Shaun Tan interviewed by Nikki Gamble

Shaun Tan is the author and illustrator of 'The Lost Thing' and 'The Red Tree', both of which have won international awards such as the Honourable Mention in the BolognaRagazzi Prize, were CBCA Honour Books and have been widely translated. Previous books Shaun has illustrated include 'The Rabbits' by John Marsden (CBCA Picture Book of the Year) and with Gary Crew, 'Memorial' (A CBCA Honour Book) and 'The Viewer' (winner of the Crichton Award for illustration). In 2001 Shaun received the 'World Fantasy Best Artist Award' for his body of work. Shaun is the winner of the 2011 Astrid Lindgren prize, the world's richest children's literature award. The award described Shaun as 'a masterly visually storyteller'.

 

Tell us about your background. Are you fine art or illustration trained?My background is in fine art. I didn’t study illustration formally but I have always been interested in books and illustration as a hobby. I want to a high school that had a special art programme, which basically meant there was some extra attention given to the visual arts curriculum.

When I left high school, I didn’t know what to do. I was notable for being a good drawer (probably just that!). I had a lot of other interests. I liked writing. My older brother was very interested in science and I followed quite a lot of his interests. However, I ended up doing an arts degree which comprised four subjects: history, philosophy, fine arts and English literature.

I would have liked to have continued studying science but in this culture it’s the case that you do either a humanities based degree or a science degree. While science was very interesting, I had an instinctive attraction to the arts. Although, I didn’t understand modern art very well. I found it frustrating that I would look at contemporary art and not know what it was trying to do. With history, I felt that I didn’t know that much about anything. So I thought the arts degree would be a useful and illuminating course for me. Doing an arts degree at university was also partly a way of buying time until I found gainful employment. However, the more I studied the more my interests converged on English literature and fine arts. Normally you choose one major but I was equally interested in both subjects and ended up taking joint honours.

The course was very academic. There wasn’t any practical work, apart from a little bit of creative writing and tiny bit of art practice at the beginning of the course.

So was the course mainly the history of art?

Yes, history, theory and criticism.

And mainly western art?

Pretty much, which is a bit unfortunate, but art history courses tend to predominantly focus on western art and culture. Especially at the university that I attended, where the focus was on contemporary theory: post modernism, post Marxism, post feminism – post everything. I found it interesting but towards the end of my studies I just wanted to draw and paint. I like commenting on other people’s work but I realised that the reason I was attracted to the course in the first place was to have a basis for practice. I thought it would improve my wholeness as an artist because I had the technical skills pretty much under control by high school, but I was still lacking in terms of conceptual thinking. University gave me a good foundation but I’m still learning now.

How did this lead you towards illustration?

One stream of interest that led me to this work was fine art, painting and investigating the meaning art as a form of expression. The other stream of interest was science fiction illustration. This was a hobby at high school and was separate from anything academic. It was playful and sometimes it was a slightly embarrassing to admit my interest. It was completely divorced from anything we did at university, so I didn’t tell anyone that I was illustrating science fiction magazines. In fact no one at university knew I could draw. Representational drawing was not highly valued, only the conceptual.

When I was sixteen, I had my first illustration published in a tiny Australian magazine. I also won an illustration competition based in the US around the same time. These things made me think that there might be a career in this kind of work. At the same time I was realistic and thought it might just be a hobby, so I considered a fallback career in journalism. I didn’t know anyone who worked as an illustrator or artist and had this image of an artist as someone who was always suffering financially.

What did you do after university?

I was unemployed and wanting to earn my living from painting and drawing. I spent a year working as a freelance illustrator and started sending work out to various publishers. I got a few jobs illustrating covers for science fiction novels and that paid my rent for a couple of years. Then gradually, meeting people in the science fiction/fantasy world led into the world of children’s literature because there’s often permeation between these genres. Authors who write adult science fiction tend to write children’s books and vice versa. So I found myself illustrating genres books: science fiction, fantasy and horror. And that led into the illustration of picture books.

Were the first picture books the ones you did with Garry Crew?

Yes, I was contracted to do two with him. The first was 'The Viewer' and then 'Memorial. A book called 'The Rabbits' by John Marsden was slotted between the Gary Crew books. Those three were my apprenticeship picture books.

