Great Illustrated Private Press Books Part IV – Walls, by Tom Killion, Quail Press

{Ed. Note: This is the fourth in a series on ‘The Great Illustrated Private Press Books‘ by Books and Vines contributor dlphcoracl.  Part I is here, Part II is here and Part III is here. Thank you to Mr. Killion for permission to print photo’s of his work.}

Walls by Tom Killion is both a beautiful and a fascinating book, one of the favorites in my collection.  I can pick it up anytime, turn to any page, read for 30 to 60 minutes and find myself transported to a different time and a strange, unfamiliar place, the ultimate in escapist reading entertainment.  Yet, there is a more serious side to this book.  It is a reminiscence and a visual/artistic chronicle of an extraordinary year in which Killion decides, at age 22, to simply take off from his home in Northern California and hit the road, ultimately spanning three continents in slightly over one year.

Reading Walls is akin to taking an extended road trip with an open-minded and intellectually curious companion, with delightful and unexpected twists and turns along the way.  For someone like myself, who cannot take a two-week vacation abroad without planning and accounting for every minute, the thought of leaving home and traveling to parts unknown with little more than a pair of sturdy boots, a backpack, sleeping bag and pad until my money runs out is unfathomable which is part of what makes Walls such an entertaining read.

The adventure begins on January 7, 1976, with a train ride from Oakland to Oregon, then hitchhiking across Oregon into Idaho and down into Wyoming’s Grand Teton, enlivened by a series of misadventures “encouraged by a hippie-like appearance with long hair in an ultra-conservative state.”  Killion arrives in the dead of winter, giving the Tetons and subsequently, West Yellowstone National Park, an eery quiet and beauty unencumbered by the tens of thousand of tourists who tramp through in summer months.  He has his first experience cross-country skiing in waist-deep snow, not an easy feat and more like snowshoeing I might add, replete with numerous face plants.  The downside, however, is in hitting an extreme cold spell and camping outdoors in -25 degree F. temperatures without sophisticated gear or elaborate preparation.

It was so cold we cooked our dinner in a restroom which was kept open for the snowmobilers….and the day’s high was 18 degrees F.”  Yet, “despite the cold we skied shirtless in the afternoon sun.

Eventually, Killion hitchhikes into and across the vast wasteland of western Nebraska, into Chicago, and then takes a train to New York City (NYC), where “outside the Apollo Theater (Harlem on W. 125th St.) a man lectured passerby’s on the true nature of the “so-called white man.”  Incidentally, as a native New Yorker, I can unequivocally state that one of NYC’s cardinal rules is to NEVER stop and listen, visually acknowledge, turn one’s head toward, or make eye contact with any of NYC’s homespun philosophers dispensing their particular brand of street wisdom.  Nietzsche this isn’t, and it only encourages and emboldens them.  Five days after this street sermon Killion boards a plane from NYC to Dublin, arriving in Shannon Airport to the sound of a pipe band.  The European leg of the odyssey begins here, in Killion’s ancestral home.

During this time Northern Ireland was in the midst of its “troubles” and hardly a day passed without news of fighting or an unimagined atrocity, a grim reminder of the walls people and cultures build around one another.

As we drove past ancient hill forts and moss-covered walls that seemed to grow out of the rocky soil, I thought about the walls my ancestors had built on this green island.  All around I saw walls of stone, I heard walls of speech, I felt walls of religion and walls of hatred.

Killion continues hitchhiking across the Irish countryside, eventually working his way into Northern Ireland near Derry.  His journal entries average 2 or 3 per week, varying in length from a few sentences to a few paragraphs, but his pithy observations and commentary have an uncanny way of giving the reader a distinct flavor du jour.

May 7, 1976

The youth hostel at Carrick was in a dirty barn overseen by two toothless and bearded sisters who were so mean that they refused to provide toilet paper and stole the gas out of the kitchen .

May 10, 1976

In the evening I met two young men who worked at a meat packing plant in Longford.  They invited me for “a few jars” of Guinness and drank me under the table.  I awoke in their filthy apartment after they had left for work.  I remembered that they wanted me to spend a few days with them, but after I burnt some Spam and listened to their collection of Grateful Dead records,  I couldn’t resist the prospect of a sunny afternoon hitchhike into Dublin.

