At first glance, the soft, subtly shifting hues in artist Mary Brodbeck’s Japanese woodblock prints take on the look of a painting.
But there is a much more labor-intensive process that goes on behind-the-scenes, one that she explores in the documentary “Becoming Made.” It can take months to find the right imagery and inspiration, then sketch, carve, paint and create one print.
Not only has Brodbeck mastered the ancient art form, she has helped bring an Eastern art form to the West, particularly West Michigan, over the last two decades by teaching, exhibiting, and making a documentary on the process. She is trained in the rare Japanese tradition known as mokuhanga, a printmaking process that uses watercolor inks, woodblocks, Japanese carving tools, rice paste and Japanese paper, and says making art is a meditative practice. It’s something she must do to feel true to herself.
What started out as a hobby turned into a calling and prompted a career change thanks to a professor’s prodding, and Japan’s great love of nature and Zen-like aesthetics. Brodbeck studied there to learn this timeless process that dates back centuries and uses watercolor pigments. The ink is brushed on the block rather than using an oil-based ink that is rolled on.
“My professor said, ‘Oh Mary, you’ve got to study in Japan,’” she said. “And I have been dedicated to that process since then. I love Japanese aesthetics and their appreciation of nature so I was really happy to go there. It was an honor.”
Admirers describe her work as having an ethereal, calming quality, which is reflected in Brodbeck’s style and subject matter – familiar Michigan scenery including sand dunes and ghost forests, snow-covered rocks, and seagulls flying across soothing landscapes of air and water.
The Kalamazoo-based artist enjoys being in her studio, where she can create in a spirit of contemplative calm. It’s a hands-on, multistep process that starts with sketching, then carving into the wood, painting the woodblocks, and taking the paper and pressing it down on the block with a baren burnishing tool to transfer the image.
“It usually takes me about two months to make a new print, but there can then be multiples,” she said, noting more complicated imagery takes longer. “I have to carve out a woodblock for each color and sometimes I do many color applications from the same carving to get the rich hues.”
Prior to becoming a full-time artist, Brodbeck worked as an industrial and furniture designer for several West Michigan manufacturers for a dozen years. Many of her designs hold United States patents. But during this time, she felt drawn to landscape art and took a woodcut class at Ox-Bow School of Art in Saugatuck.
“I’m an all or nothing person, and when I decided to become a landscape artist, I had really strong feelings for the land and lakes of Michigan,” she said. “I wanted to devote my professional life to something more related to the landscape.”
So Brodbeck started teaching herself color woodblock printmaking. It felt familiar and comfortable working in a wood workshop, and the process is like solving a puzzle.
“It’s parts and pieces and how to figure things out and build the image,” she said. “It was the intellectual challenge that I was really attracted to.”
She moved from Douglas to Kalamazoo in the 1990s and, with her husband’s support, dove into printmaking as a graduate student at Western Michigan University. She received a Japanese government BUNKA-Cho Fellowship in 1998 and spent five months studying under renowned printmaker Yoshisuke Funasaka in Tokyo.
With Michigan landscapes as her backdrop, Brodbeck has received numerous awards, grants and artist-in-residencies in her native state. She served as artist-in-resident at Mission Point on Mackinac Island this year, along with Glen Arbor, Forest Hills Fine Arts Center, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Hiawatha National Forest and Isle Royale National Park since 2000.
Her nature-inspired woodblock prints have garnered critical acclaim in both Japan and the United States — the Sleeping Bear Dunes series, created 2006-2008, is in the permanent collection at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
She has won awards at juried exhibitions across the country, led workshops as far away as Oregon and Japan, and her work is part of private and public collections in hospitals, universities and museums. She also exhibits in museums and galleries, including Good Goods in Saugatuck and Muskegon Museum of Art, where her work is on display in the first-floor Tuttle Gallery until Dec. 11. She earned the Graphics Award in the MMA’s 2015 Regional Competition, and the museum is acquiring one of her pieces from the current show for the permanent collection.
Her prints reveal ethereal, quietly structured landscapes created by using water-based inks for the printing. The inks are applied with a brush to a wood plate, so the final print maintains the feeling of hand painting, said Art Martin, senior curator and director of collections and exhibitions at the Muskegon Museum of Art.
“They provide a transparency that oil-based inks do not, which gives them their unique aesthetic,” he said. “We chose to highlight her works in the museum because they are unusual in our region, and in the past several years she has produced increasingly complex and visually striking compositions.”
Japanese woodblock is a very narrow field of interest, but Brodbeck has managed to raise awareness for the medium and create a successful career. She has a greeting card line and teaches Japanese woodblock printmaking through public workshops, college and university courses, and private lessons.
People describe the prints as serene, tranquil and contemplative. Her next series will focus on Japanese gardens.
“I just want people to enjoy my artwork without having to know how it’s made, but it certainly enhances your appreciation,” she said. “What people tell me when they look at my prints (is that) they get this calm feeling. When I made my film, people said the same thing about my film. … Well, maybe that’s what my work is about — that feeling.”
Although she had no experience with filmmaking, Brodbeck decided in 2011 to make a documentary about the creative process and the art of Japanese woodblock printmaking. The 35-minute film, “Becoming Made,” took three years and involved interviewing artists, scholars and attendees of the First International Mokuhanga Conference in Japan.
“I was very interested that a lot of people were going to be in the same spot,” she said. “I decided, ‘I’ve got to make a documentary film and interview these people about why they like this process.’”
The idea was to educate others about the mokuhanga technique as well as document where she and others were at in their careers. Brodbeck had some technical help and hired a few consultants at different points, but shot most of the footage herself and did all of the grunt work.
It’s been screened across Michigan and elsewhere and earned an Award of Merit Special Mention in 2015 by Best Shorts Competition, an international online competition.
“I thought it would be a really neat thing to do,” she said. “My career is lifelong; it tells part of the story.”
Mary Brodbeck: Japanese woodblock prints
Tuttle Gallery in the Muskegon Museum of Art
269 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon
Through Dec. 11
Joint print show with Ladislav Hanka Jan. 9-Feb. 9, Flora Kirsch Beck Art Gallery at Alma College