I didn’t really know how to approach the task at first. I had the skills, but I hadn’t applied them to the picture book format. Gary was very helpful in explaining what a picture book is, and helping me to find a way to approach the format.

Well, they are incredibly accomplished books for an illustrator who feels he did not know what he was doing…

They took a long time. I spent a year on each book trying to get it right and studying other picture books to see how they worked. In a way I had the advantage of being ignorant; I could approach the job without an awareness of tradition. A lot of picture books are very conventional in structure, use of watercolour illustration and use of white space; it never occurred to me to work like that. When I look back, I realise what weird books they are, but it’s because I came from the adult science fiction tradition. I used the same sorts of images I was using in other spheres of work including my painting and applied them to the picture book.

So what you were doing was not typical in the Australian context either? Here in the UK we often look at picture books from Australia and think there’s a stronger tradition in producing picture books for older readers. We don’t really have that in the UK and we find it very exciting.

It’s all down to individuals, I think: writers, editors and publishers. Gary Crew has been instrumental in making picture books available for older readers. He’s an academic and lectures on writing and illustration. His particular interest is in illustrated novels of the nineteenth century and the reasons that the tradition no longer exists. In the nineties he was especially interested in questioning why there were no illustrated texts for older readers, especially boys who like looking at pictures. Why is it that the picture book is no longer considered an appropriate format for readers over the age of seven? There are lots of historical precedents, so there’s no reason that we should have that attitude towards the illustrated text.

I think that attitude seems to be breaking down, especially in Australia and to some extent in the US. There are pockets of enthusiasm here in the UK, especially in schools,  but we still have some way to go.

 

I have noticed that  in the UK and the US picture books are quite conservative. My first overseas sales were not to those markets, even though those are the largest English speaking populations. France, Germany and Spain picked them up years before either of those countries.

Yes, originally we had to buy them as imports but access is easier now that Hachette have bought Lothian, so hopefully the general book buying public have a greater awareness.

 Listening to you describe your background and your interests does shed light on the versatility of your illustration. Some of it is very painterly, some of it looks like etching and some illustrations are like technical drawing. What is the ‘essence’ of Shaun Tan the illustrator?

That’s a good question. The diversity comes from working as a freelance illustrator. I felt that in order to survive, I had to be able to do anything. I said yes to pretty much every job that came along. If someone asked me to do diagrams of microscopes, I said ‘yes’. If they asked me to do an architectural elevation of a building, I said ‘yes’. If they asked me to do the cover for a fantasy novel with a guy on a horse holding a sword, I said, ‘yes’.

When I accepted a commission, I would go and look at examples: cartoon, realistic, horror, whatever. I have always been good at imitation and I think imitation or impersonation is the basis of all artistic ability. My mum wasn’t an artist, but as a teenager she was very good at drawing replicas. She could look at a picture and reproduce it. I think I used that imitative skill.

Also, I had a sense that whatever I was using was adopted from other people’s work along the way, so why should I not work in lots of different styles. Whenever I see a good painting or image that excites me, I always get the urge to try and work in that style too. Over the years, I have collected different styles as a result of different jobs and different personal interests. When David Hockney was a student I think he used to do lots of style switching.

I think my real style, which is a question that I often ask myself, is somewhere in the intersection of all of them. I do believe that as an artist you never know what your real style is, unless you do a lot of different stuff and you see what they have in common. If you just stick to the one thing you are good at, you’ll never really know what your true style is.

I think my true style comes about when I am drawing rapidly from life and doing larger paintings, which I don’t publish or exhibit. I just do them for personal records or artistic training, and because I enjoy doing them. They are non-commercial. You can see some of them on my website.

There are things that are recognisable in the line and your preferred colour palette…

Oh yes. I have some self-awareness about that. There are certain compositional arrangements that I’m attracted to. My use of colour, especially the pink/green scheme is definitely a style that I use, which is constantly evolving. My line has a certain wobble, hook and curve in it. That’s the tell tale sign, how the stroke moves. When I look at my pictures they don’t really look like different styles, just a pattern of techniques used in different ways.

That all comes to the fore in Tales from Outer Suburbia because you play with those references to earlier work.

