An illustration of a child standing on a dark street corner next to a wall covered in graffiti. He stands under a streetlamp, and in front of him, the shadow of a horned beast is pointing.
Art by Shaun Tan

Artist Shaun Tan Makes the Familiar Strange

Kyo Maclear and celebrated illustrator Shaun Tan break down the process behind creating his fantastical illustrated worlds.

Sometimes it’s disappointing to meet an artist you truly admire but meeting my fellow panelist Shaun Tan at the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2017 only fed my admiration. No one evokes the strangeness of the world as well as he does. No one beckons the unexpected visitor (the small, lost, unwanted) as joyfully. Very few artists are as game to try new things, unafraid to interrupt the fatal momentum of “past success” (check out the creative leap Tan takes in The Singing Bones).

But I am getting ahead of myself. For those who may be unaware, Shaun Tan is one of the most lauded contemporary illustrators in the world, a revered cult figure among fellow creators, and deservingly so. He grew up in West Australia amid “the forested southwest, the arid north, the vast inland desert, the endless beaches.”

He spins strange tales that rearrange habitual ways of seeing and that often pose nettled questions about how humans treat more-than-human life. He builds worlds inhabited by small affecting creatures who somehow rebuff any diminishing association with cuteness. Extraordinary worlds where unexpectedly ordinary things occur. As an artist, his line is both sharp and misty, sage and innocent, untethered to the laws of realism and yet socially and ethically attuned.

As a fellow half-Asian settler (in my case, living in Canada), I recognize a hybrid sensibility and a quality of neither-here-nor-thereness in Tan’s work. From his wordless masterpiece The Arrival to his inventive The Lost Thing, the film adaptation of which won him an Academy award, Tan conjures characters who are often on the outside looking in. (Note: the possible benefit of a wayside point of view is you never lose your perspective, your edge, your mission of noticing.)

 

One of the first things that drew me to his art was the sense he imparts that life is not built on polar opposites but on juxtaposition, overlap, and recombination. He works in a chiaroscuro zone where there is often a literal softening into a grey or a glowing mid-range. It is a mystifying, contradictory space of sensical nonsense, floodlit darkness and sweet gravitas that defies rigid black-and-white thinking.

As mentioned, I had the good luck of meeting Tan in 2017. We continued to talk about his process and ideas after our panel was done, through refreshments and a book signing, up until the moment his publicist politely ushered him away. I left with the impression of someone who became more interesting and less certain as our conversation progressed. Someone far from slick or blasé. A truly enthusiastic and curious student of the world.

This month, Creature—“a beautiful collection of paintings, drawings and reflections on creatures, our constant companions”—comes to bookshops. It is a visually exhilarating and hallucinatory book. It represents everything about creatureliness that is vulnerable, untameable, frightening, rule-breaking and free.

I felt, after experiencing it, that it would be foolish and boring to try to be simply, chauvinistically human. Instead, I felt an awareness of my own animality and otherness. Which is to say, Tan reminds us that we are creatures too. We share basic creaturely needs for shelter, sustenance and water. And as evidenced during moments of infrastructural or “civilizational” collapse, through global climate emergencies and the recent pandemic, we cannot transcend our physical selves.

I am going to keep revisiting Creature, so I remember what’s possible when you stay warm, wild and oddly-minded; what magical things might happen when we see beyond our imagined human supremacy.

I sent Shaun questions by email in the first days of Autumn 2022. He responded from his family home in Melbourne.


Kyo Maclear: First, let me say what a delight it was to spend time with your beautiful book. Can you talk about the origins of Creature?

Shaun Tan: Books for me are a bit like planets. Initially, there’s a lot of gas and dust floating around in space – different ideas, sketches, notes – and through some gravity of their own, these things gather into something with mass, density, and (if lucky) some interesting life and meaning. It’s a process that takes about five to ten years. Lots of planets are always forming in my mind or sketchbooks, but only occasionally do they promise to be something substantial, at least one that someone else might want to look at.

After more than 25 years of freelance writing and illustration, you can imagine I have plenty of unpublished material: orphans and widows of projects never completed for one reason or another, experimental work, developmental sketches for books and film, and lots of personal pieces created for my own interest. It’s the underwater iceberg that supports that small part exhibited or published above sea level.

