The art of traditional Japanese woodblock prints seems to have a magic force of attraction to Western artists. Clifton Karhu became one of the most successful contemporary Western artists working in Japanese woodblock style.
Karhu lived permanently in Kyoto, Japan, where he was the head of the Kyoto branch of the renowned Japan Print Society. But he discontinued this post in some protest against the central organization in Tokyo, which in his view did not give the Kyoto artists the weight they should have.
The American Soldier in Japan Clifton Karhu was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1927. From 1946 to 1948 he was stationed in Sasebo, an American navy base in Japan - located between Nagasaki and Fukuoka. Back in the USA, Clifton studied at the Minneapolis Art School from 1950 to 1952.
From Missionary to Artist In 1952 Karhu returned to Japan - this time not as a soldier, but as a missionary of the Lutheran Church. He made extensive travels through Japan - Kyoto, Shiga and Hiroshima prefecture - selling Bibles door-to-door.
After a while he became disillusioned and in 1958 he resigned as a missionary and returned to arts. Karhu settled in Gifu prefecture. He made oil paintings and watercolors and attracted some attention with local art exhibitions. By and by his reputation grew. In 1961 he won the first prize of Chubu Taiheijo Bijutsu Kyokai Ten (The Middle Pacific Artgroup Exhibition). The same year he had his first single exhibition in the Shin Gifu Gallery in Gifu prefecture.
Kyoto and Woodblock Prints In 1963 Karhu moved to Kyoto. The old residence of the Japanese Emperor is a kind of Japanese Mecca for the arts. Here in Kyoto Clifton got interested in woodblock prints. One year later he had his first woodblocks exhibited in the Yamada Gallery. This has marked the beginning of a successful career as a woodblock print artist. Numerous exhibitions followed in Japan, the U.S.A. and in Europe.
Karhu mostly carved and printed himself. His subjects are typical Japanese scenes - often old Japanese houses or details taken from these. The source of his inspiration was the old town of Kyoto.
Karhu has exhibited widely in and outside Japan. It would be tedious to list all his shows. We just want to mention the annual CWAJ (College Women's Association of Japan), a non-profit event that has become a kind of institutional event for aficionados of contemporary Japanese prints.
Woodblock prints by Clifton Karhu were usually published as limited editions and were hand-signed by Clifton Karhu. A typical edition size for Clifton Karhu is 100. These prints are in high demand and are expensive.
Karhu has a talent for creating mood by using soft touches such as illumination falling on to a street at dusk. The last time I visited Clifton Karhu was in 2005.
I spent a delightful day with Clifton Karhu and his wife. He told me about his life, his feelings about people, and his art. Karhu was an extremely funny quiet man. His real view of mankind can be seen in his whimsical paintings that he did for then annual Karhu calendar.
Prints by the artist are firmly established in major art museums. Her is a small and uncomplete list. - Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, U.S.A. - Cincinnati Art Museum, U.S.A. - Minnesota Museum of Art, U.S.A. - Kunst Museum, Salzburg, Austria. - Fogg Museum, Boston, U.S.A. - National Gallery of Australia, Canberra. - American Chamber of Commerce. - Harvard University, U.S.A. - Japan Culture Institute, U.S.A.
Clifton Karhu passed away on March 24, 2007 in Kanazawa, Japan from lung cancer. The great master whom many called more Japanese than the Japanese themselves died in the country where he had found his inner peace and where he had found back to arts. He remained faithful towards himself and his ideals and his way of living until his last hour.
Literature sources used for this Clifton Karhu biography
* Andrew Horvat, "Karhu and Jacoulet - Western Artists Working in an Eastern Medium", The Japan Quarterly, October-December 1994
* Allison Tolman, "A New Look from a Second Generation Art Dealer", Daruma Magazine No. 42, Spring 2004