I had thought about doing the book in a consistent style like 'The Arrival', but it’s fun to switch around the styles. When I started to put the stories together, to refine and rewrite them, I realised that each one had a distinctive voice. They’re not even all set in the same place, so to illustrate them in the same style didn’t feel natural. I picked the style that seemed best for each story.

There are recurring themes in your books: outsiders, alienation, and loneliness. Has your background influenced the thematic content of your books?

I think it is easier for other people to comment on that aspect of my work. I don’t feel particularly alienated - but I am attracted to small figures in a landscape. To some extent I think everyone feels alienated and it makes good stories. I also think the medium that you’re working in affects your theme. If I worked in theatre, my themes probably wouldn’t be about alienation and loneliness, they would be more dynamic and about interaction in social situations. Books are read and pictures are looked at in solitude and certain themes grow better in that soil. A book like 'The Red Tree' works perfectly in picture book form because it’s about silence and isolation and when you read a book you’re in a little bubble of silence and solitude.


There are a lot of unresolved issues in your books including the stories in 'Tales from Outer Suburbia'. I like the words you use in the story ‘The Other Country’: “They felt no need to question the logic of it and just accepted its presence gratefully.” I think those words could stand for the ideal reader of your books. But here I am asking you to explain the logic of those unresolved issues…

I can explain a little of my background, if not the logic. As a young person up to the age of twenty-five, I was very introverted and not hugely social. I don’t know if that fed the drawing, or the drawing fed the solitude, but as a youth I felt I was more of an observer of life than a participant. Painting and drawing is a solitary act. Rather than having a conversation about the world with someone, you’re conversing with a medium like paint and paper. Sometimes I saw it as a problem and sometimes I saw it as a good thing. I wouldn’t call it loneliness because I had good family and friends.

I grew up in Perth in Western Australia, a physically isolated city. I’m cautious not to make too much of that because I don’t know what it would have been like to grow up in other cities. The suburb we were living was on the periphery of Perth. Imagine a place that’s very sunny with big blue skies, with lots of bush and insects around, dead quiet housing estates, a little shopping centre and the ocean stretching out into the distance. When I grew up I did have a sense that the place had nothing underneath it. It was an insubstantial place, as though somebody had grabbed a patch of land, cleared it and dropped some houses on it and that was it – no sense of history, no sense of culture. If I was born in Dublin or London for instance, I would feel a lot underneath me, a weight of history buoying everything up. I think that has something to do with my work; it’s not so much about spatial isolation as temporal isolation. 

 

The story ‘Our Expedition’ seems to be expressing that idea

Absolutely. That story is all about growing up in the outer suburbs. If you do grow up somewhere like that, unless you travel outside, it becomes harder and harder to imagine that there could be somewhere other than that place. I understand how some people live all their lives in an isolated town because it becomes impossible to imagine an alternative way of being.

In Western Australia, the suburbs just sprawl sideways for kilometres. You can walk for hours and everything still looks the same. It creates the feeling that the 'sameness' goes on forever without end.

When did you first travel?

Well my dad’s from Malaysia and the first time I was aware of visiting a new place was when I was thirteen and our family went to Malaysia. Then I went to the US when I was seventeen.  However, it wasn’t until I was twenty-three that I visited another city in Australia. Even though I was having work published in Melbourne and Sydney, those cities were still abstract ideas. So yes, I’m not well travelled and that might affect the stories that I’m attracted to and the worlds that I create. They are often about people travelling to another place, an imaginary place.

Coming to 'The Arrival', which was on The Bologna Ragazzi list and has become very popular in the UK, can you tell us how that book came about?

It’s a hard one to talk about because it had a long genesis. Some books start from a spark and you know immediately that it’s a great ingredient for a story but 'The Arrival' bubbled away for a long time. Partly, it was an interest in my Dad’s origins, which I knew about intellectually but not in an emotional or imaginative way. I knew the facts of him coming to Western Australia: he loved to tell me his little anecdotes, but they were always factual. He didn’t really talk about how he felt.

