Features & Columns

A Printmaker's Journey

California artist Tom Killion crossed an ocean to connect to an ancient tradition
IMPOSING VIEW: 'Mt. Tamalpais, Marin County,' copyright 2015 by Tom Killion.

Calm without, fire within: the Japanese aesthetic has inspired Western artists ever since the nation's gates were forced open by Commodore Perry in 1853. The popular, portable and inexpensive art of woodblock ukiyo-e prints brought the West a new way of imagining the world. The flat, stylized works enchanted Western painters everywhere, no matter how turbulent or calm they were.

There was an excellent show exactly 10 years ago at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco, called "Japanesque," which plumbed the depths of that influence. For that matter, in the superb James Tissot show currently running at the Legion, one may observe much of the impact—asymmetry in composition, for example, the importance of cloth flowing like a waterfall, as in all of the yardage that surrounds a geisha.

Surfer, hiker and print artist Tom Killion has traversed the mountains and coastline between Santa Cruz and Marin County for some decades, searching for landscapes that he sketches and meticulously carves for printing at his Bay Area-based Quail Press. Since he began in the 1980s, the easygoing Californian assumed the Japanese method of observation and depiction, engraving the mountains and shores of this region in a traditional Japanese style.

His prints have taken on a revered status, and his colorful works hang in such iconic venues as Bookshop Santa Cruz and David Kinch's Manresa restaurant in Los Gatos. Killion will teach a sold-out class on Japanese woodblock printing at the Palo Alto Art League this week. But for a better look at his methods, Chikaran Motomura's new documentary, Journey to Hokusai, follows Killion as he travels to Japan to hone his skills. Toting four wood panels he made at his California studio, Killion studies with Kyoto's Kenji Takenaka, a fifth-generation artist and one of the few remaining hand printers working in a 1,200 year old craft.


Making his directorial debut, Motomura has worked in film ever since the 1990s. His resume includes 14 collaborations with indie filmmaker Rob Nilsson. Journey to Hokusai was as much a journey for Motomura as it was for Killion. Growing up in Japan, he had known about the celebrated artist Hokusai—whose career during Japan's Edo period roughly coincided with the United States' first seven decades as a republic—but Motomura understood little about the actual craft of woodblock printing.

"Tom and I have known each other for over 10 years, as our kids went to the same school," Motomura says. "When our families went to Hawaii for vacation together, he told me he had always wanted to learn the traditional Japanese hand-printing technique by taking a workshop. A couple of years later, I was thinking about making a documentary about something to do with Japan. So, I approached Tom to see if he was still interested."

The answer was yes.

LIFELONG LEARNER: Tom Killion visited Japan to learn from woodcut printing masters. His journey was documented by filmmaker Chikaran Motomura. Photo by Chikaran Motomura

Killion, who usually works with an electric press, goes to study the traditional methods, while visiting places known by the great Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Hokusai was an artist of many modes. He worked in light subjects sometimes. He was a mangaist, producing charming comic drawings of humans bathing, or plump cats doing their own furry laundry: felines and men alike, keeping their dignity in undignified positions.

It's Hokusai's views of the 12,000-foot Mount Fuji that Westerners know the best. While this changed later on, in Europe of the early 1800s, the Western tradition of landscape painting was to put the viewer in the position of being the master of all they survey. Imagine that this is your house, this is your horse, and so forth.

Fixing on Mount Fuji as his lodestar in 100 views from various angles, Hokusai shows us a landscape that no one could possibly possess. In study after study, he surveys the activities of all sides—toilers, climbers, a man fishing in troubled surf, picnickers on the mountain's slope. Life goes on without these figures as much as it goes on with them. It's particularly the case in Hoksuai's freezing of a single moment, in the universally famous The Great Wave off Kanagawa (c. 1830).

That surge of water is presented in lacy froth over a perfect curl; distant Fuji nests in its center as the wave breaks. Odd that this masterwork was made concurrent with the Romantic Era in far-away England, where the landscape itself was starting to come alive, the blasted heaths and moors and lakes starting to speak for themselves in novels and poetry. Yet no matter how it thrills us, the particular stillness of this great wave has the brevity of a snapshot.

During his journey, the gregarious Killion honors Hokusai's gravestone, with its carved epitaph, "The Old Man Mad About Art." He learns from the attendant some stories of the end of Hokusai's life. The 90ish artist was both ready for death and not ready, first executing a painting of a strangely lively skeleton, then composing a verse, saying that soon his soul would be able to wander, as if at a summer festival.

But then on his deathbed, a last lament: if he'd only had 10 years more—even three or four—he'd be able to perfect his art at last!


Journey to Hokusai visits a country place where Hokusai lived after the tenpo laws were passed. This was puritanical legislation aimed at prohibiting the lively craft of woodblock prints, the fantasy portraits of geishas, actors and wrestlers, the sexually explicit shunga prints. Safe in the country after what must have been an arduous journey for an octogenarian, Hokusai started working big: he decorated the insides of carts used for the obon festival with a colossal, glowering Guan Sheng, a hero from the popular Chinese novel Water Margin.

Most exciting is a masterpiece less known in the West than Hokusai's great Wave. Painted when he was 88, it's a mural of a phoenix, which adorns the ceiling of a small Buddhist temple. The bird of immortality's one red eye is the pivot point, watching you from wherever you sit.

