On a brisk fall day in the early 1960s, Moira Hahn’s mother sent her out into their suburban Maryland yard to clear leaves from a patio. Rather than gather the scattered vegetation for disposal, the 7-year-old saw something completely different within the pile of nature’s bounty before her. When Hahn finished with her “chore,” the budding artist had raked the leaves into the shape of a hatted cowboy on a horse.
Connecting decidedly different or even conflicting elements to create a compelling piece of art is the hallmark of this Long Beach artist, who has exhibited throughout the U.S. and Japan for more than 20 years. Bold and colorful, her paintings, which walk a tightrope between western and eastern themes and the past and present, elicit admiration, surprise and more often than not a chuckle once a painting’s often satirical message becomes apparent.
While some have described Hahn’s paintings as “Pop-Surrealism,” she doesn’t find this an accurate description of her work, which has its roots in classical Japanese art history—specifically Ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world.) The genre features woodblock prints and paintings popular from the 17th-19th century Japan.
“Nouveau Ukiyo-e might cover some of my work, because it contains elements from the contemporary and floating worlds,” says Hahn, who taught art at Santiago Canyon College for 10 years. Many of her paintings depict humanlike interactions regarding present day topics between animals dressed in ancient Japanese kimono styles.
Hahn has always gravitated to art. Throughout her childhood, she constantly created, using materials she found on hand. Nature was and continues to be an artistic muse for her. She made tea sets out of backyard clay, and while in high school, she spent the afternoons in the forest, observing local wildlife, like deer, badgers and foxes, and gathering plant materials for her artwork, including walnut shells that she boiled to make brown ink.
When she was a high school junior, Hahn skipped a day of school to apply at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore, where they immediately accepted her when they saw her portfolio. She studied at MICA, where she received her BFA in 1977 and also attended CalArts in Valencia and California State University Fullerton, where she completed her MFA in 2000.
Though it might seem unusual that a non-Asian artist would be interested in Ukiyo-e, it was a natural progression for Hahn, who is descended from artists and appreciators of art.
“I was exposed to Asian art growing up,” says Hahn, whose father served in China during WWII where he took photos of village life and collected cloisonné, art and crafts. An uncle was stationed in Japan in the mid-1960s and sent the family art, and her parents commissioned a Japanese architect to build a Japanese-style cedar house they filled with Japanese furniture.
During her 20s, Hahn worked for five years as a studio assistant for a Japanese painter and she studied Japanese art in Hawaii in the 1980s, but it was during a visit to Baltimore’s Walters Art Gallery in 1976 that she became enamored with Ukiyo-e. “I was in awe of an exhibition of Hokusai’s paintings, woodblock prints and manga (sketch books),” she says.
The painting, “Blue Moon,” pictured in this issue is an example of Hahn’s east meets west painting style. Featuring a parrot seductively posing in a kimono and a large cat paw splayed out on the tail of her garment, at first glance it looks like the parrot should be frightened.
“People worry about the parrot, but she’s fine,” says Hahn, who points out a cat wanted poster in the left corner of the painting. “The birds hung up posters all over the neighborhood of the cats they intend to pick off.” (The parrot has an AK-47 hidden under her kimono to get the job done.)
Meher McArthur is an independent Asian art historian and writer who has curated shows containing Hahn’s work. “Moira is superb with the brush and has a wonderful sense of color,” says McArthur. “Her work is layered and rich. At first glance, the animals in her paintings appear to be cute, but then you realize something unsettling is occurring. The parrot in ‘Blue Moon’ is dressed like a 19th century courtesan and is exposing the nape of her neck, which was considered very seductive. The subtitle of the painting (written in Japanese) is also compelling and amusing—‘Evening Snack.’”
In 2010, Hahn added to her collection a traditional wood block print of “Blue Moon.” Crafted in Japan, it took a woodblock print atelier, a carver and an inker more than a year to complete what is a closed edition of 200 (some are still available). “Having the print made was on my bucket list,” says Hahn. “It turned out beautifully.”
Beginning March 22nd, Hahn will teach a class series featuring her unique watercolor technique at The Art Studio in Westminster. For information, visit theartstudio.us/place/watercolor.
Published in the Mar/Apr 2014 edition of the Old Towne Orange Plaza Review
Written by Julie Bawden-Davis, Photograph provided by Moira Hahn
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