I had also been asked to illustrate a story which dealt with an Asian family but written by a non- Asian person. It was a good story but I didn’t want to illustrate it because I felt that I should have been writing a story about that experience, and trying to get in touch with that aspect of my family history, which I felt quite separated from. My mum is Australian and my Dad is Chinese but the Australian culture definitely dominated in our home. I speak the tiniest bit of Chinese and I know a little Chinese cooking but apart from that I don’t feel very Chinese. Nevertheless, I understand the sensibility probably more than most people growing up in a non-Chinese household.

So, I started thinking that it would be great to do a story like 'Memorial' about real history and real people - Chinese history in Western Australia. I became very interested in an area of Perth, south of the river (It’s now big grass parklands where people go for recreation and picnics). I’d been doing some reading and I discovered that about a hundred years ago that area was covered with Chinese market gardens. There were a lot of Chinese men, and men only, living there, whose families were back in China. They were gardening and selling their produce to Anglo Saxon Australians but there seemed to be very little communication between the cultures. The only connection seemed to be through trading and other industries like laundry. That made me question what was it must have been like for those guys. Where were their imaginations located? In the country they were living in or back home in China?  

 

 

I started to research this migrant issue focussing on Western Australia. And to cut a long story short, that avenue of research started to open up more and more ideas. Increasingly I started to think less about a specific time and place and more about a universal storytelling akin to something like The Rabbits, which also started out as a story about a specific piece of history and then expanded so that it could be about Australia or Spain or Vikings - it’s just about colonisation. I thought it would be interesting to do a book about immigration with a similar treatment.

A recurring theme in my sketchbook are characters carrying a suitcase I’m not sure why. Sometimes it arises because I’ve drawn a character and they look silly standing there without anything in their hands, so I’ll often add a suitcase or a box. This constantly suggested a story. The story ‘Eric’ in Tales from Outer Suburbia was suggested by a similar drawing of a little character with a pointy head and the word Eric written underneath. In a similar way, early on when I was working on The Arrival I did a drawing of a man in nineteenth century clothing holding a suitcase and communing something to a little dog like creature. I kept returning to that image and wondering what it was all about.

I suppose that these  ideas coupled with the weird landscapes that I’m always drawing intersected with the immigrant issue and clicked at some point.I thought it was such an obvious idea to tell a story from point of view of a migrant, which would mean that it had to be set in a country that we had never seen before. It was perfectly suited to my interest in historical research, imaginary worlds and dreamlike landscapes.

And did the graphic novel format, which was a new departure for you, come early on in the conception stage?

No, that came later when I was developing the ideas. The stylistic ideas were the last part of the project and I struggled trying to get them to work. Initially ‘Outer Suburbia’ was a 32 page picturebook with text. The story was about an old guy, an elderly Greek or Chinese migrant, talking to the reader in a dramatic monologue about where he had come from. The text was understated and the elaborate illustration revealed a whole other world behind the simple statements.

At the time I was looking at a lot of Raymond Briggs' work. He was a relatively new artist to me. I had read 'Fungus the Bogeyman'  as a kid, but very much on the kid level, laughing at the jokes. Revisiting him as an adult, I realised they weren’t really kids books. Even 'Fungus the Bogeyman' reads as a satire on Englishness. 'The Snowman'  triggered a stylistic shift in approach to 'The Arrival'. That’s when I realised that language was a problem because writing in English places the story in a fixed culture.

One of the things that I thought was really clever was using an invented script in the illustrations. As well as representing how the arrival must be experiencing the language, it also puts the readers in the same situation. We have to work to interpret what might be written there.

Yes, it’s not even coded. I’ve done it with other books. If you have a look at the title page of The Rabbits, there’s a scrawl that looks as though it’s normal handwriting. I like the idea of text that you can’t read so you have to look at the pictures with more intensity.

There were two reasons for losing the text. Firstly, it makes sense that you can’t read anything, or you can almost read it and then it falls apart. The second is that getting rid of readable text slows everything down. If you have twelve images on a page, the moment you include speech or recognisable words, the eye skips along to the words. I’ve always had this problem with comics; I tend to skip through, reading the word bubbles and not looking closely enough at the pictures. With Briggs’ wordless book The Snowman, the absence of words slows the book down so that the reader experiences time in a slower way.

