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Biography: Clifton KARHU (クリフトンカーフ)

Clifton Karhu photo
Clifton Karhu in his home studio
(applying ink to a seal)


Clifton Karhu signatureClifton Karhu (1927-2007 pronounced "Kurifuton Kafu" in Japanese クリフトンカーフ) was born in Duluth, Minnesota into a family of Finnish descent. From 1947 to 1949, during the post-war Allied occupation, he was stationed for a year in the port city of Sasebo, Nagasaki, with an assignment as a military artist. After leaving Japan (with regret) and returning to the U.S., he studied sketching and oil painting at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for a year and a half from 1950 to 1952. He questioned his commitment, however, to the field of art and decided instead to study theology. Choosing to become a lay missionary, he requested a posting in Japan, arriving there in 1955 and residing first in a small village in Shiga. At that time, Karhu lacked Japanese language skills, which he found too restricting in his engagement with the local society. So he moved to Kyoto, where he had more opportunities to study the language and culture, which he did for two years. He said that, "As I look back on it, I realize that the calligraphy practice ... writing Japanese characters with their unique balance and design, had a great influence on my [later] pictures." Once he had become sufficiently skilled at reading and writing Japanese, he returned to his missionary work, but, again, had doubts about what he truly wanted to do.

Karhu decided to give up missionary work and moved to Gifu prefecture, living with his family, but without an income. He spent his days fishing and eventually began to sell some of what he caught in the Nagara River to local restaurants. (It is said that Karhu was especially skilled at freshwater fishing.) The income from selling fish was too meager to sustain his family, so he turned to teaching English. He met an oil painter named Hattori who awakened Karhu's dormant love for painting in oils and watercolors. Mr. Hattori encouraged him to hold a show of his works, and helped him secure gallery space. Karhu's first exhibition of paintings and watercolors took place in 1961 at the Shingifu Gallery in Gifu City. Later that year some pictures from that show were awarded first prize by the Central Pacific Art Society. In 1963, Karhu had successful exhibitions in 16 major cities in Japan as well as others in Hong Kong, Australia, Europe, and the U.S.

Despite his initial success with watercolors, oils, and Japanese-style paintings, Karhu again began to wonder about the direction his life was taking. Complicating matters was the fact that, after five years in Gifu, his children were increasingly speaking only Japanese. So he and his wife decided to move the family to Kyoto in 1961 where they could enroll the children in an international school and so improve their English skills.

Clifton Karhu signatureIn Kyoto, Karhu's life changed forever when he was introduced to Tetsuo Yamada, the owner of a gallery in Gion selling ukiyo-e prints. Yamada, who was also an important exhibitor of contemporary artists, told Karhu that the woodcut medium would be better suited than painting for the strong lines in his designs. As Karhu once said, "Strong black outlines are the keynote in my pictures, and I found that unlike oils or watercolors, prints enable me to harmonize vertical and horizontal lines much more effectively." Even so, Karhu had yet another crisis in confidence until an encounter with a fellow artist and friend for whom Karhu served briefly as an assistant. This was Stanton MacDonald Wright (1890-1973) co-founder of Synchromism, an early abstract, color-based mode of painting. Wright asked Karhu, "Were it not for artists, what light would there be in the world?" These and other probing questions and encouragements had their effect, and Karhu finally decided upon art as his path in life.

Karhu also credits Wright with teaching him the basics of color theory, which became "firmly fixed" in his thinking for the remainder of his life. For instance, Karhu explained, "There are so many different kinds of red; how would you explain exactly the shade you mean? Wright's definition of red was the color without yellow or blue in it. The way to determine true red is by spreading red on a white sheet of paper and looking at it for thirty seconds. Then look at another white sheet, and the opposite color, green, will appear as an after-image. If that green has a yellowish or bluish tinge to it, the red was not true." Karhu selected his colors while being always attentive to the primaries red, blue, and yellow, which he called the "strongest in expressive power." So if he wanted to bring out the red as the most prominent color, he would not place a red next to a green, but rather use color mixtures like yellow-green or blue-green near the red. In that way, the red would be best complemented and a "color harmony would be achieved."

Initially, Karhu struggled with carving his blocks. He visited Yamada occasionally and learned from him where he was going wrong in the cutting of the wood. By 1964 he mastered the basics and had his first print and watercolor show at the Yamada Gallery. In his work, Karhu did not concentrate on the famous places. It has often been said of that much of his subject matter was focused on ordinary everyday things that people so often take for granted and hardly notice. "I don't need the exotic," he said, "I like to do the things around me that I see every day. I wasn't born in Japan, so maybe I can look at something and appreciate it more because it hasn't lost its importance for me." He recalled that, "In my early years in Kyoto, I sketched the town houses of the central city exclusively.... Little by little, I explored Gion, and eventually I made the latticed houses, the streets, the hanging blinds, and stuccoed walls the theme of my prints." Few human figures appear in his prints, but in a great many of his designs, the presence of people is felt. Thus, umbrellas left outside a restaurant on a rainy evening brings to mind an image of customers inside, dining and drinking.

Over the years, Karhu was interviewed and his comments recorded, so we have for various works the artist's own commentaries. For example, Karhu found the Kiyomizu Temple (清水寺) in Kyoto a site of never-ending inspiration. He said, "Whenever foreign friends visit, I always bring them to Kiyomizu, where one may sense the strength of Kyoto traditions at a glance.... Built on pilings on a mountainside, Kiyomizu has stood watch over the capital for over a thousand years." In regard to one of his Kiyomizu designs (shown immediately above on this page), he said, "This is the main hall viewed at sunset from the interior of the temple. The curves of the cedar-thatched roofs, the lines of the pillars and balustrades, the wood grain — all have a special meaning for me."

In 1995 he moved to Kazuemachi, Kanazawa, Ishikawa, where he continued his printmaking for the next twelve years, focusing mainly on life in Kanazawa. Karhu died there from liver cancer in 2007.

The text provided here is based in large part on John Fiorillo's web page: