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Marin County artist Tom Killion weaves poetry into his work
This story is set to the music of Bay Area shakuhachi player Masayuki Koga, who runs the Japanese Music Institute of America. It’s from an album called Eastwind. All poetry in this piece can be found in the book Tamalpais Walking, by Tom Killion and Gary Snyder.
There are a few spirits in this part of the world … not wholly divorced from nature, with something of the poetry of the savage left. They have made a gallant fight to keep the mountain undefiled and to rouse all the people to an appreciation of its wonders. They are inspirers of the project that asks the world to see an ancient miracle play … on one of the most picturesque spots in the world.
- John Barry - 1913
Tom Killion is working in his studio, on a forested ridge up the Pt. Reyes peninsula. He looks at spectacular vistas: of waterways, of trees, of hills, and high peaks. They’re all in the wood he’s carving.
“It’s really good to have broken lines and twisty things and sort of more organic forms in the markings, and I’m kind of conscious of that as I do things,” he says. “I make sure nothing is ever too straight or too even, and that there’s always a little bit of randomness in any patterning I do. And that gives the overall effect that feels more like the natural world.”
Killion is nearly 60 years old, but looks much younger than that. He’s lean – regularly hikes, bikes, and swims around Tomales Bay. His experiences feed the work he does here, in this sun-filled space. As a Swainson’s thrush sings outside, Killion uses a U-gouge to carve the outline of a hillside in a block of Japanese linden wood.
“This is how it goes through it,” he says. “So I spend a lot of time carving the plywood blocks. That’s probably the biggest amount of time I spend on these prints is the carving. It can take a week or two, even.”
Caminante no hay camino / se hace camino al andar.
Walker, there is no path, you make the path as you walk.
- Antonio Machado - 1965
Killion was a child when he found his inspiration: the work of 19th-century popular Japanese artist Hokusai, who made clean-lined images of nature reproduced on paper through woodcut prints. “He had a beautiful line,” Killion says. “One of the most beautiful lines of any artist in history.”
“Kids are intrigued by things like that, but I was really taken,” he recalls. “By the way the trees looked. The twisted pines and the cliffs and the mist and the rivers and the little foot trails.” Killion says he loved that world. At about that time, he started going on hikes along Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley, where he grew up. “Then when I was 12 or 11, my mom found a book by Hokusai called 36 views of Mt. Fuji. It was a world of little footpaths, with guys walking on them, and wading through rivers, and that’s the way the world was in Japan in the 1820s. I thought, ‘I live in a world like that. I like that world. I want to draw pictures of this world.’” And so he did.
Those picnics covered with sand
No money made them more gay
We crossed over hills in the night
And walked along beaches by day.
Sage in the rain, or the sand
Spattered by new-falling rain.
That ocean was too cold to swim
But we did it again and again.
- Gary Snyder - 2006
“I was never particularly into carving things,” says Killion. “I mean, of course I liked to whittle sticks. Of course! But I really wanted to make wood blocks that ended up looking like Japanese prints. I tried drawing pen and ink drawings of things I liked around where I grew up in Mill Valley. Like Mt. Tamalpais, and the coast over by Stinson Beach, and San Francisco skyline, and Golden Gate Bridge. And color them in with ink washes. And I sold some of them at the little art fair when I was a teenager down in Old Mill Park down in Mill Valley. But I really preferred the idea of doing it like the Japanese who I looked up to so much did.”
These placid giant hills
Reared from the blue dream-shadows of the canyon
Uphold their foreheads in the golden light.
How is it, then, that I, a man,
Cannot achieve to even these hills?
Enough it is for me, perhaps to know
That far above me there the Light still shines.
- Maynard Dixon - 1918
Killion went to college at UC Santa Cruz, where he earned a bachelors degree in history. He continued to hone his craft, producing a book called Twenty-eight Views of Tamalpais in 1975 – dark blue images printed from carved linoleum blocks. He learned how to reproduce the art through a letterpress.
