Woodcut print artist Tom Killion captures California’s wild edge
By Dave de Give
As is often the case with great endeavors, Tom Killion’s artistic process begins with a simple sketch. It’s a deceptive term in this case. The Point Reyes resident’s etchings are simple only in the sense that they belie the greater beauty of the final result: beautiful woodcut and linoleum-cut prints of scenic Central Coast locales. By any other comparison, the sketches by the book artist, printmaker, and outdoor enthusiast are intricately detailed renderings, capturing crucial elements of distance, geography and tone that aid the later stages of his process.
Killion’s art was first driven by a love of the mountains and the ocean and how they converge, as well as an interest in the Japanese printmaking techniques of famed 18th and 19th century Japanese woodcut artist Katsushika Hokusai. “I grew up around Mt. Tamalpais, which is kind of our Mt. Fuji,” says Killion. “And I love Japanese prints and Japanese aesthetics and so I already had this idea in my head: I wanted to make a little book of these prints of Mt. Tamalpais like Hokusai’s views of Mt. Fuji, and I had some Haiku-like poems that I was working on to go with this.”
In another life, Killion might have been a cartographer or a topologist, divvying up landscapes into shapes, layers, and planes. But his artistic talent would be wasted on maps of a technical or geographical bent. Instead, Killion creates beautifully intricate landscape prints using just the right balance of art and science to combine the different elements into a single, delicate piece of fine art.
There’s a delayed gratification to his work. The many steps between initial sketch and final product compel Killion to have faith that, in the end, the beauty of his work will reveal itself.
Surprisingly, Killion never studied art in college, but he did learn how to operate a printing press while attending UC Santa Cruz—a skill that turned out to be an important component of his artistic process. “It had nothing to do with my school work or anything,” says Killion, who came from Marin County to attend UCSC when he was 17 years old in 1971, adding with a laugh, “I was a history major and I was devoted to taking drugs and having fun and going surfing and all the other things people did in Santa Cruz in those days, and I think they still do.”
Killion took an independent study course in press printing from Bill Everson, a poet-in-residence at UCSC who founded the Lime Kiln Press. He also studied with renowned printer and typographer Jack Stauffacher, who came to UCSC from San Francisco to teach a typography course on a printing press in the Cowell Dining Hall basement.
Once a drawing has been made, Killion’s next step is to transfer the images onto a series of wood blocks through an elaborate tracing and carving process. Borrowing from the Hokusai tradition, Killion applies concave, woodworking implements to Japanese-style plywood, gouging out bits of wood along the lines of his original sketch.
“You’re carving the image in reverse,” says Killion. “What you carve away is negative space but what you leave is the printing surface. Whatever color you put on that is the color that gets printed on the paper.”
In the last step, the wood blocks are mounted into the printing press, one block at a time, but the same piece of paper is used in multiple press runs, allowing Killion to experiment with different colors for each facet of his illustration and resulting in unique numbered prints that are in high demand by the art-buying public.
Killion also produces books and got the idea for his first large folio, The Coast of California, while living in a converted garage in his UCSC days at the end of Fresno Street in Live Oak, which he describes as at that time being undeveloped fields full of mustard flowers with a few little streets with scattered houses. It was not far from 26th Avenue Beach, of which he fashioned one of his early prints. He ventured out further, making prints of the Pogonip in Santa Cruz, as well as Point Lobos and Big Sur to the south.
Killion maintains that the printing instructors and the fellow “printophiles” and poets he engaged with at UCSC and in Santa Cruz were key to learning his craft. It’s also the basis for his more recent 2015 book, California’s Wild Edge and its eponymous exhibit currently showing at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History.
“That’s one thing that was very Santa Cruz-inspired,” says Killion. “Even though the prints go up and down the coast, the center of that world is Santa Cruz.”
See Tom Killion’s California’s Wild Edge through April 22 at the Santa Cruz MAH in downtown Santa Cruz, santacruzmah.org.