In June 1976 Killion crosses the Channel aboard a ferry docking in Cherbourg, visits Mont St. Michel, and encounters a steady stream of native French men and women who introduce themselves and ask him to join them,  seemingly drawn to him by what I suspect is his openness and receptiveness to meeting new and unknown people.  He hitchhikes into Brittany and works his way into Paris where he stays at a friend’s apartment in the 14th Arrondissement.  In a harbinger of things to come many decades later Killion meets a young Algerian named Kamal, who describes his very difficult first week in Paris, spent sleeping in the tunnels of the Metro after the trains had stopped running and the guards had turned off the lights.  Although his situation had improved and he was employed, he was not happy in France, stating “When I walk on the streets here, it seems that people don’t see me.  They look right through me.  They  don’t want me to exist.

Killion continues working his way through Europe, traveling from Paris to Bordeaux and Dordogne, then through the Massif Central into Switzerland – stopping in Auvergne to visit the medieval paper mill of Richard de Bas which dates back to 1327.  Once in Switzerland Killion moves seamlessly about, hitching rides and eventually staying with friends of the family in Bern.  While attending a horse show at Lake Murten he is reminded of one of the obvious walls between people, that of language.  Education in the U.S. is notable for its lack of emphasis on acquiring fluency in a foreign language and, aside from Hispanic-Americans, few citizens are bilingual.  By contrast, many European citizens have a passable knowledge of a second language and in several small European countries surrounded by larger, more powerful neighbors, their citizens are multilingual, e.g., the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland, essential for conducting business and trade.  Killion wistfully notes “As we sat under the trees eating and drinking, the horsemen spoke French to the judges, German among themselves, English to me.  I felt quite out of place.

From Switzerland, Killion takes the train across the Bernina Pass into Italy, spending most of August 1976 in Milan, Venice and the delightful chaos of Rome, complete with the traditional slowdown strike on the trains upon his arrival.  As August ends, he takes the Orient Express train from Venice to Athens, meeting a variety of foreign students and young workers returning from jobs in foreign countries.  Greece, circa 1976, exhibits all of the ambivalence and schizoid personality that has present-day Greece teetering on Third World status.

Greeks talked passionately about leaving NATO, closing US military bases (NOTE: Greece had a pronounced anti-American bias at this time) and retaking Cyprus from the Turks…..   .  Yet they (Killion’s Greek dinner companions) admitted they were part of the urban middle class which was tied economically and culturally to Western Europe and the United States.  They wanted to close NATO bases but they feared a war with Turkey.  On every issue their nationalist ideals collided with the constraints of their geopolitical situation.

One of the roots of the dichotomy between how the Greeks see themselves and the precarious reality of their present day situation, both politically and economically, is hinted at by Killion’s observation:

Athens remains tied to its hinterland, it is filled with first-generation peasant immigrants…..   .  The homes of their hearts remained in the countryside.  Perhaps because of its roots in the Greek countryside, Athens retains a small town atmosphere.

With greater reliance on agriculture over manufacturing and scientific innovation and an over-reliance and overabundance of civil service jobs, it is not difficult to understand why the Greek economy cannot support its aspirations for a Western lifestyle.

After meeting his girlfriend from California in late September most of the remaining year is spent traveling about Greece and its islands. After his girlfriend’s departure back to the States Killion takes a ferry from Greece across the Mediterranean to Tunisia, and travel becomes progressively more difficult while in Africa.  The lack of infrastructure, the language barrier and the harsh climate and landscape make travel challenging, unpredictable and dangerous.  An unforeseen danger, the political instability of the continent, results in a frightening episode on January 1977 in Parakou, Benin.

