.Feature: Carving the song of the coast

Marin artist Tom Killion’s and poet Gary Snyder’s new masterwork explores ‘California’s wild edge’

by Steve Heilig

Some artists’ work is immediately recognizable—“That must be a Picasso” or, “That’s Dali,” or “Look—a Banksy.”

Marin woodcut artist Tom Killion would reject such comparisons with a self-deprecating laugh, but for many, he is one such artist—you know a Killion when you see it. And with a big and beautiful new book out showcasing much of his best work, we can now see a lot more.

Killion grew up in Mill Valley. He “never took any art classes” and is largely self-taught. His earliest woodcuts date from the ’60s, when he was a teenager making holiday cards for his family or working on similar projects. After much education and world travel, he settled in Inverness, where his woodblock printmaking studio is a productive source of the many colorful prints that have graced numerous books and countless walls and exhibits.

In not much more than the past decade, he has become especially renowned for a trilogy of large coffee table books that he has produced with iconic and Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder, melding his art, Snyder’s poetry and essays to portray certain regions in a graphic and literary manner never accomplished before. Killion first collaborated with Snyder on their book The High Sierra of California in 2002; in 2009, they produced Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints.

The third such collaborative work might well be the best yet. California’s Wild Edge: The Coast in Poetry, Prints, and History is, like the previous two, first a showcase for Killion’s striking, colorful and interpretive pieces, produced over four decades and portraying beautiful locales along the vast California coast. It also contains Gary Snyder’s poetic prose, always welcome in any form to a wide readership, and carefully selected work from a stellar roster of California poets both living and gone, including Robinson Jeffers and Marin’s Joanne Kyger, Robert Hass and Jane Hirshfield, among other departed poetic local legends such as Kenneth Rexroth, Lew Welch and Jack Kerouac. The work of J. Smeaton Chase and Jaime de Angelo—wonderful if underexposed California writers—is also spotlighted. Chase rode his horse all the way up the coast more than a century ago, and de Angelo, a doctor and anthropologist who settled in Big Sur, wrote wonderful poetry inspired by deep Native American contacts.

But especially prominent in this book is the re-emergence in print of Killion’s original vocation as historian, in the form of a detailed yet sweeping history of the discovery of the coast by Spanish explorers, the oral traditions of Native American coastal dwellers and much more. It’s an illuminating, user-friendly narrative that even those who think they know coastal history will learn from, and that anyone can easily enjoy along with the images and poems.

Gary Snyder, 85, is a longtime California history buff as well, as his revered poetry has long evidenced. He’s spent a lot of time on the coast, too, from his early days in the 1950s Bay Area to now, even though he has long lived in the Sierra foothills. At a recent, large and sold-out dinner event in Point Reyes Station to “launch” this new book, he reflected not only on his own lifetime of loving the coast, but went much further back—and forward—in time.

“We actually live on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ocean,” Snyder noted. “The western coast of the United States is physically inhospitable compared to many others—it’s not surprising that it has taken so long for a real poetic consciousness to take hold there. It’s foggy and windy and chilly much of the time. Tom really knows what it took for early ships to find a decent place to berth—many of them sailed right by the Golden Gate in the fog. And in fact we are still learning our way around this part of the world. Human culture here is still fairly new, only 500-600 years old. There’s also no doubt that Chinese and Japanese fishing boats made it over here before the Westerners, and many probably never made it back. Our poems in this new book are really still the beginning—I’d like to see what they will be writing in 1,000 years.”

Snyder, born in San Francisco and a Mill Valley resident in the 1950s and 1960s, also recalls his own early forays to the Marin coast—”When I was living in Berkeley in the 1950s, I found that I could ride my bike to Richmond, put myself on the old ferry to Marin, and ride up and over Mount Tamalpais.  When I was teaching grad students, drinking in a bar at night afterwards, I would sometimes say, ‘Let’s go out to Point Reyes!’ I needed a ride, you know. And usually somebody would go for it and we’d end up getting into the cold water, and then around a fire on the beach, as often as I could. And luckily I survived.” And in the new book, he adds, “One of the things that baffles me a bit, is how was it I decided way back then that it was OK to go naked on a beach, even when there were other people there fully clothed that I didn’t even know?”