 

It’s also more demanding of the reader, I think, though a popular view might be that the absence of words makes it an easier reading experience.

Yes, it is because the answers aren’t always there. When you read text part of what engages you is the motivation of character and finding out why they do things and not knowing what’s going to happen. When pictures are working well, they are asking you ‘why?’ all the time. Why is this person doing this? What’s going to happen next? The reader is hoping there will be some revelation. When you are looking at pictures, you have a silent voice in your head which goes, ‘and then…. and then… and then…’ But there’s also a formless narrative in your head telling the story as you look at the pictures.

Anyway,  I experimented. I did the first twenty pages in a Raymond Briggs style, in the sense that the characters just had dots for eyes and a simplified rounded faces, and no bone structure. They were metaphors for people not real people. But I kept returning to photos and archive material of immigrants and Ellis Island  and I knew that was the visual language that I wanted to achieve. Part of my brain kept telling me to draw photographs but another part kept saying, ‘No way. That’s going to take years and years to do’. I was afraid of committing to that style.  Eventually I did some test pieces and it looked great. Once I had decided on the silent, fragmented style, the book became huge. It took four years to complete in terms of drawing - five years if you include the concept work. The final book looks confident and accomplished but when I was doing it, I felt in a state of desperation and uncertainty.  

The story is told in different chapters and each one has a slightly different monochromatic look.

There are different phases. I did always want some colour so that I could do the sepia tones. All the original drawings are in black and white pencil and the colour is added digitally. That meant I could play around with alternatives, and experiment to make the drawings look like old photographs, which I spent a lot of time doing. Actually, I think I could have done a better job; I was still learning the process.

I tend to use colour as an emotional device. So I work out the picture in monochrome first and then add colour, which is like adding a soundtrack. It overlays an extra feeling, but doesn’t add significantly to the concept or the structure.

Colour does have a conceptual relevance where there’s a flashback because I had to find a way of making the reader understand that they were looking at a different part of the story, not the main narrative. I had to convey that without written language.

 I struggled with that idea for a while. I thought I might have a stylistic shift and I did some scratch drawing and pen and ink drawing, but it didn’t work for me. So colour and subtle layout shifts were important devices to signal that shift.

Also, some scenes were grimmer than others. I used a cooler grey palette for those scenes. The golden colour in the park represents a happier moment or moments of resolution. To some extent we were limited by print process, and the colour in the book isn’t exactly as it was on screen, but I think it’s OK.

So let’s look at Tales from Outer Suburbia, which is published in the UK. Does it have a different cover to the Australian edition?

 No, the US edition has a different cover but the UK edition is pretty much identical to the Australian one.

I spent hours just looking at the endpapers. There are lots of motifs that I recognise from other stories. Are they from your sketchbook?

Yes, there are little details here from my sketchbooks, which are quite messy. At first I thought I would pick out the little drawings I liked, scan them and put them together. But a lot of them were illegible. So I assembled the drawings and then redrew the whole thing as a single drawing on one page.

One of the first things that will strike readers as being different is the balance of text to image. There’s more writing here than we’ve seen in your other books.

Yes, but for me pictures and words are just different ways to tell the story. It’s about as remarkable for me using words to tell the story as it is to switch from oils to watercolours. It’s about using whatever medium is necessary to make the story work the best that I can make it work.

So what were you able to do with the words that you couldn’t do with the pictures?

Well most of the stories started as words.'The Lost Thing'  started entirely as a written story with no visual images, and in the course of working on it, the visual images took over and then I started to cut out the text.

Words and images are limited and expressive in their own ways, so they open things up, but they close off other possibilities at the same time. A picture has difficulty conveying abstract narrative threads.

In the story ‘The Water Buffalo’, the image actually came first. It’s a self-contained image but the written narrative emerged because I had one other idea that I wanted to overlay on this image. It was that people routinely asked the buffalo questions: it’s not just an isolated incident with the girl in the picture. The creature is just accepted as part of the landscape and he is pointing in response to a question. That idea is not clear in the picture alone. It is always a risk when you start introducing that kind of story to an image which is working perfectly well on its own, at a mysterious level. A solution is to keep the story extremely short. The moment I felt the stories were compromising the pictures by narrowing the reader’s scope of imaginative possibilities, I would start again or cut out the bits that I thought were being too interpretative. I think the text for this story opens the picture rather than closing it down.