While at the railroad station Killion is surrounded by a group of young men with green baseball caps with red stars who demand his passport without explanation.  He is whisked to the police station where the Commissar accuses him of being a mercenary.  As he is being guarded by a man with a sub-machine gun he finds out that a coup is taking place in Benin by a ‘group of black and white mercenaries at the airport.”  As a result, the populace was whipped into a patriotic fervor by the reigning dictator and a witch hunt rapidly spread across Benin in which all foreigners were being rounded up and detained as mercenaries.  While Killion and other travelers are imprisoned in the “Hotel du Comissariat” the mercenaries are defeated and the Commissar subsequently provides him with a “laisser passers” to travel to the border with Togo.  Upon arrival in Djougou, Benin, at the Togolese border, it is “wash, rinse, repeat” – he is again accosted by a group of teenagers with the ubiquitous green baseball caps with red stars, again accused of being a mercenary and marched to the local police station.  Several weeks later he would learn that the coup in Benin may have been staged by the dictator, Mathieu Kerekou, to flush out his enemies.

On February 27, 1977 Killion realizes he had just enough money to buy a plane ticket to New York and he returns to the United States, ending the first leg of his journey.  While subsequently pursuing graduate study in Africa and Ethopia at Stanford University he would return to Africa four years later (1981) to research the origin of the Eritrean fight for independence from Soviet Union-supported Ethiopia and its relationship to the early Ethopian labor movement.  The African continent continues to exert a magnetic pull on Killion and he returns to Sudan in 1987 to do humanitarian work in a camp for Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees as the decades-old Eritrean war of liberation against Ethiopia rages on and intensifies.  As the book ends the ragtag Eritrean fighters score a stunning victory against the Soviet-backed Ethiopian army, a possible turning point in the Eritrean struggle for independence.

Where are we today?  Sadly, the walls between people are more formidable, higher and more numerous.  Africa remains beset by political instability, military coups and dictators who loot their country and stuff their Swiss bank accounts with ill-gotten gains,  with near-total disregard for the welfare of their citizens.  Toss in tribal hatred and conflict, e.g., Rwanda circa 1994, sectarian religious war and the Islamization of Africa resulting in religious extremism / terrorism and Killion’s travels in West Africa are now unimaginable.

Walls is a unique book that took Killion over a decade to print and publish.  The long, labor-intensive work this book required makes it unlikely it will ever be followed by a similar book.  I sense that this book was important for Tom Killion to complete and publish as both a chronicle and document of an extraordinary year and life-experience and as a daunting technical challenge.  However, first and foremost Killion is an artist and his work in seeing this book through to completion undoubtedly interfered and conflicted with his first love, producing wood engravings and linocuts of Northern California and publishing them in livres d’artiste books.

Walls was published in 1990 in a total edition of 135 copies – 100 standard numbered copies in one-quarter Oasis goatskin with raw half-linen cloth over boards, 26 lettered deluxe copies with raised bands on the spine and leather corners, accompanied by a suite of eight signed and numbered color prints.  Five copies are artist’s copies not for sale.  The cost at time of publication for the standard edition was $1,000 and $1,200 for the deluxe edition, quite reasonable when one fully understands the technical complexity and cost of producing this book as well as the enormous time invested in publishing it.  The materials in Walls are expensive, beginning with the handmade Japanese Torinoko paper, the raw half-linen fabric for the binding and matching slipcase, and the elaborate hand typesetting.  Because nearly every page contains an illustration, varying in size, shape and medium, each page required that the type be carefully hand set around the illustration.  The translucent Japanese Torinoko paper required great care in printing, necessitating perfect “back-up” of type lines on both sides of the sheet.  Finally, many of the full-color illustrations required hundreds of hours to carve and then print, since each color is applied one layer at a time, each necessitating a separate hand-pull on the Asbern proof press.  As stated in the colophon, each book required one hundred and ninety-nine pulls on the hand press.

Regarding the illustrations, the prospectus states that:

the book has sixty-five illustrations, including six double-page spreads.  Twenty-one illustrations are full color woodcuts printed from a combination of separate blocks and reduction cuts. Other illustrations include monochrome wood or linocuts, and twenty-four relief engravings reproducing Killion’s pen and ink sketches.  This mix of illustrative mediums recreates the effect of Killion’s original travel journals – an effect which is reinforced by the division of the text into daily entries.

