Shaun asked Ann James to accept the Dromkeen Medal and read his acceptance speech at the Awards dinner. It was greeted with enthusiasm and we hope you enjoy it as much as the audience did ...
Shaun Tan, February 2011
First and foremost, many apologies for not being able to attend this evening, and a big thanks to Ann for filling in (I figured our shoe size is about the same). I really wish I could have been there with all of you. I can imagine the room is full of many friends; old and new, that I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and working alongside over the years. Ever since I first set foot in the world of children’s publishing in my early twenties, wondering who might be interested in my folio of weird and creepy drawings, I’ve felt very warmly welcomed. Even the most dubious children’s editors invited me into their offices at a time when other businesses failed to return my calls. ‘Yes’ they said, ‘we will look at your weird and creepy drawings!’ My suspicions have since been confirmed: the children’s literature folk are some of the most open-minded you are likely to know.
For a person that hardly ever leaves the house – the curse and blessing of a home studio – I can say that my working life to date has been an eventful journey. And like many of my fictional subjects, that journey has been strange and unexpected, and now is as good a time as any to recount a little of it, particularly on the eve of this peculiar detour called The Oscars. Right now I’ll be in LA wondering how you keep a bow tie straight and stop palms from sweating, and how we ended up in such a bizarre fish-out-of-water situation, so far away from our little home in Brunswick, with our manageable pot-plants and parrots.
So what’s the story? Well, pitched in Hollywood terms over a studio lunch, it would go something like this: Act 1, scene 1: we open on a panning camera shot across rooftops of suburban Perth, circa mid-70’s, descending upon a toddler in a backyard, drawing on a concrete slab with crayons. Cue: wavering Philip Glass soundtrack as the camera moves in and black cockatoos fly overhead. Cut to close-up: toddler squinting into the sun, then back to his work. Pull focus to a tiny fist gripping a black crayon, tracing the perfect outline of an enormous cockatoo… and cut!
Of course, real life is not like that at all. The truth is I loved drawing only as much as the next kid, and while I did have some early talent, it was very modest, and there was nothing heroic or prescient about it. The real story of any creative person’s life is how they have been encouraged by family, friends and colleagues to pursue a craft that, at first glance, does not seem at all practical or useful (what my late grandfather would describe as ‘pissing on your own leg and playing with the steam’.)
I think that my Mum had always been interested in painting as a teenager, but had to leave school at 15 to find work, and eventually lost that thread. She recognized it again in the childhood drawings of my brother and I. She helped us paint large images copied from Disney storybooks on our bedroom walls; and read to us every night from an early age, including – by accident – George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’, without really knowing it was a satire about Soviet politics. After the first chapter, it was too late: we were hooked and had to see it through to the end, with the terrible triumph of the corrupted pigs, bloodshed, brainwashed sheep and chickens and a horse sent off to the glue factory. As a seven year old, it left a big impression on me, and this might explain a few things for those of you familiar with my picture books. I’m sure a psychologist would find it all infinitely interesting, but again, I have to say that the truth is prosaic. Orwellian moments aside, I enjoyed a mercifully non-intellectual childhood, running about in the bush in the day, and watching random, low-quality TV at night, and reading whatever we wanted to read. Nothing particularly noble or traumatic, aside the from a constant shortage of pocket money and chocolate.
In practical terms, my Dad provided an endless supply of paper, as I was allowed to draw on the back of his architectural plans once each of his jobs had been completed.
These were nice, big, quality pieces of paper – a luxury for a kid. We were also allowed to use his technical pens and rulers if we promised to be careful (my brother is now a geological engineer, so perhaps some influence there). Dad once paid me twenty cents to draw a tiny palm tree in a safe corner of one of his building elevations, which is technically my first paid commission. My second was a picture of a hamburger for the school canteen menu in grade two, for which I was paid a fun-size bag of Twisties. Yep, I thought, this drawing thing is finally paying off. Big time.