A longtime homesteading resident of the Sierra foothills and poet of nature, Snyder has done very few collaborative books or other projects. But Killion’s woodblocks immediately won him over. “I had first met Tom in the 1960s I think, and he had given me a gift of his early book 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais,” Snyder

Gary Snyder (left) and Tom Killion have collaborated on three books together. In June, they spoke to a sold-out crowd in Point Reyes Station. Photo by Katsunori Yamazato
Gary Snyder (left) and Tom Killion have collaborated on three books together. In June, they spoke to a sold-out crowd in Point Reyes Station. Photo by Katsunori Yamazato

says. “He’d become a passionate print artist fairly early on. After some years he got hold of me to do a book on the high Sierra, which was a wonderful project. And we’ve kept at it.”  When reminded of his own status as a literary icon—a poetic signpost to countless readers, first immortalized—very inaccurately, he insists—in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, he shrugs, demurs and says of working with Killion, “Really, the honor is all mine.”

This trilogy of landmark books are published by Berkeley’s Heyday Books, a longtime nonprofit printer of works focused on anything to do with California. Founder Malcolm Margolin is a hero to many western writers and readers, and is himself a longtime fan of both Killion and Snyder. “When I first met Tom, he brought with him what might very well have been the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen, his hand-printed, luxurious edition of High Sierra of California,” Margolin recalls. “It was a limited edition—something on the order of 100 or so copies—printed on paper so sensuous I couldn’t stop myself from running my hand over it and turning the pages for the joy of feeling these heavy pages settle into one another. These pages were interleafed with translucent rice paper that had patterns embedded in them. The printing, the binding, the size: It was stunning. He wanted to know if Heyday would do a trade edition. This may have been the most terrifying moment in my 40 years of publishing. He had brought us something of great, even transcendent beauty, and we were going to make it uglier.”

Obviously Margolin and Heyday did not make the book “uglier.”  Margolin explains why: “I’m struck by the huge amount of time that goes into any one of Tom’s fully-rendered, multi-colored woodblock compositions—as much as 300 hours of what seems to me to be the most exacting, even tedious work imaginable. The miracle of these compositions is that the result of these efforts, rather than anything that looks overworked, are depictions of a world utterly alive, as fresh and vibrant as the earth on the first day of creation. He could have cut corners and gotten away with a lot less. His generosity of spirit is reflected in his rejoicing in the beauty and abundance of the world and his appreciation of the work of other artists. He brings out the best in everything and everyone he touches.”

The artist himself, long a West Marin resident with his family, is an engaging and youthful man who does not seem to seek the limelight but who, once he gets going, becomes eager to share his thoughts and work. He says that his new book is an attempt to “find the song of the California coast.”


Steve Heilig: Is this new book a new version of your early one, 1979’s ‘The Coast of California’?

Tom Killion: Well, yes and no. It has a lot of the pictures from that book but many, many more done since then. That book started as a hand-printed book with just a few images and my own poetry. It went through more editions and each time got a little more colorful with new prints. And then this time, after doing the first couple of books with Gary Snyder for Heyday books, Malcolm Margolin there said, “Let’s do another; what do you think you could put together in just a couple of years?” And I thought about it and told him I’d like to do another version of my coast book. And he just kind of mumbled into his beard about the poetry—and I don’t feel too good about that poetry either; it was, you know, kind of adolescent. So I said I knew Gary had some good stuff about the coast, and that I’d like to include some Robinson Jeffers and some other coastal poets.

Did you pick the poets and poems or have help?

Well, once we agreed this could be a good project, Malcolm sent out a query to all his literary friends about who they might pick for the best California coastal poetry. And they all came back saying Robinson Jeffers is the man. So I kinda concentrated on Jeffers, and went up to Gary’s place in the summers of 2013 and 2014, just sitting out under the ramada in the heat with him, just talking about this poetry. I learned so much from that and got ideas for poems to include, so while Gary himself doesn’t feature as prominently in this book as the previous two, he is still a big presence in it. And I worked on new prints specifically for this book over the past couple years, and I think some of those came out really nice—‘Muir Beach,’ ‘Tennessee Cove,’ and some little ones of areas I hadn’t explored that much before. This is probably the last one of this series, although I am going to work on a “treescapes of California” book for the next 10 years, and Gary of course has many poems about trees—his early book Myths and Texts, for just one example, is full of them.

And your own text in this new book, rather than adolescent poetry, is very different—you exhumed your inner historian for a full historical survey.

Yeah, that’s one of my other hats I used to wear—I was a history professor, focused on African history, but I did other work, too. At SF State I taught in the late 1990s classes on California and San Francisco history and culture. And I got some of my ideas about poems from teaching, and went off on two particular tangents that are in this book—Jaime de Angulo and J. Smeaton Chase, as well as the original journals of Juan Crespi, which were just translated and published in the early 2000s.  Everybody knew about the Portola expedition through the rewritten and redacted older versions, with lots of interesting stuff cut out, such as their first encounters with coastal Native Americans.

