When the American-born artist Clifton Karhu developed an interest in Finland, his parents’ homeland, a large-scale exhibition of his art was held at the Retretti Museum in Punkarhajo. The late Prince Takamado, who with Princess Takamado enjoyed Karhu’s work so much that a short, scheduled visit to one of his Japanese exhibitions had turned into several hours, made the journey 350 km north of Helsinki, bringing with him Finland’s president. Such high-profile attention for the artist’s woodblock prints ended up attracting 234,000 people — 4 percent of Finland’s population — to the show.
Karhu, a chronicler of the Japan that may not always be here, died in Kyoto on March 24 at age 79 after a lengthy bout with liver cancer. A simple memorial service to celebrate his rich life and many accomplishments was held in his wife’s residence on Saturday, April 7.
Kahru’s works have been shown in virtually every department store in Japan — considered prestigious venues here — as well as throughout the United States, Europe and Southeast Asia. His collectors include the Cincinnati Art Museum; the East Asian Legal Studies Dept. at Harvard; the Honolulu Academy of Art; Salzburg’s Kunst Museum; the Minneapolis Museum of Art; and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Often featured on Japanese TV (it was not an unusual sight to see him strolling through a Kyoto garden, sketchbook in hand, with a Japanese TV crew following doggedly behind), Karhu also appeared on NBC’s “Today” show and had his works featured in Newsweek, Playboy, Business Week, The New York Times and many other publications.
Karhu was born a twin on Nov. 23, 1927 in Worthington, Minn. Both his parents were painters, and Karhu had decided by age 12 to become an artist. His first encounter with Japan was as a U.S. soldier in 1947, when he served in Sasebo, Kyushu. After military service, he briefly attended art college in Minnesota before returning to Japan as a missionary. He worked as such in Hiroshima and Gifu and then moved to Kyoto with his wife, Lois, in 1962 in order to provide their three children with an international education.
When Kyoto gallery owner and artist Yamada Tetsuo was shown Karhu’s paintings, which were executed with heavy black lines, he suggested that they would be well expressed in woodblock printing. Karhu never looked back, committing to the long, arduous years necessary to learn how to carve and print in the traditional Japanese manner. His peers acknowledged him as a master printmaker by electing him several times as head of the Kyoto Japan Print Association chapter — the only foreigner to ever hold such an honor.
When colorist Stanton MacDonald Wright resided for a time in Kyoto, he engaged Karhu as an assistant. Wright was noted for his synchromy theory of color, which uses colors, rather than lines, to create shapes. The theory greatly influenced the Japan-based artist and led to the explorations of the color spectrum for which he later became so well known.
Kahru’s work came to the attention of many visitors to Kyoto when it was shown regularly at the Ashiya Steak House owned by Tokiko and Bob Strickland. Good friends of the artist, they would tease each other about whether the restaurant became famous because Karhu’s prints could be found there, or whether the prints became famous because of the restaurant’s Kobe beef.
The artist developed an unusually loyal and devoted clientele during his annual Christmas shows at the Tolman Collection in Tokyo, where for more than 30 years he released the following year’s prints on the first Thursday of December. For some, these exhibits marked the start of the holiday social season in the foreign community, and his sensitive, colorful and charming depictions of Japanese temples and shrines, gardens, doorways, inns and geisha houses were often bought as Christmas presents to be sent abroad.
He went on to further fame because of calendars he based on the Chinese zodiac. Made in the shape of old-style Japanese pillar prints featuring the animal of the year, the illustrations were in poses and situations which always brought a smile to the viewer. They were accompanied by a Japanese proverb written in the artist’s distinctive calligraphy, with translations in English that were as amusing as the drawings.
Karhu’s devotion to kimono, which he wore exclusively, made him a colorful figure not only in Japan but also on his travels abroad. He was well-versed on a myriad of Japanese cultural subjects and could talk at length in Japanese on any one of them. His fans were composed of as many Japanese as foreigners — people from all walks of life. In the early days he often said that he wanted his works to be reasonable enough in price that “you wouldn’t have to ask your spouse for permission to buy one.”
Karhu was steeped in Japanese culture. In addition to being a prominent woodblock artist, he carved and played the shakuhachi (Japanese bamboo flute), carved netsuke (ornamental sculptures), painted in sumi ink, made pottery, adored Japanese food and mastered the Japanese language — giving him the right to a sobriquet he enjoyed — “The Blue-Eyed Japanese.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.