A lot of the stories end with a question or a statement that is unclear. I think that’s where the two aspects, words and pictures, come together at the end, with the same unresolved proposition.


 

'The Water Buffalo'; was the most enigmatic story in the collection, for me.

It was the first fully contained piece that I did for the book and was a springboard for the collection. There was also this much older image of ‘Make Your Own Pet’ that I did for the RSPCA as a free work. It was published once in another anthology but only in black and white with low production values. It’s one of my favourite illustrations and I really wanted to see it properly published. So that’s what started me thinking that with a few more stories we could get a collection together.    

 

 

 

Well, it’s great, because it’s given you the opportunity to revisit earlier work.

 

All of these stories are orphaned ideas from my sketchbooks. They have come about when I’ve been working on 'The Red Tree' or 'The Lost Thing' or 'The Rabbits'. Some of them are fantastic little ideas, but they’ll never find their way into a picturebook because they don’t fit into that structure: they don’t have enough narrative strength or commercial viability. So this book came about because I like books that have lots of little stories in them, but it was also a way of getting all of these little ideas published.

 You use language to create mystery. People are rarely named, the might be called ‘thing’… or ‘forgotten…’ ‘the nameless holiday’ or ‘the other country’, which invites the reader to fill a gap with their own imagination.

Yes, I do rarely have names. 'Eric' is an exception, but even then the name is a substitute for something we can’t hear or pronounce properly, so we never know his real name. I usually use ‘I’ or ‘the mother’ or ‘you’ or ‘the neighbours. There’s one that says ‘the elderly Greek neighbour’ and that’s about as close as you get to identification.

I think there’s Mrs Katayama in ‘Broken Toys’ but in that story the children refer to her as ‘Mrs Bad News’, so she isn’t given her real name.

Yes, that’s true.

Interestingly, that story works without the pictures, but the pictures give it an extra dimension.

Yes, I was interested in the images. They look as though they have been painted on wood, but I’m guessing that they are not. How did you achieve that effect?

 If I was patient enough, it would be painted on wood. It’s painted with acrylics and oils on paper but in such a way using thick paint and sandpaper to make it look like wood., I achieved the grain of the wood effect by taking a piece of wood from the back yard, scanning it and then overlaying the digital image on the painting.

This picture (page 22 – 23) is pretty much as I painted it but the cracks in the top right hand corner were added digitally, so they look as though they are part of the image. The texture is created by layering the paint and sandpapering it until you get the right effect. If you look at the houses in the background, you can see that the paint has been sanded back to the paper. In hindsight I would have liked to have sanded it a little bit more. 

So you must use a very heavy paper for that.

A thick watercolour paper with layers of paint so you don’t tear into the paper.

And these symbols here in the bottom right hand corner, is that your name in Chinese characters?

t. Which I think would be the same in Japanese.

What materials did you use for the illustration of ‘Grandpa’s Story’? Is it pen and ink?

No they are done in biro – a really cheap one. It’s what I use for sketching most of the time these days. Biro is handy: I don’t have to sharpen it and you can get a lot of tonal range using grey 


shading. About five years ago, I started using ballpoint pen in my sketchbooks because they have a throw away aspect to them. But when I was doing some artwork based on sketchbook images, I thought the original biro sketches looked much better. I like the range of line that you can get with the biro. So I started using it for doing bigger drawings. I hope the ink doesn’t fade over time because it’s not really an art material.

 And then a watercolour wash over the top?

Well no, the watercolour wash is done first and then the biro drawing. I then finish with the white gouache highlights. Around the edges you can see where the masking tape held the paper in place. Usually that gets cut off but I hadn’t sealed the edges properly. I liked the way it started to bleed, so then I started encouraging it by not fixing the paper too well and putting some blobs of paint around the edges.

I like that some people confuse these drawings with etching because they look a bit like etchings without the tedium of the etching process. 

These are techniques that you’ve used in other books…

Yes, the book gave me that opportunity to pull out techniques that I love and use them again. After the discipline of The Arrival, I could be more liberated with this project.

