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Tom Killion Talks Cascade Canyon, Artists That Influenced His Style

Mill Valley native and a prolific California artist talks about culture and artistic influences in the 1960s, his process for creation and some exciting upcoming projects.

It's not easy finding someone with a background more interesting than Tom Killion.

Raised on the shady slopes of Mill Valley's , Killion began sketching the lush natural landscape that surrounded him when he was eight years old. Strongly influenced by the traditional Japanese Ukiyo-ë style of Hokusai and Hiroshige, Killion creates stunning multi-colored woodcut prints of California landscapes.

He attended UC Santa Cruz, where he published his first illustrated book in 1975. After traveling extensively throughout Europe and Africa, Killion began graduate studies in African History at Stanford University, where he completed his doctorate on Ethiopia in 1985. Killion's studio is currently located on Inverness Ridge near Point Reyes, California.

Mill Valley Patch: How do you think growing up in Mill Valley affected you artistically?
Tom Killion: I wouldn't be an artist today, and certainly not an artist that creates Japanese style woodblock pieces of the California landscape, if I hadn't grown up in Mill Valley. I had a lot of wonderful artistic influences from the general community and people had an appreciation of East Asian art. The beauty of the landscape was influential, especially Mt. Tam and the redwoods.
I grew up right behind . When I was nine or 10 years old, I had a paper route in Cascade Canyon. I'm very influenced by the way the town of Mill Valley is nestled into the beautiful landscape. Also, a lot of people had Japanese-influenced aesthetics in their houses and gardens. My parents took me to the de Young Museum where I saw a show that featured Chinese paintings of misty mountains, scrolls from way back, maybe the Song dynasty.

MVP: Were your parents artistic?
TK: My parents weren't artists and weren't interested in art per-se, but they had the same general taste that everyone did during the time which was really influenced by Japanese sensibilities. I was born in 1953, strangely this is all after World War II, somehow people didn't see any contradiction. On the West Coast, much of the white population was so anti-Japanese you wonder what California would have been like if the Japanese didn't have their lives disrupted.

MVP: What was it like growing up in Mill Valley?
TK: Mill Valley was a wonderful place to grow up. I went to , and me and my friends were really cognizent of the beauty. We felt so fortunate to be raised in Mill Valley. The culture was so rich then, with Bohemians, counter culture, acid rock bands in the 60s, what a place for being inspired by new thinking and new art.

MVP: What is your creative process like? Do you usually stumble upon a landscape or do you have something in mind when you set out to work?
TK: I guess stumble upon is the basic thing. I go out hiking and wandering around the landscapes of Marin. Even when I lived for many years in Santa Cruz, overseas and back east, I was always back here a lot. Going away would make me even more aware of the beauty of Marin.
I don't go searching with an idea already in mind, though for the Mt. Tam book I would go and look for great views of the mountain, but generally if I find a great pace, and don't have a sketch book with me, I'll go back. It's a process of discovering. I always work from sketches. Whatever it is people like about my work, I'm sure it comes from my own sense of the place rather than what a camera saw. Color cameras have become very accessible and a lot of people work from photos. When they do, the landscape's not the same. They can be very flat and uninspiring.
Too many people use cameras. People don't really know how to read the landscape for themselves. They don't see how it's all interconnected. You have to spend time with it and you have to be there, with a camera you're not there, you have to sit with it and meditate on it. For me sketching is almost a form of meditation. It's a thoughtless, non-world thinking kind of process, i just start working and it flows.

MVP: Which artists have been most influential for you?
TK: My favorite artist of all time is Hokusai. Of course, he's a lot of people's favorite artist. He really had the greatest line in the world of art history. He invented a line that has taken over the world. He was so incredibly prolific, he's most famous for the woodblock prints created of his work, but he wasn't a printer. That's just how they persevered his work. He had the most beautiful lines of landscape art, he also kind of invented the way people did comic book art, so he was also the first manga artist. He was very prolific in the 1820s.

MVP: What are you working on now?
TK: I'm always working on new things. I've done a couple of new Sierra prints, and I'm trying to get the text together for a new book about the coast of California. It will be published by Heyday Press, which did the books I did with Gary Snyder. It will be another one from that series. It's a poetic and literary history of the California coast. It gives me a chance to juxtapose some wonderful poems with some of my prints. Writing is of course much more time consuming and hair pulling than doing art. But you know that.

MVP: You've been involved with the for a long time now.
TK: The Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival has been such a supportive community. I used to go down as a teenager. At first I sold little pen and ink drawings. I've been doing the festival on and off since the late 1960s before I went to college. I can't think of anyone who is still selling things at the fair that has done it as long as I have. I still work on the committee, almost in a sense of gratitude for everything that the fair has done for me in my life. I love going down there and smelling the bay laurel and the redwoods. Makes me think that it's September and that's the way it should be.

Rico August 17, 2012 at 04:23 PM
Great interview, Thank you Patch ! It is refreshing to see some good news about Mill Valley and the creative, productive people that grew up here, I am one of them. I still live here and I still fully appreciate the beauty and tranquility of the canyon and hillside neighborhoods. No doubt that the people have changed, but the landscape has not changed that much. I think that many newcomers don't fully appreciate the area for what it is and what it was.
Holly Seerley August 17, 2012 at 05:24 PM
Wonderfully sweet story. I especially relate to Tom Killion's description of having to feel a place in order to draw it properly. I am not an artist per se but "get" the specialness of being in a natural environment and absorbing the intricate interconnections. Something about that is healing, fulfilling. I can only imagine what it stirs for an artist like Tom Killion. Thanks for doing local stories about our local folks who have lived extraordinary as well as ordinary lives.
Bonnie Portnoy August 28, 2012 at 05:49 AM
Kindred spirits, these artists. My grandfather, early California artist Tilden Daken, built a home in Cascade Canyon in 1925. He painted Mount Tam hundreds of times. Check him out at www.tildendaken.com

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