Decades ago when Yuji Hiratsuka of Corvallis was growing up in Osaka, Japan, he didn’t like math or science. As high school approached, he had to decide what to do with his life.
“We had a slightly different system than here. Schools were focused on a vocational aspect. It was more rigid. You have to make your decision early,” Hiratsuka said. “It’s not like here, when you get to college and many kids still haven’t decided on a major.
“My parents said, ‘You’re not good at the general education, so why don’t you do some other thing?’ ” Hiratsuka said.
He enrolled in the fine arts program at the Osaka Municipal High School of Art and Industry, where he discovered his focus: printmaking.
“When you are 15 and you already have a major and lifelong occupation picked, it’s scary. But I don’t regret it. It’s good,” Hiratsuka said.
Hiratsuka went on to study art education at Tokyo Gakugei University and graduated in 1978. He built a 38-year career as a teacher, including his current tenure at Oregon State University that began in 1992. He’s a renowned artist whose intensely colored, intaglio printmaking is in museums around the world.
On Jan. 15, the exhibition “38 Years” opens at the Bush Barn Art Center. It will be the first retrospective of Hiratsuka’s career. The exhibition is curated by Salem artist Kathryn Cellerini Moore, who studied with Hiratsuka at Oregon State.
“He loves applying humor to his work,” Cellerini Moore said. She described Hiratsuka’s work as whimsical, satirical and full of symbolism. Hiratsuka utilizes a vivid palette to create imaginative and exaggerated figures inspired by Japanese, western and Victorian fashion, flora, fauna, anime, pop culture and traditional Japanese ukiyo-e prints.
“Wings” by Yuji Hiratsuka, 2012. A retrospective of Hiratsuka’s career, “38 Years,” will be on exhibit Jan. 15 through Feb. 27 at the Bush Barn Art Center. (Photo: Courtesy of Salem Art Association)
“The blending of eastern and western imagery is very much a reflection of how he sees the world. That’s a genuine place to be making art from,” Cellerini Moore said. “The way he recycles his imagery and still keeps it fresh is for me what keeps it interesting and inspires me as an artist.”
If you’re not familiar with intaglio printmaking, it’s a physically demanding process. Intaglio means to incise or cut. From his drawings, Hiratsuka etches figures, images and textures into 22-gauge copper plating to create troughs for the ink. Most of Hiratsuka’s pieces are 18 inches by 24 inches.
Cellerini Moore said Hiratsuka’s method is unique because he uses one plate to print four colors — black, yellow, red and blue in that order — instead of using one plate per color.
“Between each color, he sands all of that work off the plate and prepares the areas for the next color. None of his work can ever be reproduced,” Cellerini Moore said. “It’s a taxing process. You have to get it right.”
Hiratsuka uses washi paper, made from bark, for his prints. Between each color, the paper must dry for days. To complete one print from start to finish takes roughly one month.
”The way he’s able to derive colors from those initial primary colors is inspiring,” Cellerini Moore said. “It’s 38 years of practice that’s enabled him to control a process that is so finicky and temperamental.”