I’ve seen linked stories in other mediums, especially in music and I think this book is like concept album about the suburbs. Each story is like a song and the reading time is about the same length of time as listening to a track on a CD.

I can see that you you have slow movements and fast movements. I think ‘Distant Rain’ is a slow movement.

Yes, you are slowed down by the difficulty of the layout.

There is a story in the collection about dreaming. How important are dreams to your image making?

The pictures don’t appear in my dreams. I have pretty weird dreams but I don’t remember them and they are too chaotic to form a narrative. At the same time that feeling of sliding into another consciousness is very powerful and I think drawing and painting accesses to some extent the same world of dreaming. The effect should be the same, I think. For instance, when you wake up from an interesting, vivid dream, you don’t understand it but you can feel the meaning of it. It usually comes in the underlying emotion of the dream.

The picture of The Water Buffalo was on my window for a long time. It was tapping into something but I didn’t really know what that was. That’s similar to the dreamlike experience.

An apprehension rather than a comprehension... 

Yes that’s right. So, I do try to make my pictures have the same aesthetic as dreams. Here on page 36, the image of dugong on the front lawn is a dreamlike image. Even the way I have painted it emphasises that quality. There’s a lack of resolution in the application of the paint and the way it’s vignetted gives it a dreamy existence.

Some of the stories are richly allusive, such as ‘The Other Country’ which has some explicit references to early Renaissance art.

The idea for the story came from a visit to Florence. There was a courtyard that looked very similar to the image on pages 58 – 59. It wasn’t as vast as the courtyard that I have painted but it had a very similar feeling. It was one of those places off the tourist radar. It was so peaceful and somehow timess. No story occured to me at the time but I took lots of pictures.

I was fascinated by two things. Firstly the trees that were growing in this enclosed space with the visible sky above. Secondly, the enclosed corridor around the periphery which had paintings on the wall representing imagined spaces. All of these different spaces were intersecting and that intrigued me.

In my sketchbooks, I had been playing around with another storyless idea about a room in a house that is only accessible through another room and which nobody visits. A room that logically isn’t there - but it is. Of course an idea isn’t a story, but when you out two really good ideas together, then you start to grow a story.

 

The third element in that story is to do with a migrant family. It isn’t made explicit in the text but is clear through the style of the pictures that it’s an Italian family. They are based on some Italian neighbours: people that we were aware came from somewhere in Italy but had moved to Western Australia.. It was only when I visited Italy that I got a sense of the cultural separation they must have felt.

Anyway, I started thinking about someone coming from a rich cultural and artistic background to Western Australia at a time when there was mass migration just after the Second World War. Often they would have been faced with prejudice and racism. I thought it must have been intensely annoying to have come from that environment and then be treated like a second class citizen. I imagined them carrying a rich bubble with them that people just couldn’t see – an inner world.

The idea of the foot coming through the ceiling came about because we were always terrified of that happening at home. We had a roof space and dad would always make such a big deal about not stepping on the white part where your foot would go through the ceiling. We did have a Christmas tree that we kept up in the roof space but it melted because it was so hot up there in the summer, so that was drawn from life.

'The Other Country' was actually one of the easiest stories to write because those ideas were already feeding into each other.

I love the juxtaposition of the mundane with the profound in the illustration of this story.

Yes, I love the idea of anachronistic painting. So here you have what could be a Renaissance painting but there’s a telephone and a pair of Y front underpants on the washing line.

The colours are like a Fra Angelico painting

Yes, I did a lot of picture research for these illustrations. I spent hours looking at the Renaissance and medieval painting and gathered together a collection of paintings that I really liked. One of these Tuscan trees is a quotation from a mural there’s a detail which is an elaboration from a background detail of a da Vinci. Most of it is just made up though.

The mood evoked by ‘Stick Figures’ is entirely different. The use of light and strong shadow in these pictures reminds me of Edward Hopper.

A lot of Australian painters have been inspired by Edward Hopper and I’ve probably in turn been inspired by them. I’m certainly attracted to a particular lighting effect, and I think that’s what they have in common with Edward Hopper and other American painters such as Charles Sheeler who were documenting the urban landscape in the early twentieth century.