However, it is the full color woodcuts and linocuts that make this book quite special, suitable for inclusion in my Great Illustrated Private Press Books series.  They are loosely derived from the Japanese woodblock prints of the 18th and 19th centuries known as “Ukiyo-e”  or “pictures of the floating world”, especially the style of Hokusai and Hiroshige.  Killion jokingly refers to his technique as “faux ukiyo-e”  and there are important differences.  The classic Japanese prints have flat coloration and are decidedly two-dimensional, giving the viewer the impression of being separate from the image, looking at it from afar.  By contrast, Killions multi-color prints have a shimmering, luminous appearance that pulls the viewer into the page.

The few remaining copies of the edition of 100 numbered copies recently went out-of-print but there are currently two copies available on the secondary market, both at the original publication price of $1,000.  For collectors of modern private press books Walls makes a distinctive addition to one’s collection.  For Books and Vines readers interested in Killion’s artistry, several of the multi-color prints from Walls and  his earlier books on various regions of Northern California are available for purchase, typically costing between $300 to $800 with the black-and-white prints costing considerably less.  These can be explored on Mr. Killion’s informative website here. For those interested in the labor-intensive process of Mr. Killion’s multi-color landscape prints, details of his technique can be found here.

{Ed. Note: A trade edition of Mr. Killion’s well regarded California’s Wild Edge is now available. This excellent book is a great an inexpensive way to enjoy Mr. Killion’s work.}

About the Edition

  • Tom Killion founded the Quail Press in Santa Cruz in 1977
  • Limited to 135 copies – 100 standard numbered copies in one-quarter Oasis goatskin with raw half-linen cloth over boards; 26 lettered deluxe copies with raised bands on the spine and leather corners, accompanied by a suite of eight signed and numbered color prints; Five copies are artist’s copies not for sale
  • Sixty-five illustrations, including six double-page spreads, from Tom Killion; twenty-one illustrations are full color woodcuts printed from a combination of separate blocks and reduction cuts; Other illustrations include monochrome wood or linocuts, and twenty-four relief engravings reproducing Killion’s pen and ink sketches
  • Centaur and Aright types composed in Monotype at M&H Type and reset by hand with assistance from Kate Hill and Carolina Frota
  • Handmade Japanese Torinoko paper
  • Printed on an Ashbern proof press
  • Bound at the Campbell-Logan Bindery in half morocco and raw half-linen fabric for the binding and matching slipcase
  • Signed by Tom Killion

Pictures of the Edition

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Walls, Quail Press, Prospectus #1
Walls, Quail Press, Prospectus #1
Walls, Quail Press, Prospectus #2
Walls, Quail Press, Prospectus #2
Walls, Quail Press, Cover
Walls, Quail Press, Cover
Walls, Quail Press, Spine
Walls, Quail Press, Spine
Walls, Quail Press, Frontispiece
Walls, Quail Press, Frontispiece
Walls, Quail Press, Title Page
Walls, Quail Press, Title Page
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Text #1
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Text #1
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #1 - Akrotiri Peninsula, Peleponisos (Greece)
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #1 – Akrotiri Peninsula, Peleponisos (Greece)
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #3 - Witches Creek, Yellowstone Park
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #2 – Witches Creek, Yellowstone Park
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #6 - Mont St. Michel, Normandy, France
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #3 – Mont St. Michel, Normandy, France
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #7 - Church in St. Antheme, Auvergne, central France
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #4 – Church in St. Antheme, Auvergne, central France
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #10 - Medinet Habu, Luxor, Egypt
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #5 – Medinet Habu, Luxor, Egypt
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #14 - Calle dell Lovo, Venice, Italy
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #6 – Calle dell Lovo, Venice, Italy
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #17 - Setting up camp near the entrance to Samaria Gorge, island of Crete, Greece
Walls, Quail Press, Sample Illustration #7 – Setting up camp near the entrance to Samaria Gorge, island of Crete, Greece
Walls, Quail Press, Colophon
Walls, Quail Press, Colophon

2 thoughts on “Great Illustrated Private Press Books Part IV – Walls, by Tom Killion, Quail Press

  1. Chris/dlphcoracl

    Lovely book,with the added interest that it contains text and illustrations from my home country of Northern Ireland (during ‘The Troubles’ era).

    Gary

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