The death of R.J. Karlstrom will leave a hole in the downtown arts scene.
CHAMPAIGN — One of the first artists to open a working studio in the Lincoln Building was found dead there late Wednesday afternoon.
R.J. "Ron" Karlstrom, 63, was pronounced dead at 5 p.m. Wednesday, a half hour or so after emergency medical technicians and a friend, Steve Selander, broke the window of his locked studio door to gain entrance.
They found him lying on a makeshift cot, apparently having died in his sleep. His sister-in-law, Pam Karlstrom, said he died as a result of a brain aneurysm.
R.J. Karlstrom, who never married, had lived with and cared for his father, Paul, in Savoy until his death on March 19 at age 94.
Paul Karlstrom, an attorney and musician, and his brother, Al, an insurance agent who died in 2009, both had offices in the historic Lincoln Building, 44 E. Main St., C.
Ron Karlstrom established his studio there in 2006; he was the second artist to do so. Now several work there.
Mr. Karlstrom's death will leave a hole in the downtown arts scene. He actively showed his paintings around town, and from time to time was one of the top sellers at the annual Artists Against AIDS sale.
He helped organize open-studio events and parties at the Lincoln Building, and he helped lead the Monday Evening Life Drawing group at McGown Photography on West Springfield Avenue in Champaign.
Selander said he will talk to Lawrence McGown about naming the group after Mr. Karlstrom.
Mr. Karlstrom, the oldest of three sons, grew up in Champaign and was one of the first graduates of Centennial High, when it was called the Annex to Central High School.
He studied at Parkland College, where he was editor of the student newspaper, and obtained a bachelor's of fine arts degree in painting and printmaking from Eastern Illinois University.
He later worked and lived in Chicago, doing graphic and set design. He returned to Champaign about 14 years ago.
"I got tired of it. The work was starting to dry up," he told The News-Gazette in 2009. "When I started out, it was all optical, and now it's all digital. When it was optical, everything was done by hand. You'd have 30 or 40 artists working in a graphic-design office, slaving away. Now, you have three or four artists working at computers or even kids in their basements."
After coming back, Mr. Karlstrom did some graphic-design work for former corporate clients and worked part-time in construction.
As a painter, he specialized in abstract expressionism, often making long, sweeping marks with his brush and acrylic paint.
"I like it because I like the way the paint moves," he said. "Really, I started painting this way because it was kind of an antidote to the representational work I was doing in Chicago for so long."
Jake Aurelian, an artist, writer and friend, called Mr. Karlstrom "a brilliant and innovative artist, a devoted friend and supporter, and a true character."
Aurelian, who wrote about his friend on Facebook just a few hours after his body was discovered, said he will miss hearing Mr. Karlstrom discuss his artwork and rant about politics.
"I'll miss hearing him talk about his days in Chicago working for WGN and playing 'the Bozo bucket game' — not in front of 'a cast of thousands' but in the empty Bozo studio," Aurelian wrote.
"I'll miss attending the art shows. I'll miss seeing him drawing in his worn, little art pad. He had a dark sense of humor and over the years, many of Ron's quirky Karlstromisms became phrases I've adopted."
Mr. Karlstrom's family said his body will be cremated, and there will be a memorial service at Grace Lutheran Church. Mr. Karlstrom had accompanied his father to services there every Sunday.