A stamp for all counreies

Updated: 2012-04-08 07:57

By Tang Yingxian (China Daily)

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 A stamp for all counreies

Martin Morck has produced almost 670 stamps for more than 15 countries in his four-decade career - all while working as a freelance artist and engraver. Zou Hong / China Daily

Scandinavian engraver hopes to leave a lasting impression in China. Tang Yingxian discovers.

For almost 10 hours straight, Martin Morck has been looking at a steel plate, the size of a belt buckle through a microscope. Line by line, dot by dot, Morck steers an engraver with his little finger on the plate to create intricate images of ancient astronomical instruments.

Morck is a freelance master engraver and his recent series of stamps on these instruments have been jointly issued by China Post and Post Denmark. The new series add to almost 670 stamps that Morck has done for more than 15 countries in his four-decade career.

There are about only a dozen engravers like Morck left in the world and he is the most productive and active of them, says Lene Reipuert, manager of stamps from Post Denmark.

"I have been standing on 'four feet' around the world in all these years," says Morck, 57.

He is Norwegian and his address is in Sweden, but he actually lives in Denmark. He also spends two to three months a year in Greenland.

Now, he is spending several months a year in China.

"My fourth 'foot' belongs in China," Morck says.

Morck has engraved several stamps for China since 2010, including a set of portraits on European musicians. The bridge between Morck and China is Post Denmark, for which Morck is a master engraver.

Morck's work has also created a lot of buzz among China's 20 million stamp collectors. Many of them send stamps to Denmark for Morck to sign.

"I am quite happy to see my stamps back from Denmark with Morck's name on them," says Liu Zheng, a collector from Changchun, Jilin province.

"There are very high value-added post stamps and I am hoping to see more engraved ones here."

Liu will not be disappointed. Morck is not only engraving for China, he is also teaching here.

He has been instructing 10 Chinese students on engraving through a one-year training program jointly organized by the China Postage Printing Bureau and Post Denmark. The goal is to continue the art in China and throughout the world.

His current students have finished the program and will receive their formal certification on Friday.

"China will be the first country to secure a team of young engravers for the future," Morck says.

"This is not only good for enhancing the artistic expression of Chinese stamps, but also very important for the future of the art of hand-engraving."

The development of industrial and digital technologies for offset stamp printing has made it more cost efficient, but making hand-engraved stamps, usually less colorful than offset ones, is still a very laborious process.

Martin Pingel, design manager of Post Denmark, says the number of offset printing stamps started to peak from the 1960s and from 1980s the world has witnessed fewer hand-engraved stamps. Figures from the Art du Timbre Grave, a Paris-based stamps society, show that only 10 to 15 percent of new stamps are hand-engraved nowadays.

Expertise in hand-engraved stamps is also disappearing. Globally, there are only a few stamp engravers and most of them are above 50 years old. And there is almost nowhere to learn the art.

"Many places in the world will lose it," Pingel says. "But China is helping to secure the future of this specialized area."

Morck never taught the art prior to his work in China. "It took me 10 seconds to realize that I love teaching! It's 100 percent joy to teach here," Morck says.

His students are also relishing every minute of his lessons.

"He is a very strict teacher but we love him very much," says Yuan Yishan, a student from the Academy of Art and Design at Tsinghua University.

Still, the learning process is "very painful" for many of the students. Morck says one piece of work can take months; sometimes students need to sit up for four or five hours a stretch. Yang Zhiying, another student sitting at the front of the classroom, says her wrist and neck have been in pain ever since the class started. And because there is so much to learn from Morck, Yang, like everyone else, always stays on in the classroom from 8 am to 9 pm to learn as much as possible.

"Students should understand that it's still a long way to go if they want to master this art," Pingel says. It takes five to eight years of practice and the skill of engravers generally peaks when they are in their 40s, he says.

The students have made steady progress, Morck says.

"We are very grateful to have him as our teacher and he really helps us grow," says Hao Ou, the most experienced student in class. Hao is a third-generation engraver in China and is refining her skills with Morck.

China has a history of more than 100 years of engraved stamps, Hao says. The engraving knowledge she learned was passed down from 1908, when Lorenzo J. Hatch, an engraver for American Banknote Company in New York, came to China and trained several Chinese engravers.

Hao says Morck stresses cultivating the engraver's heart and mind, not just the hand skills. "You must be very slow and patient," Morck says at every class.

To help students achieve a peace of mind needed for the work, Morck even reads poetry for his students. His favorite line is "to see the world in a grain of sand. And a heaven in a wild flower", from The Auguries of Innocence by William Blake.

"You can discover a world of stories from a piece of stamp, just like you can see the world from a grain of sand," Morck says.

Morck himself is a "free spirit". He comes from an artistic family and grew up in his parents' studio.

"I managed to spend nine years in school and I quit when I was 16 because I couldn't stand it," he says.

Morck fell in love with engraving when he was in art school but there "wasn't enough to learn". At the age of 18, he wrote a letter to the Swedish Post asking them whether it was possible for him to spend some time there to learn postage stamp engraving.

"I have never been employed," Morck says. "I like a nomadic life and I don't like bosses."

From the age of 20, Morck became a freelancer. He moved to a small island on the Swedish west coast, engraving and drawing all day, being "quite productive and feeling quite happy".

Besides his children, only hiking and sailing can pull Morck away from work, and he likes to spend several months every year in Greenland. "When I'm working, I'm as still as a sleeping bear, so I need to be active when I am not working, just to get some balance."

Contact the writer at sundayed@chinadaily.com.cn.

(China Daily 04/08/2012 page5)