This is the third volume in your series with Gary Snyder. How did you first wind up meeting and working with him?

Like many people of my generation, he was a hero of my teenage years. And I got to know him through some mutual friends in Mill Valley, and was first able to visit him in the Sierras when I was 21, and brought my first, handmade book along. I wanted his sage wisdom about his take on a big walkabout journey around the world I was planning. He just said, “Take along plenty of Kaopectate”—an old remedy for diarrhea!

Good advice. So, you grew up in Mill Valley, and went to UC Santa Cruz and were on the path to becoming a certified historian, but then got diverted into becoming an artist.

Yes, I did. After Santa Cruz I went to Stanford for a Ph.D. in African History—on a full financial ride, I like to say, as Stanford sounds hoity-toity but they actually paid me to do it. Then I went off and worked for a couple years in Africa in a refugee camp, and got very interested in Eritrean history, and wound up going with the Eritrean rebels and was with them when they won the big battle that got them independence from Ethiopia. After all that I got a teaching job back east at Bowdoin College, and then a Fulbright Fellowship to go back and teach in Eritrea for a year. By then I was married with a 1-year-old son, and we wanted to come back to California and I got a part-time lecturing job at SF State and started to do more art. Then Gary and I started in on the High Sierra book project in the mid-1990s and I had to get really serious, and this turned into a wonderful hand-printed folio book at first. That led to Malcolm Margolin getting interested in it and wanting to publish it.

The color prints you do seem very labor-intensive. What goes into them?

The big multi-colored prints can take upwards of 300 hours. The majority of that time is spent carving the wood block. I do a sketch out in the field, and then carve the first or key block, which becomes almost like a template as it has all the detail of the sketch, and the outline of where the different colors are going to go. I print that block onto acetate and use that to reverse the image onto as many color blocks as I’m going to need—sometimes I do as many as 15 or 20 different colors for one of these prints. I don’t have to have that many blocks though as I can print one block a lighter color, and then a darker color, carving away each time

'Coast Camp,' by Tom Killion, is the artist's latest print, and just one of countless works of his native Marin.
‘Coast Camp,’ by Tom Killion, is the artist’s latest print, and just one of countless works of his native Marin.

so that the blocks get destroyed in the process. Each block reduction print takes a whole day of printing, so as many colors as there are in the print means it takes that many days of printing. So I can end up spending three or four months on a big—color print. Actually one of the most elaborate prints I ever did is the opening diptych or two-page spread of this new book, called ‘Carmel Bay.’ It’s sort of a view from Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House as it might have been in 1915 when he was first starting to build his stone tower on Carmel Point, facing Point Lobos. It has 32 layers of colors and took me much of 2014 to do that one, along with writing the text.

Can you estimate how many images you’ve done?

In my life? You know, I’ve never added it up. I used to say 500, but it’s certainly 600 by now, including my smaller jobs.

The older, black-and-white ones must have taken much less time, right?

Oh yeah, but the funny thing is, when I was first starting, as a teenager, they could take longer, as I was much slower at carving. I wouldn’t want to have tackled these big multi-color ones until I was quite fast at it. I did it the right way, by chance.

Some of your prints are so detailed—you start with a sketch but do you take photos, too?

Rarely, and I don’t really use them when I do. Sometimes I get some ideas about color or mood from a photo I’ve taken at the same time I am sketching but usually I make a lot of the coloring up from notes I write with the sketches. I have done things from watercolors but they don’t turn out as good as ones where I have pencil or ballpoint pen sketches, because it’s the lines that really make the key block. The notes are also about time of day, and shadows, and such, and I make up the colors from there—that’s why they’re a little wild sometimes.

Well that would be part of the real art of it, right?

Yes, and it’s kind of the traditional Japanese way of dealing with color prints—they didn’t have photographs in Hokusai’s day, and I’ve said, If Hokusai didn’t do it, I don’t do it. That’s kind of bull, but it is also why I don’t use photographs.

So the Japanese woodblock artists were a prime influence?

Certainly in the beginning that was my big interest. But the truth is I am much more interested in the Japanese stuff now than I was back then, as I was using linoleum and didn’t have all the Japanese carving tools I do now and couldn’t afford the really good Japanese heavy paper. Now I do use Japanese tools, paper and wood. But I still use a little hand-cranked printing press when I put the ink on with rubber rollers, and it’s oil-based ink, mostly from Europe.

Your work all depicts the great outdoors, and obviously you love nature and wide open spaces. But it would seem that this career has kept you indoors, producing prints, much more than you might otherwise have done.