Hearing what other artists make of their own work is always something I find personally interesting, for better or worse, and I wanted to try doing the same. It meant I really had to step back from the studio table and look critically at everything, including work from childhood and adolescence. The simplest thing that stood out was the prevalence of creatures. Lots of changes of style and meaning, but more often than not a creature somewhere, either a familiar animal or an imaginary one, usually in a suburban landscape.

Going back to beginnings, real beginnings, one drawing I did around the age of three shows a dinosaur family: two parents and an unborn fetus. This picture is reproduced at the beginning of the book, as I was struck by how honest and earnest it looks, and that I still remember drawing it, one of the few memories I have of that time. I love how purposeless it is too, drawing at its most essential, just wanting to see what something looks like as it moves from your head onto paper. That impulse was the guiding principle in making a selection, as well as adding some new pieces: just this very basic urge to draw fictional creatures. And then to write about them a little, try to make sense of what they might all mean.

KM: Was there a creaturely story or film you enjoyed growing up that left a lasting imprint?

ST: Oh, so many. Film and TV were essentially my main art gallery, growing up in what was then outer suburban Perth in Western Australia, not exactly the cultural center of the world. I don’t think we should ever underestimate the extent to which pop culture provides a valuable entry point into other areas of creativity, theory, criticism and rich intellectual life. Especially for kids.

I was born in 1974, and throughout the late ‘70s and ‘80s, there was a wave of inventive science fiction and fantasy movies and TV, perhaps coinciding with a blossoming special effects industry. Not always great, but I think more stylistically and conceptually diverse – by which I mean more experimental and random – than much of what I see now, which seems little more than CG reworkings of concepts from this era: Star Wars, ET, Close Encounters, Alien, Mad Max, The Dark Crystal, Bladerunner, Brazil. Genuinely other-worldly visions, and many more of questionable production quality, but even the bad ones were at least pretty mind-bending. And something about the model and matte-painted construction of these films made them feel very accessible, nicely imperfect. As if we could write, draw and build things like that ourselves.

One early experience I write about in the book was watching The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms with my dad, a late-night ‘creature feature’ on our old black and white, wood-veneer TV. This was maybe the first time I heard the word ‘creature,’ which opened up some vast room in my mind, where any kind of entity might be possible. You only needed to call something a ‘creature’, and that was sufficient, like an open question, fully formed. You didn’t need to know a thing’s name, where it came from, what it meant, what it was for. That simple idea, with the handle of that clear and nebulous word ‘creature’, is something that still inspires me to write and draw. As a concept I guess it expanded as a teenager, with a greater realization that humans are also strange creatures, that it’s all pretty relative.

To a large extent, we are also the most imaginary of all creatures. That is, we imagine our identities, through stories and images, we build a picture of who we are in our minds, and this may or may not chime with reality. I think it also means we fall a little out of step with nature, creating all sorts of complications and anxieties. Which of course provides very rich material for writing and painting.

A black and white illustration of a human-sized cat in a suit sitting on a couch next to a person watching tv in a living room. Another person watches the tv from the open window.

Art by Shaun Tan

KM: The worlds you build for your creatures feel very specific, yet often like a mixture of places, or like everyday places that have been eerily transfigured. Where do these worlds come from?

ST: I think it all comes from my local suburban environments, around the two cities where I have lived, Perth and Melbourne. In some cases, bits of my local neighborhood are integrated directly into paintings: the image of a huge water buffalo conversing with a child comes from a laneway near my home which has a huge, shaggy-animal-shaped palm tree next to it. I would see it in the dark while taking my baby son out for a night stroll, a time when familiar objects become stranger, seem so much bigger.

