Artist Tom Killion makes 'California's Wild Edge' loom large in
an art, poetry and prose collaboration with Gary Snyder
By Lou Fancher
Drawn to the tension of alternative viewpoints, the Mill Valley native combines 80 full-color, boldly expressive prints of locations along the California coast, from Mendocino to Santa Monica, with his own historical essays and adds in prose, poetry, Native American stories and early explorers' accounts from other literary contributors. Poet Robinson Jeffers is the book's ghostly presence among rock-steady writers such as Jane Hirshfield, Robert Hass and Jaime de Angulo; and renowned Grass Valley poet Snyder's words are the light shining alongside Killion's deep expositions and exquisitely rendered art.
The 61-year-old artist, who holds a doctorate in African history from Stanford University, printed his first book at 21 and founded Quail Press to produce subsequent works, now descends from the mountain-specific focus of his and Snyder's recent "Tamalpais Walking" and "The High Sierra of California" to concentrate on what they both call "the Pacific Ocean's most eastern edge."
As a child, leading the charge on hikes along Mount Tamalpais trails or defending an opinion at the family dinner table (where arguments were the admired approach to discourse), Killion honed his visual and verbal acuity. "I love the dialectical," he says. "I look for that as a way to figure out what is truly going on."
His ability to draw became apparent at a very early age. His mother wrote "Tommy, age 8" on a sketch of a Ponderosa pine surrounded by boulders that he says is "still very good." A high school art teacher exposed him to linoleum cut art, and soon enough, Killion was selling his pen-and-ink drawings at the Mill Valley Art Fair.
Realizing that prints would allow him to reproduce an image "infinitely," he taught himself the key block technique that has him carving a master block, transferring the image to successive color blocks and printing in multiple layers on fine papers using oil-based inks and a hand-cranked proofing press.
"One print in the book took almost a year to do," he says, about a 32-layer, color diptych of Carmel Bay.
Fascination with the British Empire, black revolutionary groups like the Black Panthers and war-torn Eritrea that he says was "typical of people my age," found its way into his approach to art and writing. "I'm interested in art as visual communication, but without language, we wouldn't be human," he says. "Adding words to serial imagery of a place completes the visual imagery with the human factor."
Examining the pictures of California's coast that he'd created using the 19th-century Japanese woodblock technique, ukiyo-ë, and practices adapted from European/American wood-engraving, Killion began thinking about a book that would combine Jeffers' and Snyder's poems and his prints. "I didn't want to do a bad, pictures-and-poetry calendar. Once Gary said that there was no voice of literature from the sea -- the poems are written from the land -- I went off on a tangent about early Spanish exploration. I ended up on the couch, reading."
He learned the sea's perspective from sailors' descriptions of fierce winds, fickle currents, chilling fog and cliffs that rose up like an inhospitable wall. Finding the "wild side" of water and the grounded humanity in diaries, journals and poems, Killion told himself to "write the darn thing" in early 2014. Writing six hours at a time, usually in the mornings, he often returned to the project at night after having had dinner with his 13-year-old daughter and his wife, photographer Carolina Frota Killion (they also have a 22-year-old son). He says the writing flowed smoothly, and when he finished in August, he sent the final draft to the printer in November.
Turning a volume of the book over in his hands during an interview at Heyday's laid-back offices in Berkeley, Killion says, "I always loved books. My parents didn't have much money, but they spent their money on books. I remember a 1952 Encyclopedia Britannica that my father, a lawyer, got in payment for a case. It had dense, small type and English articles by the great scholars of the day. As a teacher of history, I taught a lot of literature. It made history come alive for my students."
Killion likes the coiling tension that arises between detailed images that render a recognizable place and the poetry that conveys power as much by the words eliminated as by those printed on the page. The results are compatible, if contrasting: Snyder's full-fledged idea whittles down to "That ocean was too cold to swim/But we did it again and again." And across the page, Killion's simple grooves carved in wood create black cliffs that plunge into cool blue waters under sunset-kissed clouds in "Usal Beach, 1984."