'Tamalpais Walking' makes art of urban refuge

Warning: Viewing the art in the book "Tamalpais Walking: Poetry, History, and Prints" may make you want to quit your job, travel to San Francisco, fall at the feet of printmaker Tom Killion and beg him to take you on as his apprentice.

Born in 1953, Killion grew up below Mount Tamalpais, a peak whose name merges American Indian words for "bay" and "mountain." The name is fitting, since Mount Tamalpais rises above San Francisco, giving urbanites a nearby refuge where they can hike and see panoramic views of the Bay Area.

As a boy, Killion could walk out his back door and soon be on the mountain. He had an early interest in Japanese art, especially the work of woodblock print masters Hokusai and Hiroshige. When he was a teenager, Killion was carving images into linoleum, then stamping the inked carvings onto paper to make linocut prints. In college, he made his own printed book, "28 Views of Mount Tamalpais," modeled after Hokusai's "36 Views of Mount Fuji."

"Tamalpais Walking" includes many of those exquisitely detailed early prints. Killion's most recent work is even more beautiful and painstakingly done, revealing skills honed after decades of printmaking.

The print "West Point, Mt. Tamalpais" depicts white fog rolling in like a wave that follows the contours of the darkly forested hills below. Golden yellow mountains in the distance contrast with the blue of the bay. Stretching across an inlet, a far-away bridge appears as a tiny reminder of humans.

The pair of prints "Bolinas Ridge to Point Montara" and "Bolinas Ridge to Duxbury Point" form a panoramic diptych. Glowing yellow hills are tinged with green, complemented by splashes of orange-red California poppies and purple-blue lupines. The ocean stretches to the horizon. As with many of his prints, Killion does the conifer forest, the oak trees and the brush in black with lavish details of branches and trunks left white. The result is a bold, graphic look.

One section of "Tamalpais Walking" contains a description by Killion of his printmaking process. Using blocks carved from linoleum and plywood, Killion printed 17 layers to make "Bolinas Ridge to Point Montara." A fascinating series of pictures shows colors gradually building up with each printing to form the final image. The process took more than 300 hours.

"Tamalpais Walking," which is available in the new books section of the Ashland library or through local bookstores, is worth getting just for the images. But as the subtitle implies, it also contains a history of Mount Tamalpais and information about San Francisco's poetry scene. Poet Gary Snyder collaborated with Killion, who also works as a university history instructor, on the book. Synder has contributed many poems.

Prominent in the modern-day history of Mount Tamalpais is William Kent, son of a Chicago meatpacking magnate who, like Killion, grew up near the mountain. As an adult, he risked his family's money and used his ties with the Teddy Roosevelt administration to save a Mount Tamalpais redwood forest canyon from logging in 1905, and then from a 1908 plan to flood the canyon to make a reservoir.

Prior to World War II, German-speaking San Franciscans, who had a heritage of hiking in the Old World, and members of the Civilian Conservation Corps built trails, a chalet, a mountain theater and a fire lookout on the mountain.

It was this odd cast of characters who helped preserve Mount Tamalpais and create its hiking system so that it could inspire hikers, poets and artists today.

Reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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