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One day in 1974, Kinuko Yamabe Craft hand-delivered to Playboy’s Chicago office a set of paintings she’d been commissioned to create for the magazine. Designed to accompany a “ribald classic,” Craft’s elaborate wood-panel triptych and two additional works were so skillfully done, from the intricate medieval Russian iconography to the fauxdistressed gold-leaf frames, that they looked as if they’d been lifted from the walls of a museum.
Stunned, associate art director Kerig Pope dropped to his knees and kissed her feet.
“I was astounded by how well she did it,” says Pope. “It had a very authentic look, and I was terribly impressed. It’s kind of embarrassing for me; she probably thought, What kind of weirdo is this?”
Craft was unfazed by Pope’s enthusiasm. Still a working artist today at the age of 79, she says that her many Playboy projects gave her the opportunity to learn about other artists and their techniques. “Playboy worked like a school for me,” she says. “It was the most effective training I ever got.”
Having begun in 1967 with an assignment from founding art director Arthur Paul, Craft continued to work for Playboy through 2000. Across those five decades, her phenomenal gift for working in whatever medium and style the task at hand required-including art deco, biblical, trompe l’oeil, even nursery rhyme illustration-is on display in more than 100 magazine pieces.
THE TRIPTYCH CREATED BY KINUKO CRAFT TO ILLUSTRATE PLAYBOY’S 1974 PUBLICATION OF “THE GABRILIAD.”
From the moment she picked up her big sister’s crayons and drew a mountain landscape on a sliding screen in her family home in Kanazawa, Japan at the age of two, Craft knew she was an artist. “That was the first huge painting I did,” she says. “Nobody scolded me-I’m so grateful!”
Another early moment had an indelible effect on the nascent artist. “My grandmother was carrying me on her back. Outside was the forest, in beautiful sunlight. A stray bamboo leaf, stuck to the end of a cobweb, twirling with the breeze. The sunlight hit the wooden sash, and I thought it was the most beautiful thing,” she says. “It is etched in my mind. That was the first full awareness of being surrounded by beauty.”
Ever since, Craft has gravitated toward beauty and endeavored to capture it in her work. “Unfortunately, I’m a mere mortal,” she says, “and so I can’t grab it.”
After obtaining a fine art degree in Japan, Craft moved to the States in late 1964 for graduate stud¥ at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Arriving in the thick of a miserable winter, she almost turned on her heel and fled. “No leaves on the trees, and it was desolate, so lonely looking,” she recalls. “And the cold! It was colder than any cold I knew.”
But she stuck it out and began her studies in 1965, frequently visiting the eponymous museum next door to wonder at the master-works within. After a year and a half, Craft left school and started working within Chicago’s studio system, which she describes as “a bunch of illustrators sitting and waiting for salesmen to bring jobs.” It wasn’t long before her portfolio found its way to Art Paul and she accepted her first Playboy assignment: an illustration for a wry short story about urban bohemians. From there the Playboy commissions kept coming in, engaging her virtuoso artistry for everything from fiction, humor, essays and tech stories to a sex survey.
“With her sophisticated citation of many strands from Western art’s tradition of visual fantasy, Craft clearly has high expectations for her audience’s wider cultural knowledge,” writes professor Lorraine Janzen Kooistra about Craft’s Playboy paintings for another ribald classic: Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market. Hieronymus Bosch, Botticelli and Arthur Rackham are among the visual references Kooistra notes in the playfully wicked paintings.
KINUKO CRAFT IN HER STUDIO, CIRCA 1983.
Craft’s versatility also caught the eye of novelist and cultural critic Ray Bradbury. “Kinuko Craft is an artist for all seasons, for all kinds of subjects, and in all kinds of styles,” he writes in his 1985 volume The Art of Playboy. “She fits herself to her subject with charming ease and yet leaves herself free to remain herself. Her illustrations suggest one who is a true connoisseur of art, widely ranging through all the countries of the world.”
Bradbury goes on: “One cannot help but think how delightful it would be to walk into a gallery full of the fruits of her kaleidoscopic talents.” (We’re happy to report that one can, simply by flipping through the Playboy archive.) Years later, Craft would illustrate The Witch Door, one of Bradbury’s original Playboy short stories.
Other notable authors whose stories were paired with Craft’s creations include Paul Theroux, John Collier and T.C. Boyle. Alice K. Turner, Playboy’s fiction editor from 1980 to 2001, described her as “one of our very best artists.”
Writer Gore Vidal was so taken with one of Craft’s paintings for his 1978 story Kalki that she and the magazine decided to give it to him. But in trying to compliment her work, Vidal unintentionally slighted her. “When he received it, he said, ‘I usually don’t like illustration, but I like this one.’ It’s offensive,” Craft says, laughing. “I wanted to say, ‘What’s wrong with illustration?'”
Outside of Playboy, Craft worked for advertising agencies, textbook publishers and other magazines including Time, Newsweek, National Geographic, The Atlantic and Forbes. Rarely given much time to complete her projects and reluctant to turn down work, Craft frequently pulled all-nighters to meet deadlines, drinking a single cup of cold green tea to stay awake.
“Everything that was flying my way, I caught it. It was one of those aggressive periods. I have to do it, I want to do it,” she says. “That was the passion I hadeven for math-book illustrations.”
In the first decades of her career, illustration was a male-dominated field, as Pope recalls. Craft faced additional barriers, especially at smaller agencies and publications. “When they looked at me, all they saw was Asian. ‘Bring me the Asian samples from your portfolio next time,’ ” Craft says potential clients would tell her. “Not being born in this country, and speaking with an accent, was not advantageous.”