I recently heard someone say that if you are doing as an adult whatever you wanted to do at the age of eleven, then that’s a decent measure of personal success. In my case, that’s certainly true: around the age of eleven I found the idea of making my own illustrated books very appealing, having been introduced to creative writing classes at school. These literary masterpieces, illustrated in full colour pencil and texta, written with gold-star quality hand-lettering, include ‘The Land Beneath the Sea’, a tale of three scientists who are sucked into a whirlpool, marooned in a subterranean world, harassed by monstrous creatures, and finally escape with treasure; ‘Mission to Mars’, a tale of three scientists who become lost in an asteroid field, marooned on an alien planet, harassed by aliens and finally escape with treasure; ‘The City in the Sky’, a tale of three scientists… well, you get the picture.
Our teacher encouraged students to ‘publish’ this work, which meant getting the school librarian to put a Dewey decimal number on them, and shelving them in the library for other kids to borrow. So that’s what ‘publishing’ means, I thought – putting a decimal number on your work and letting other people read it. People who aren’t even your parents or teachers. People who are complete strangers! Interesting concept. The only problem was that photocopiers barely existed, much less colour ones, much less anything digital, so only original copies were set out for loan. My first ever picture book, the aforementioned ‘Land Beneath the Sea’, went the way of it’s protagonists and disappeared, sucked into a vortex of anonymous schoolbags. I’m hoping it might turn up on e-bay some day, and I urge you all to keep an eye out; something for the Dromkeen collection perhaps.
At this point I should add that I’m no stranger to children’s literature awards; before it went missing, ‘The Land Beneath the Sea’ won a $10 book voucher from the CBC for being a runner up in the Make-Your-Own-Book competition. In 1982, adjusting for inflation, this was worth slightly more than an Oscar. I went out a bought a Victor Kelleher novel, ‘Master of the Grove’, getting Dad to invest in the $2 shortfall. I had no idea who Victor Kelleher and, gosh, books were expensive! But I really liked the cover illustration, because it scared the bejeezus out of me. (Publishers take note – kids are attracted to well illustrated covers, not ten-minute photoshop pastiches decided upon by a committee of salespeople.) It was a good book too, I’ve still got it.
As a student, I seemed to thrive on odd assignments, much as I do now as a professional illustrator. One teacher, for instance, gave me a lump of soapstone and asked me to try carving it – after which I became obsessed with carving things. The same goes for papier mache, collage, lino-printing and mask-making – I just needed the introduction. And also permission without judgment. For example, one teacher allowed me to do a project on Public Executions, and my Dad helped me make a fully functioning scale model 18th century guillotine – as Dad’s do. What’s interesting about that is that I don’t recall too much censorship from parents or teachers, or anyone telling me what I should or should not do. Art is a form of exploration: and making something like a guillotine allowed me to fully understand what it was, beyond the morbid curiosity. Having made it, complete with basket for catching heads, I was puzzled that any civilized society would allow such a thing. Whenever I think about capital punishment, my mind travels back to that node of memory, building that model. Art is very much about these nodes of memory.
The only suggestion my parents often made was to try being original: that the point of making things was to invent something personal, to draw inspiration without copying. So I would watch movies and TV – my main artistic references – and imagine directing my own versions of them, inventing new villains and heroes, space-ships and monsters. I learnt that this was so much more fun than trying to replicate the objects of affection, as regular toys do, and I often felt empowered by my own designs. This concept of personal transformation was reiterated in different forms in high school, refined as an idea by art teachers, many of who were also practicing artists – people who actually painted, drew and sculpted for a living. Which in itself was an amazing concept – how did they do it?
