, visual storytelling and printmaking, Mary continues to share her art and expertise with the world. Today, Mary's sharing even more with us.
Read Mary's essay below to learn about not only the time-honored art of woodblock printing, but also about the turning points in Mary's career and the traits that allowed her to succeed.
Printmaking, process and persistence
By Mary Brodbeck
My experience at Western Michigan University afforded me opportunities beyond my wildest expectations.
When I was a graduate student in printmaking in the late 1990s, WMU Professor Emeritus Curtis Rhodes and Professor Dick DePeaux, connected me with Yoshisuke Funasaka, the highly respected teacher and renowned woodblock printmaker based in Tokyo. Subsequently, I was sponsored to learn the traditional methods of Japanese woodblock printmaking with Mr. Funasaka via a five-month-long Bunka Cho Fellowship from the Japanese government. I consider my studies in Japan an astonishing gift, one I’ve taken to heart.
Industrial Design was my first profession. I worked in the west Michigan office furniture industry for over a decade, and several of my designs went into production. Although I greatly enjoyed my work as a designer, I left the corporate environment because of my desire to have a stronger connection to nature, both spiritually and with my creative energies.
Woodblock printing – or “woodcut” as it is often referred to in the West – is defined as a relief form of printmaking. This means that non-image areas are cut away from the surface of the wood, leaving behind a raised area which is inked. Paper upon the block is pressed to transfer the image onto the paper. For color printing, multiple blocks are used, one for each color. Additional colors can be achieved by layering, or printing colors on top of one another.
Japanese woodblock printing differs from other woodcut processes in three significant ways. First, the pigments used in the Japanese technique are watery and brushes are used to apply the colors (along with rice paste) to the blocks; the Western process utilizes viscous inks that are applied with a roller. Second, the only way to transfer the ink to the paper in the Japanese technique is to use a handheld burnishing tool called a baren; in Western processes, a mechanical press is often used. Lastly, the overall approach to creating an image in the Japanese tradition is generally based upon a pre-planned design and multiple colors; Western approaches are often more spontaneous, with an emphasis on the carved mark.
Japan, an island nation and a nation that was politically isolated for roughly 200 years, developed a process and aesthetic in woodblock printmaking completely unique from anywhere else in the world. The ukiyo-e woodblock prints (1600 – 1800s) are perhaps the most iconic to us in the West and include Hokusai’s Great Wave. The materials and processes are time honored and haven’t changed much since this era.
Materials and processes can matter a lot to an artist. For me, working with the materials of wood, water, and beautiful handmade papers (imported from Japan) is a joy of the senses. As a visual art form, this process naturally involves the sense of seeing. But there are also the scraping and shaving sounds of the carving tools, the sweet and fruity fragrance of rice paste, and the nuanced sense of touch that must become very well developed to achieve the correct feel for moisture, and pressure. There’s a physicality involved; you become aware of your body and every motion that you make. In many ways, the process has merged with my own way of being in the world: my nature.
Recently I had a discussion with my sister about the personal traits it takes to be successful. I told her that I thought ambition was the personal trait that most contributed to my success. She looked at me, rolled her eyes up and to the left, then looked back at me and said, “No, Mary, it’s that you have patience.”
Looking back on my nearly 20-year career as a professional printmaker, I believe she may be right. Ambition is important: you need to have goals, trust yourself, avoid complaining. But, above all, to succeed as an artist, you need to be persistent.
Mary Brodbeck is a 2017 recipient of the Western Michigan University College of Fine Arts Distinguished Alumni Award. Mary was born in Hastings, Michigan in 1958. She graduated from Michigan State University with a B.F.A. in Industrial design in 1982, and worked as an Industrial Designer in the West Michigan furniture industry for a dozen years – many of her designs hold US patents – before shifting to image making in the 1990s.
Mary studied Japanese woodblock printmaking in Tokyo with Yoshisuke Funasaka on a Japanese government Bunka Cho Fellowship in 1998 and obtained her M.F.A. from Western Michigan University in 1999. Her landscape woodblock prints have received critical acclaim in both Japan and the United States; the Autumn, Sleeping Bear Dunes series, created 2006-2008, is in the permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Work in other museum collections include: Meijer Garden & Sculpture Park, Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, Muskegon Museum of Art, and Hunterdon Museum.
Mary exhibits her work widely and teaches Japanese woodblock printmaking through public workshops, college and university courses, and private lessons. Her latest major project, Becoming Made, a documentary film about the creative process, is “Highly Recommended” by Video Librarian and is available online and on DVD.
Mary lives in Kalamazoo with her husband John Schmitt and tabby Gingko.
In honor of Western Michigan University's annual homecoming festivities, the We Will Reign series celebrates and highlights the successes of College of Fine Arts distinguished alumni.