Impressions of Tamalpais
Interview with Tom Killion
by Dan Rademacher on April 01, 2009
Tom Killion (right) has coauthored two books with poet Gary Snyder (left). They met in the 1970s when Killion brought Snyder a copy of his handmade book 28 Views of Mount Tamalpais.
Photo by Katsunori Yamazato, courtesy Heyday Books.
Local artist Tom Killion is coauthor, with poet Gary Snyder, of Tamalpais Walking, a new book from Heyday Books excerpted in this issue. Killion, who grew up in Mill Valley, has been making woodblock prints of the California landscape since he was a teenager, including about 60 of Mount Tamalpais.
BN: You spent a lot of time on the mountain as a kid. How did it influence you?
TK: We lived right on the side of the mountain. I could walk up onto Tamalpais in about a half hour. In childhood, everything is fresh and magical. The first 10 years of life shape us so profoundly. The way the world appears then seems to be the way it always has been and always should be, and we carry that with us for the rest of our lives. One of the things that’s wonderful about the Bay Area, especially Marin County, is that so much land has been preserved, so that visually, at least, it is still a lot like it was when I was a child 50 years ago.
You invent your life as a child; that’s especially true if you end up doing something you really love. It’s probably something you imagined in the magical way a child can, and then you spend a lifetime trying to get there in the real world. That’s what happened to me, anyway. I imagined doing woodcut prints of Mount Tamalpais even before I was a teenager. And here I have gone and spent the rest of my life making that happen.
BN: How did you come to that dream so early?
TK: I’m lucky to have grown up in Mill Valley, which was an artistic community. A lot of people appreciated Asian art at that time. And I grew up at the same time that Gary and Alan Watts and others were in Mill Valley and inventing the counterculture. I didn’t know that at the time–I was a kid–but it was in the air.
BN: You never work from photos, only from black-and-white sketches you make in the field. Why?
TK: Often, a camera’s color identification is not the way you really see things. The camera captures a moment in time. When I do the sketch, I am there for a while. Then I build the moment up through all the layers of reversal as I make the print. It has a lot more visual complexity to it than that moment in time. But it’s also a process of simplifying. A camera records every last detail, but I pick out only some of the details and then the carving simplifies it even further. Sometimes my work might give you the feel of a place perhaps even better than a photograph.
BN: Do you ever want to work in a medium with faster results, like painting?
TK: I find it frustrating to paint; you’re right there looking at it, and you can’t quite get it the way you want it. I look at nature and then I draw what I see, but then I spend 200 hours carving it all backwards into blocks and then spend days reassembling it on the printing press with colors I’ve made up. It doesn’t really look like what I was looking at, and I don’t care by then, so I am halfway between a literalist and an abstract artist–although the final product doesn’t look abstract.
BN: For your new book, you researched the cultures of poetry and walking that grew up around the mountain before World War II. What did you learn from that?
TK: I always thought Mount Tam was this natural place, and it was exalted because it was so beautiful. But really it’s just another mountain. It’s beautiful, yes, but the reason we think of it as this very special place is that it’s a reflection of the City. Once San Francisco got built right across the Golden Gate, Tam was the biggest thing you could see. And until the bridges were built, it was remote.
BN: How did people from the City experience the mountain back then?
TK: Even the most dedicated conservationists today don’t spend as much time outdoors as people did then, because, to begin with, they get in a car and they drive, and they live in a house that has so many amenities.
In the 19th century, it was a different world. Many people lived on farms, or they came from farms, and they walked everywhere. They’d get up early in the morning, take the ferry, take the train, come to Mill Valley, hike all the way over to Stinson Beach, have a picnic, and then hike all the way back.
BN: What happened to that walking culture?
TK: The bridges and the end of the ferries and the trains totally transformed it. Automobiles changed the culture. Once you got into the car, why not drive a little farther up? And then you took a shorter hike. Eventually many people just drove up to the top to have a picnic.