As a teenager, I became obsessed with another idea: that fiction is the study of reality, not just an entertaining escape from it. Picasso is often quoted as saying ‘art is the lie that tells us the truth’ and that’s as good a summary as you can get. Art is the strange reflection of ordinary life. It had never occurred to me that my own middle-class suburban world was worthy of comment. That notion began to form when my high school English literature teacher gave me a novel by a young guy who grew up not far from my own suburb – and had won a Vogel Award for it. He wrote about Perth and WA’s southern coastal landscape with a lyrical accuracy; places where my family went fishing every Christmas, so I knew them well. I could see the reality in the fiction, and how reading feeds back into that reality, affecting my perception of the coast. Some time later, I had the good fortune to hear this same writer talking to a bunch of students (including me) at Karrinyup Public Library about his new Lockie Leonard books. He looked and spoke just like a regular guy from the beach, Kmart, or the queue at Hungry Jacks; much like all of us really, only with a more literary-looking pony-tail. Writing, it seemed, was not a remote or abstract activity at all. It was a way of making sense of life, knowing that our perception of the world is inseparable from our ability to imagine it. In short, ‘art is the lie that tells us the truth.’
Of course, there are so many influences; artists, writers, editors and amazing people who’ve helped me along the way, leading to countless little revelations that constitute life as a successful artist – which I define as one who is able to pay their rent on time. I had intended to give you a potted history of my career as a picture book illustrator, but seem to have only gotten as far as the age of 17. That’s okay, since it also marks my first published illustration, being a drawing of a robot kangaroo for a science fiction magazine, for which I was paid $50 – as I said, paying off, big time.
It’s also the age, more or less, for whom many of us write, paint, edit, publish and teach: that interesting tipping point between childhood and adulthood, when all experience seems very fresh and raw, both promising and troubling. These are experiences that can either feed the rivers of our artistic selves or dam them like a reservoir; direct them to the sea or dry them out, depending upon climate, and the influences of other people. Creativity is fun, but being creative is difficult, and every student needs all the help they can get.
I guess what I want to express is a general gratitude for the encouragement received from my parents and teachers, other artists and writers, and later colleagues in the book industry, allowing me to develop my interests without too much in the way of boundaries, unfair rules or judgment. I’m mindful of this in my own approach to crafting stories, of treating young readers in a respectful way. I’m not in the business of imparting wisdom, presenting moral lessons or, heaven forbid, second-guessing the marketability of a book. I don’t have any ‘message’ as such
I just try to respect the fact that young people are intelligent, thoughtful, with plenty of life experience and wisdom already, and able to find their own answers, with a little positive encouragement or inspiration, passed on from a previous observer. At the end of the day, a reader’s private thoughts are more significant than my own public ones. Like the old water buffalo in one of my suburban tales, all I can do is point my hoof in an interesting direction, skip the commentary, and trust that there might be something illuminating over there, in the darkness behind the trees.
So, in conclusion, yes, I’m back doing essentially the same thing I did when I was 11, only now with quarterly BAS statements and excessive email, but otherwise no real difference. How wonderful to have been not only given the opportunity to pursue my hobbies in the clever disguise of a job, and also get a medal for it! It’s an award that really belongs to others; Helen Chamberlin – who gave me my first real assignment – and other patient editors Erica Wager, Jodie Webster and Rosalind Price; my co-creators Gary Crew, John Marsden, a host of other writers, my agent and producer Sophie Byrne, my supportive publishers Lothian Books, Allen & Unwin and Hachette, and institutions such as Dromkeen, The Fremantle Children’s Literature Centre, Books Illustrated, the State Libraries of WA and Victoria and, of course, the CBC and the ASA.
Many thanks also to all the booksellers, publicists, teachers and teacher-librarians, without whom my work would be little more than an obscure footnote on Wikipedia, under the keywords ‘weird, creepy and misunderstood’. These are the people who heroically place non-living books in the hands of actual living readers, which is where they belong. And finally, of course, to family, my parents and brother, and my wife, the most sympathetic of all to my strange obsessions, being herself a certified art nut. On behalf of all these good people, I can heartily accept this Dromkeen Medal. Many thanks, and I look forward to seeing you all soon.