Killion brings his woodblocks to learn the old technique: setting down the frame of an image with the key block and adding colors by stamping additional blocks on top—similar to method screen printers use. Killion learns to combine animal glue with colored powders to mix ink and to produce gradient ombre effects, then visits a paper maker to see how plant strands are hand rendered and mashed to produce the sheets. His piece is titled "Moonlight Sierra Pines," a stand of bristly conifers on a rocky point in Upper Rae Lake at Sequoia National Park.

Journey to Hokusai makes the pleasant Takenaka look like the best kind of teacher—neither berating his student nor praising inferior work. He jokes, too, comparing Killion to Luke Skywalker and himself to Obi-Wan. (It's bemusing to see the Japanoiseries that George Lucas filched from director Akira Kurosawa boomeranging all the way back home.)

Somehow, it's always a pleasure to watch another at work. Killion painfully adjusts himself to the lotus position, and confronts what Takenaka thinks is his essential problem: Killion hadn't designed his blocks to the specifications of the Japanese Ukiyo-e style. Killion listens and learns from esoteric tips: "You have to listen to the board's feelings." Soaking the paper in water and mixing the water-based paints is a Goldilocks game in itself, as is perfecting the registration marks with splinters of wood.

We learn that this sort of by-hand printmaking is a young person's game. It takes physical strength to rub the paper into the wood with a buren. Traditionally the printmaker will give the handbrush-shaped buren a quick rub on his cheek, followed by some soft firm swipes, before really going to town on the paper.

ARTIST'S TOUCH: Tom Killion learns traditional Japanese methods for creating woodcut prints in the new documentary 'Journey to Hokusai.' Photo by Chikaran Motomura

This is a humbling display of craft, and painstaking isn't the word for it. A sidebar is on the 1,500-year-old art of making the tough paper from kozo tree fibers. One of Japan's living national treasures, papermaker Ichibei Iwano still practices this craft. Working with fibers as thin or thinner than human hair, he has them beaten with square clubs and then examined for minute debris—among the temples visited in Journey to Hokusai is a quick stop to honor the Goddess of Paper.


Killion was raised under the shadow of Mount Tamalpais in Mill Valley. "I had a precocious interest in art," he says, speaking of his childhood over the phone from the studio in Marin where he's worked for about a dozen years. He recalled an early exposure to Hokusai's work, as well as trips to San Francisco exhibitions of Chinese calligraphy.

As a history major at UCSC back in the school's early days, he had the idea of combining some haikus he'd written with some views of Mount Tamalpais he'd carved in linoleum. He printed them at the Book Arts program, which was then run out of a basement at Cowell College. The resulting book was good enough to get a place in the window of John Howell's famous bookstore of Californiana in San Francisco's Union Square. At 21, Killion's career had begun.

He went on to earn a PhD in history from Stanford. "It was viable then," he says. "You could live as an academic, and also I never had to leave Santa Cruz."

In Mill Valley, Killion had been friends of friends with the poet Gary Snyder. Since he admired Snyder's verse, Killion gave Snyder a copy of his book. This was shortly before Snyder, a celebrated conduit between Japanese and California culture, won his Pulitzer for poetry with Turtle Island in 1975. The two have collaborated on several projects since.

Born in San Francisco and then raised in different parts of the Pacific Northwest, Snyder studied at Reed College before leaving for Berkeley to study oriental languages in the late 1940s. Many will recognize his name on its own, but Snyder also inspired the figure of Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums; there, Kerouac rhapsodizes about the kind of clean, contemplative, solitary mountain life that he believed he wanted to live.

In 1980s Santa Cruz, Snyder and Killion did a broadside poster together, rallying against the development of Pogonip. Named after a meteorological condition—a peculiar kind of frozen fog—Pogonip is also the name of a hillside of old-growth trees and hiking trails that a crowd of country club developers had set their sights on. Local activists defeated the plan.

In their book, The High Sierra of California (2002) Killion illustrated previously unpublished journals by Snyder. Killion's 2015 California's Wild Edge: The Coast in Prints, Poetry, and History, is a study of Point Reyes, Tamalpais and the incomparable coast surrounding it, with a Killion cover showing the churning surf, as well as the hills covered with frail wild irises on the hillsides.

"Gary wrote an original piece about his experience first visiting McClures Beach in Point Reyes in the 1950s," Killion says. "I also included excerpts of a number of interviews I did with him about the poetry of the coast. So there is a lot of Gary in that book, but it has poems by scores of different people. The book goes back as far as you can, to Indian stories and Spanish journals, right up to contemporary accounts."

A survey of Killion's oeuvre reveals an artist with a unique ability to match the California's North Coast with the lands on the far side of the Ring of Fire. Both sides of the Pacific feature a broken and rugged terrain, wrested from the ocean by savage seismic forces. In Killion's work, we find a rough kinship between the perfect cone of Fujiyama and the magnificence of Shasta rising out of its central valley floor.

It's not just rhetoric to talk of this area's solitary beauty. Walking along the seashore of Point Reyes, one can feel all alone in the universe, despite the millions of people living just a few miles to the east. Viewing this region through Killion's lens throws the area and all its contradictions into sharp relief. It is eternal yet threatened, fierce yet fragile, as heavy as stone and as light as paper.

Journey to Hokusai
Jan 18, 6pm, Sold Out
Pacific Art League, Palo Alto
Mar 13, 6:30pm, $15
O'Hanlon Center for the Arts, Mill Valley
Mar 21, 4:30pm, $10
Santa Cruz Art Museum