(Portland, ME) — In late October of 2019, a group of five Portland-area artists visited Maine’s sister state of Aomori, Japan while communities in both countries hosted exhibitions of woodblock prints by artists from each country. The traveling exhibition, called MAPS (Maine-Aomori Printmaking Society), is a cultural exchange program launched in 2015 that facilitates the exchange of art and artists between the states. MAPS is a program of Friends of Aomori, the all-volunteer non-profit that supports the relationship between Maine and Aomori.
While in Japan, the group were guests of honor at the opening reception of the Aomori Citizen’s Cultural Exhibition where the MAPS prints were featured along with works by other Aomori artists. Over the following week, the group participated in a full schedule of civic and cultural activities, including visits to local studios, galleries, museums, and meetings with citizens and officials, including the Mayor of Fujisaki, a town near Aomori that hosted the prints in 2017.
“The warmth of the people that we met was really striking,” said Pilar Nadal. “They were very excited to meet with us, talk with us about our artistic practice, and find out why we are interested in Aomori. Even when translation was lost, it was clear that they were excited to know who we were, and for us to know them.”
The group was hosted by Jiro Ono, director of the Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum of Art, one of the sites visited by the visiting artists. The artist Shikō Munakata (b. 1903-1975) is strongly associated with the Aomori region, and the museum visit was a highlight for the group. “He was a modern artist in a traditional culture.” says David Wolfe, suggesting that in Munakata’s work you can see influences of Cubism and other European Modernist movements in his imagery, but that the artist never strayed too far from his traditional Japanese techniques.
Ideas of artistic lineage were a common theme in the artist’s explorations and conversations throughout the week. Lisa Pixley remembers that “my first exposure to Japanese woodblock printing was in the study of turn-the-century artists in Paris. Without really knowing it, I was studying artists who were studying Japanese artists, because the prints were flooding into Europe at the time.” Pixley notes how “important it is to foster tradition in art medium. In Western culture we put a lot of onus on the individual, but not necessarily the lineage that they came from — the history, the community…the need to foster knowledge of artistic lineage was a huge takeaway for me as an educator.”
In 2016, Jiro Ono led a similar delegation of Japanese printmakers to Maine. During that visit, Pilar Nadal remembers with a smile how the visiting artists asked her why she needed all of the “stuff” in her well-equipped Portland printshop, as the Japanese artists generally print their traditional black-and-white hanga prints with simple handtools, rather than large mechanical presses. “When we went to Japan, what we saw in the spaces wasn’t equipment, but rather artwork, tools, and the important relationship between student and teacher. But we put our equipment to good use,” she laughs.
The newest prints in the MAPS collection – now numbering 80 in total — are currently on display at the Blake Library at University of Maine at Fort Kent. In 2020, the next prints in the exchange will be displayed at Common Street Arts in Waterville, and a retrospective of all the prints in the MAPS collection is scheduled for display at the Lewis Gallery at the Portland Public Library in the fall of 2021.
“We share ten prints with each other every year, and the MAPS print collection has grown into a beautiful representation of the diversity and excellence in printmaking that can be found in both Maine and Aomori”, said Jeff Badger, who initiated and manages the exhibition series with his partner Jiro Ono in Japan. “Our goal is to exhibit the collection all over the State of Maine. We’ve shown it from York to Eastport to Fort Kent, and many places in between. We are always looking for more opportunities to share the work and get more people excited about the connection we have with Aomori.” Earlier this year, MAPS received support from the Maine Community Foundation for three exhibitions in Belfast, Brunswick, and Fort Kent.
While the MAPS project is a result of the sister state relationship, the exhibitions have had a parallel effect of educating audience members about the printmaking medium itself. “The Japanese know what printmaking is, and it is a strong part of their culture,” says David Wolfe, “but a lot of people in the US – even those interested in art and who collect art – don’t necessarily know what a print is.” Wolfe suggests that an exhibition with an additional element of a cultural exchange is a great way to draw a larger audience to learn about printmaking as an art medium.
All the members of the group noted the strong support of the arts in Aomori from both the government and citizens, with entire buildings dedicated to local art, but other cultural differences were more smaller and more humorous, including the many tiny cars in Japan, the incredible amount of vending machines and, for Lisa Pixley, how clean the streets were. “On more than one occasion I saw people picking up trash on the street or from the floor in a market. It’s a small thing, but a big difference in how our societies think of the individual’s place in the community.”
In 2018 the MAPS print exchange expanded to a K-12 student print exchange, with artiist and teacher Raegan Russell visiting Aomori and presenting an exhibition of children’s prints in the gallery at Berwick Academy. A second teacher delegate – Lynda McCann-Olson from Cumberland/North Yarmouth – will visit in November of 2019. This new facet of the exchange is sponsored by the Aomori Rotary Club, another group in Japan that has been generously supportive of the Maine-Aomori relationship. “Fostering the special relationship Maine has with Aomori takes commitment from many volunteers and generous contributions from donors in both countries,” said Lydia Badger. “All friendships need nurturing, and without the dedication of so many people, this trip, the art exchange, and the benefits they offer to the community would not be possible.”
For more information about MAPS and Friends of Aomori, visit maine-aomori.org.