But this story is the most strongly associated with the specific neighbourhood where I grew up. These images are direct transcriptions of scenes and roads that I know very well. Also this is about the life of the long Australian summer, that dry, slightly haunted landscape, the quietness of the suburbs, the empty facades of houses, the darkness of garage spaces and empty footpaths. The bus stops are exactly as they are in Perth, big seventies concrete things. People who have lived in Perth comment on this picture. I don’t know how it translates for readers from other places, but I feel this story really strongly.

Is it an allegory for the treatment of the indigenous people?

Partly, but not so much indigenous people as nature.

In the Ray Bradbury story, ‘The Settlers’, the Martians have caught smallpox, brought by the one of the first three expeditions. There is a ghost town where the dead Martians lived. Humans have colonised the planet but they don’t go to those places; it’s an unspoken thing. But the kids will go there and play around. They smash things up just because they are bored. When they go home they are told off by their parents and warned never to go there again. In Bradbury’s story there is a metaphor, though I think it’s more layered than being a purely a symbolic representation. It’s more of a dreamlike space. Certainly there is a connection with the treatment of First Nations and the destruction of their culture.. Nobody wants to think about it because there’s lot of guilt attached to what’s happened. That guilt is certainly there in Australian culture. The unresolved relationship with its own past, its treatment of indigenous people and theft of land is such a dominant unspoken feature of the Australian subconscious.

But I grew up in an Anglo Saxon neighbourhood where there was little evidence of an indigenous people and lifestyle. It always bothered me as a young adult that there seemed to be a lack of history, the bush was treated as a neutral space. It was very easy to claim it, to build on, without any cost or negotiation. But of course there was a history - all land in Australia is essentially Aboriginal land.

With this story, I was thinking about how the land had started off as predominantly bush land but when I visit the same suburb now, there’s almost no bush there. We were aware as kids of things being lost in the process, birds, bugs and wilderness. When they were gone it was weird, not just because they were gone, but because they weren’t mourned. It was almost as if people were glad that they had gone. The only thing that’s left in the parks are some big ragged looking trees that drop big sticks, look like people, if you hold them up. At least that’s what they looked like to me. In a similar way insects maintain a presence and magpies swoop down on people in springtime. Its nature saying you can’t get rid of us that easily. And that’s what this story is about.

You have already mentioned that you have a tendency towards a pink/green colour scheme. Can you say more about your colour palette?

 

 I love the colour pink. I was given this pink mobile phone, which is hilarious because it looks as thoug

h it belongs to a teenage girl. But I love this colour, especially when it’s present in nature, in the sky or blossoms. It’s lively but it means different things in different contexts. I think it started when I was living in an area where green trees against pink skies were common. 'The Water Buffalo' is an example of a pink/green scheme. Blue/orange is another scheme that I use and that’s a very Western Australian combination. It zings.

Have the Surrealists been important to you? The Lost Thing has something of Max Ernst in it, I think.

Yes, it does. I see those artists as capital S Surrealists. They’re very committed to surrealism as an ideology or philosophy, which is about the exploration of the subconscious. At the time they were painting in the 1920s Surrealism was an anti-reason painting or way of seeking intellectual liberation. I don’t really approach surrealism in that way.

Although I like the strangeness of Ernst and Dali, I think I’m closer to Magritte because he was starting to use Surrealism not as an expression of irrationality but as a philosophical metaphor. When you look at his paintings, they are puzzles akin to reading something by Wittgenstein. I think I’m someone who uses surrealism but not as a committed artistic manifesto. I’m not really interested in the subconscious, except in the way that I was describing it to you earlier as a way of connecting ourselves with our emotional lives. Whereas Ernst and Dali were interested in the subconscious for its own sake as a way of disrupting our ability to create concrete meaning. I think.

Certainly when I was a young artist they were a big influence and when I was at high school everyone loved the Spanish Surrealists. For the adolescent surrealism is really appealing; it gives you access to a very liberated art style. Anything is permissible. If you look at youth culture, the predominant artistic style is something like surrealism: pop surrealism. You see it in surf culture and comics, on tee-shirts and in music videos. I think that’s why my books are popular with those older/young readers.

 

Thank you Shaun Tan for talking to Just Imagine.

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