“‘Cause you’ve got to remember that people have been doing this since the 1500s,” he says, “and putting illustrations together with type.” Killion calls this “the original multimedia, where you could get thoughts and ideas mixed in with visuals.” He appreciates the skill that went into creating those typefaces, some of which originated from the hands of monks copying manuscripts by hand. Or, as Killion puts it, “gorgeous italic hands that went back a thousand years further back in the past.” Those hands tell just part of the history.
There were also, according to Killion, “the stone cut letters of the Roman Empire that were really beautifully developed. And that’s where the classic serif typefaces came from.” Those scripts have been preserved today in the form of digital fonts. “But the way it was done for 4- or 500 years is completely evaporated,” Killion notes. “The whole point to me, to my work, is that that’s how I learned how to use this machine, and it became my tool for something totally different: making these multi-colored, Japanese-inspired, woodcut prints.”
In the 1800s, Hokusai and other Japanese artists would paint pictures, then supervise teams of people who would reproduce the work by hand. Some specialized in wood cutting; others in printing the reliefs on paper. Killion, by contrast, does it all himself.
“And I have to keep playing with the inking constantly,” he says. “So every one ends up being slightly different, too. And that ends up adding to the charm of the whole thing, because every print in the end turns out a little bit differently.”
Was it the wind, or the soft sigh of leaves,
Or sound of singing waters? Lo, I looked,
And saw the silvery ripples of the brook,
The fruit upon the hills, the waving trees,
And mellow fields of harvest; saw the Gate
Burn in the sunset; the thin thread of mist
Creep white across the Saucelito hills;
Till the day darkened down the ocean rim,
The sunset purple slipped from Tamalpais,
And bay and sky were bright with sudden stars.
- Ina Coolbrith - 1871
Killion moves across the studio to his printing press. It’s a 1,500-pound Asbern proof press – he bought it in San Francisco for about $350 when computers ushered out the age of typesetting.
“So now I’m locking the blocks into the press,” he says. “And there is furniture. Some of it’s metal furniture. Some of it’s wooden furniture.”
And then he prints. One block, one color, at a time. Every block must be set precisely, so the colors meet the lines.
“But if there isn’t some little flaws in it, it wouldn’t really be right anyway,” he says. “And the Japanese approach to things developed when these color prints were made, the developed this whole aesthetic. Everything has to have some flaw in it. Nothing can be perfect. So why not just put it in there, then you’re done with that. You’re through it. I don’t have to intentionally put in flaws. There’s plenty of them, unintentionally.”
Old Tamalpais! He looks so grave
With his brow in the cloud and his chin in the wave.”
- Charles Warren Stoddard - 1867
Killion earned a PhD from Stanford in African History. He’s traveled around the world, creating artwork everywhere he’s gone. But he’s always come home.
“I’ve decided to concentrate on California,” he says. “There’s lots of beautiful places in the world, but I really know the thin vegetative cover of this land. And that’s what makes land different. How much rain it gets, and what the vegetation is. And I really know it well. In the Sierras and along the coast. And parts of the Central Valley and Northern mountains. I don’t know the southern California world so well. And I don’t like it as much, either … Yeah. I’m more of a Northern Californian. So, that’s what I like. My favorite areas are anywhere around here.”
Killion’s works are rich, but their names are simple. Poetic. “Garden of Allah” … “Mountain Theater” … “Divide Meadow” … “Shell Beach” … “Bolinas Ridge to Pt. Montara.”
“I think the man-made world is ugly,” he says. “I love the natural world and all its beautiful, infinite complexity. I want to be part of it. I want to share it, share in it. When I see something beautiful, I want to draw. I don’t know where that comes from. I love trees, landforms, and then the movement of the sea. And it’s really hard, the hard edge of the woodcut compared with the soft movement of water, sky, and clouds. And if you can do that, it’s like wow! I did that.”
Through the sharp gap of gorge below,
From mountains’ feet the gaze may go,
Over a stretch of fields, broad-sunned,
Then glance beyond,
Across the beautiful bay,
To that dim ridge, a score of miles away,
Lifting its clear-cut outline high,
Azure with distance on the azure sky,
Whose flocks of white clouds brooding on its crests
Have winged from ocean to their piney nests.
- Edward Rowland Sill – 1864