Yes, people have always thought of me as Mr. Outdoors, but the only time I get out there is when I go backpacking on vacation or something. Because it is very time-consuming to make the prints, and I also have a lot of time researching and writing to do these books. There was a lot of material made available to me, about places like Big Sur and so forth, that was never used before in writing about California history, so there is original information in this new book.

As you said, you focused much on Robinson Jeffers’ poetry. Was there really anything new to say about him?

I found him fascinating to study; there’s a tremendous sort of fan club in the Tor House Foundation, and scholars still devoted to him. And I was happy to find how well-respected he is now among people I respect. One thing you find is that every Californian of note has read Jeffers, and many have to write some kind of take on him—some pro, some less so. Some of his poems are just fantastic—”He hit the old nail on the head,” as Gary says.

Jeffers’ reputation truly has been an up and down one; he was reviled during WWII when people thought he sided with America’s enemies.

Yeah … people misunderstood him. They thought he was a fascist, too, when really he was trying to get inside the head of some of the Nazis and such, and some people misconstrued that as sympathy for them.

Your book is about the whole California coast but you really focus more on the north. Is that just since it is so much better up here?

Umm, [laughs], yes, well, I put in a sentence about why that is—it’s just not my coast down there. It’s beautiful in places, no denying that. But it’s mostly so urbanized, and a lot of the poetry I could find was urban too, and I guess I just wasn’t that interested in that. I like the wild, and that’s why I called the book ‘California’s Wild Edge.’

I had not heard of the Sonoma Coast being referred to, as in your book, as the “doghole” coast.

You know, I’m really interested in that, as that is part of my own family’s history. My great grandparents came to the Eureka area in the early 1860s and were part of the logging there, and I lived up in Fort Bragg for a year and worked on a fishing boat—a dangerous job I quit pretty quick, as I was too worried about losing my right hand, I guess. But what a forbidden, impossible coast to try to take big resources from. But that’s what they did, from a wall of cliffs with a few openings in little coves they called ‘dogholes.’ They took huge lumber down the cliffs to the boats using these crazy iron rigs, some of which you can still see. I loved exploring that area when I was young, riding up and down Highway 1 on a motorcycle, and even by bicycle.

Here’s my toughest question for you: What are your three favorite spots of all on the Marin and Sonoma Coast?

Well, the short answer is … I’m not gonna tell you. But people already know these places, and most are portrayed in the book. The very end of Point Reyes is just wonderful, and it’s so well-traveled now you have to take a bus out there during a lot of the year. It’s spectacular. And around Muir Beach, the whole stretch between there and Stinson. Wildcat Beach, Alamere Falls and Double Point. On the Sonoma Coast, I think the way the mountains rise to the north of the Russian River north of Jenner is amazing, and the best place to see that of course is Goat Rock. Salmon Creek by Bodega Bay, and Fort Ross—I camped with both my kids there as part of a school trip and it was great. Basically, if there’s a print of it in the book, that means I really like it!

I recently did a Pacific Sun interview with Peter Coyote, who has lived in Mill Valley for decades and is now leaving due to both crowding and attitudes. You’re a Marin native, and while West Marin hasn’t changed nearly as much—thanks to some foresighted people—you must have seen some changes too?

There certainly are more people, and, as Coyote lamented, more traffic. Listen, we grew up here in a golden age, and it’s over. Nobody wants it to end yet, but there is just no way our world can support so many humans. We’re preserving some things, but change is coming, and it’s driven by overpopulation—one thing people still don’t want to talk about. We’re still in these crazy debates about abortion and sex education and saving every human life no matter what. As Gary says, we’re not really domesticated, we’re still a wild species, who if left to it, will create as many progeny as we want. People who are conscious of this have less children, but wild animals actually do better than us in controlling population for their environment.

But most people here certainly don’t want to leave if they can help it.

Things are still nicer here than most places, that’s for sure. And we can complain about how Marin has changed, but the people who did such an incredible job of preserving this place also made it so that, of course, the rich people who want to live here can live here. And some come with their own ideas of entitlement and their own obsessions, and those change a community. I just feel so blessed that by total chance I wound up growing up and living here. I worked in refugee camps and I couldn’t change anything—I never thought I could—and just learned from people there. So much of the world is just unbelievably hard to live in, urban shanty towns are growing all over much of the world. But still I never feel guilty about being here and just say, gosh, I was one of the lucky ones and I guess I just try to give back in some way, to celebrate it and remind people how much beauty there is. That’s about it.

See more of Killion’s work at tomkillion.com, and read more about his new book at heydeybooks.com.

Pacific Sun
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