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Natural Artistry
Tom Killion at Davis Art Center Gallery

By Paul Dorn, Davis Enterprise art critic

Art review
Tom Killion: The High Sierra of California
Where: Davis Art Center Gallery
1919 F Street, Davis 756-4100
When: through Feb. 9, 2001
Hours: 10 am - 8:30 pm, Monday through Thursday
10 am - 5 pm, Friday
Closing Reception: Friday, Feb. 9, 6:30 - 8 pm
Reading by Gary Snyder, Friday, Feb. 9, 8 pm. Free.

"The Sierra. Mountains holy as Sinai. No mountains I know of are so alluring, none so hospitable, kindly, tenderly inspiring. It seems strange that everyone does not come at their call."-John Muir, 1872

Nothing like a little elevation to enrich the spirit. The higher we go, the more we see. About our surroundings; about ourselves. And nothing puts things in greater perspective than a grand mountain.

One of the grandest mountain regions of the world is, of course, our own Sierra Nevada, which has to a great extent defined the culture and personality of California. For one thing, the Sierra has always posed a considerable barrier to potential immigrants into California, meaning the people who arrive really, really want to be here.

But the Sierra Nevada range has also influenced the collective psychology (Weltanschauung?) of the Golden State in many ways, among other things encouraging a greater appreciation of the nature, wildlife and the outdoors. It's no accident that the most important environmental group in the country takes its name from the range. And, of course, the Sierras have long provided inspiration to thinkers, writers, artists and other diggers of gold, both spiritual and material.

Artist Tom Killion is among those, in the tradition of John Muir and Gary Snyder, with a very special appreciation of the Sierras. A new exhibit at the Davis Art Center, "Tom Killion: The High Sierra of California," presents a broad selection of prints inspired by more than 30 years of hiking, backpacking and snowshoeing in the Sierra Nevada range.

A resident of Santa Cruz and lecturer at San Francisco State University, Killion has established himself as one of California's great nature illustrators and printmakers. Drawing on traditional Japanese and European woodcut and printmaking techniques, Killion has created several distinctive series of original woodcut prints published as folio books. These have included his "28 Views of Mount Tamalpais" in 1975, "Fortress Marin" in 1977, followed by the "Coast of California" in 1979. In 1990, he published "Walls"-an extensively illustrated book of his travels through Africa.

For his latest series of Sierra-inspired prints, Killion collaborated with poet and UC Davis English professor Gary Snyder to convey the magic and wonderment of the High Sierra, the backcountry above 9000 feet accessible only by foot. Selections from Snyder's unpublished backpacking journals are included amidst Killion's images depicting the high mountain seasons of the Sierra Nevada from Yosemite south to the Whitney and Kaweah crests. The exhibit also features text passages from John Muir and Killion's own journals.

As an introduction to his Sierra images, Killion has included several earlier prints of Mt. Tamalpais in the exhibit. Raised in nearby Mill Valley, Killion obviously gained his early appreciation of mountains from Marin's great peak. Killion renders Tamalpais as a dark, majestic presence, overshadowing the traces of humanity beneath: homes, sailboats, a raised drawbridge.

His "Mt. Tam, Marin City" in particular suggests Killion's view of the relative insignificance of people. The image is filled with a massive darkened Tamalpais, ridges defined in white, with an army of clouds above and dense vegetation below. And there, in the literal center of the image, placed midway up the slope, is a tiny cottage with glowing orange windows. The juxtaposition is stark, the message of sacrilegious intrusion and disrupted serenity is clear. This ain't Thomas Kincade.

This image establishes many of the themes that Killion continues in his Sierra prints. Most of Killion's intricately detailed images are of night scenes, emphasizing the still quiet of the high mountain environment. Where the sky appears in his works, it is never rendered flat: there is always a shading of color, or the dense texture of snowflakes, stars, clouds or a prominent moon. Killion reminds us that, despite its transparency, the sky is always a visual spectacle.

While landscape images are generally considered to be still and restful, Killion's work creates a sense of energy and tension. Nature is a constant struggle. Even great mountains are worn down gradually by weather and vegetation. In Killion's prints sharp, steep and barren slopes are contrasted with dense thickets of vegetation or high waterfalls. Snow blankets rocks, which are nestled amidst trees nourished by the soil created from weathered stone.

Killion uses a limited palette of colors-light, washed-out blues, oranges, reds. Several works are monochromatic or nearly so. Rather than faithful recreations of natural settings, Killion's use of color suggests the human agency of the print. These images are merely a glimpse, not a reality. They pale by comparison to the beauty of the real thing, and it's no insult to Killion's artistry to acknowledge this.

Killion's accomplished work is an invitation to value, esteem and protect these natural places as he does. It's a worthy effort. The perspective is priceless.


Additional Art Reviews by Paul Dorn
Blog: War Budget Gone Bad
Pedaling to Save the City
Cycling in Bike-Friendly Davis, California
Cycling in Osaka, Japan
Two Months of Red Splendor: The Paris Commune and Karl Marx' Theory of Revolution

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