06 August 2015


From a triptych by Utagawa Kunisada
While reading April Vollmer's new book about mokuhanga, I noticed that when talking about an artist she would often mention that artist's lineage: where and with whom they studied. Lineage seems to be an especially strong concept in the east. For example, the form of meditation that I practice, which began in India, proudly traces a multi-generation lineage of teachers. Perhaps because mokuhanga was transmitted through a system of apprenticeship for most of its history, the role of the teacher/master is very important and students consider themselves to be lifelong students of their particular teacher no matter how adept they become.

So I got to thinking about my lineage. I learned mokuhanga from Matt Brown, a New Englander like myself, at a workshop here in Massachusetts. I call Matt my teacher, and will continue to do so, but the truth is it was a three-day workshop and that was the extent of my formal training. The rest I learned on my own and with some help from the online Baren Forum, started in the 90s by David Bull.

From a triptych by Utagawa Kunisada
Matt, too, is mostly self taught. He started making woodblock prints in the early 1990s and learned mostly through books, like Walter Phillips' Technique of the Color Woodcut. Matt cites David Bull, who is a mostly self-taught English-born Canadian living in Japan, and an artist named Bill Paden as people from whom he learned a great deal. Of Paden, Matt writes,
"Bill Paden died on August 6, 2004. He was a hanga woodblock printmaker from way back, having studied moku-hanga in Japan during the Sixties. He lived in New York City for many years and taught at NYU. He knew an enormous amount about hanga printmaking. He was a very generous personality and loved to share knowledge about hanga. He wanted to be sure we all did things the right way." 
Realizing that I might be able to trace my own mokuhanga lineage further, I got to wondering about Bill Paden and how he learned the craft, so I turned to Google. Bill Paden was born in Indiana in 1930 and lived in Japan from 1960-65. In Japan he met Clifton Karhu, another American from the midwest (Minnesota), who taught Paden mokuhanga. Since Bill Paden taught in New York, many current practitioners studied with him, including April Vollmer and Joseph Vorgity. (Joseph Vorgity and I are some kind of mokuhanga siblings, since we both studied with Matt Brown.)

Matt Brown, December Afternoon
So what about Clifton Karhu? The most thorough biography I can find is at the Verne Gallery web site. Karhu was stationed in Japan after WWII, left, was ordained as a Lutheran minister in 1955, then returned to Japan as a missionary and Bible salesman. He grew disillusioned with being a missionary in Japan (who wouldn't?) and relocated to Kyoto in the early 1960s, where he painted and then learned to make woodblock prints. The Ren Brown Collection web site has a wide range of Karhu's prints if you'd like to see some.

Bill Paden, Sunset
 Karhu seems to have been quite a character. He was known for the fact that he always wore traditional Japanese attire as well as for his woodblock prints, and the legend is that the Japanese said Karhu was more Japanese than the Japanese. As is often true of westerners who learn mokuhanga, Karhu chose to depict idealized Japanese subject matter in his work. An excellent and lengthy 1986 article from the Los Angeles Times quotes a number of Japanese artists critiquing Karhu's work:
"Karhu's technique is excellent, but it is essentially decorative," says Tetsuya Noda, a prize-winning print artist who combines photographic processes with woodblock printing. "When Americans get to like Japan, that's the sort of pictures they make." Hisae Fujii, curator of prints at Tokyo's National Gallery of Modern Art, agrees: "Karhu's pictures are good to look at when one is tired, but they do not stimulate us to look into the future."
Clifton Karhu
Not the most glowing reviews, but Karhu was very successful and sold a lot of prints. The only reference I can find about Karhu studying with any particular printmakers in Japan is in the LA Times article, which notes that gallery owner Tetsuo Yamada first pointed out to Karhu how well the bold lines and colors in his paintings would do as prints and taught him how to make them. More often cited as a mentor to Karhu is Stanton Macdonald-Wright, a California painter who ended up in Japan in the 1960s and taught Karhu color theory. So my mokuhanga lineage seems to stop at Clifton Karhu. I am amused, but not surprised, to discover that my lineage includes only western autodidacts like myself. And I notice with less amusement but no surprise that it only includes men.

And so I offer a hearty thank you to Clifton Karhu, Bill Paden, David Bull, and Matt Brown. I owe you! And if you have any further information for me on any of these artists, please let me know!


Richard Stockham said...

Staunton MacDonald-Wright? Founder of Synchromism? Sold the first abstract painting in Paris? Part of Gertrude Stein's salon? Taught color theory/ structure to Tom Hart Benton, who taught it to Jackson Pollack? That Staunton MacDonald-Wright?

Annie B said...

Now we're talking! Thanks for that, Richard Stockham.