In fact, this kind of local misperception, or re-perception, is something I’ve come to appreciate as very important in my work. As a painter, I’m mostly drawn to straight landscape paintings of places I know well, just sitting in front of a park or street and drawing what I see. The interesting thing about that process, especially involving a deeply familiar subject, is that objects become strange as I draw them. I come to appreciate that all the things I’m used to recognizing, labeling, bestowing with meaning and function, are actually deeply mysterious phenomena. A tree is not just a tree, it’s this strange, living, semi-aerial mass connected to everything around it by invisible threads. A puddle is not just a puddle, it’s a uniquely shaped liquid mirror of a hundred different colors, always changing. A car is a weird beetle-like thing that human animals can peel open and routinely resurrect from death. This always happens when I draw or write observationally. I begin to feel like an alien anthropologist, or maybe a very young child, studying every line, shape, texture and color as if you’ve never seen it before.

For me, this is what drawing and painting is really about, beyond making nice pictures. It’s a deeper appreciation of things you thought you already knew. The act of copying things with such simple, slow and resistant materials like pencils and paint forces you to do this. It compels you to sit and stare for an unusually long time, leading to unusual thoughts, a search for poetic connections, similarities, metaphors. It becomes very easy then to move between real and fictional worlds, to introduce unseen creatures or characters. It’s as if by drawing the real world, you loosen all the tight knots of meaning there, and can sew in a whole bunch of new ones, or even re-knit the whole thing as something else. I suppose writing is the same, you are always picking things apart, into strangeness, into words, and stitching the world back together in new, speculative ways.

KM: “Re-perception” is such a good word. The longer you draw something, the more unfamiliar it becomes. It means replacing presumptuous intimacy with uncertain intimacy. Do you think a recognition of the strangeness of the nonhuman world might heal our broken relationship with the environment?

ST: I think our relationship with pets may offer a key insight here. For example, my pet parrot Diego has been flapping through our various homes for the past 22 years. I was at first intrigued by how reptilian this little yellow sun conure was up close, so clearly descended from a dinosaur, and commensurately strange and erratic in behavior.

Over time I came to understand that behavior, although I’d use the term ‘understand’ very liberally here. Certainly, we had theories about what Diego was thinking or feeling, knowing that if one thing happens, another thing is likely to follow – a cuddle, a bite, a certain sound, advance or retreat. But these were largely human presumptions, such as calling something a ‘dance’ or ‘aggression’ or ‘looking sad’. You could call this a kind of familiarity or knowing, although in a very narrow range.

Over time, we came to realize our theories were probably wrong, that Diego is rarely feeling what we think he is feeling. For example, a ‘dance’ might actually be a sign of territorial anxiety, and a nasty sounding beak-grinding an expression of comfort. I feel that these counter-intuitive ‘meanings’ have deepened our perception of what an emotional connection might be, what intimacy might be. That it’s less about empathy with an animal, and more about enjoying and respecting the differences of our separate natures, of witnessing a larger spectrum. You don’t need to understand a thing to love it. In fact, that can make things incredibly limiting, especially when dealing with the non-human world.

A very colorful illustration of a person sitting in an armchair as the head of a parrot rises through the floor

Art by Shaun Tan

I’m a little bothered, for instance, when I see nature documentaries that use music, narrative, and selective framing to conjure human emotions in the world of non-human animals, to elicit our sympathy. Rather than expanding our understanding of the natural world, I think these techniques, perfectly well-meaning as they are, can actually entrench our sense of anthropocentric loneliness and prejudice.

When you speak to people who deal compassionately with certain animals on a regular basis, whether it be dogs or crocodiles, you’ll notice a more expansive respect, a serious appreciation of the gaps between species understanding, of enjoying deep mystery. That it’s important to appreciate these gaps and mysteries as positive things, not something to be solved, fully fenced or ‘owned’ by our human minds. This seems to be the key to having a functional relationship to the natural world, while still seeking knowledge, still trying to understand and love in our own way, which I think is what ancient, sustainable cultures have been doing. By recognizing that humans are not the center of things, not the only arbiter of meaning, not the only brains in the landscape.

As in matters of human society, of race, politics, gender and so on, perhaps we need to respect differences in the natural world without having to fully humanize them first. That can be a hard thing to do, but I think art and literature train us very well for such tasks. Fictional stories in particular are all about exploring and enjoying otherness, seeing how far our hearts and minds can stretch.

KM: Do you feel your relationship to the surreal and fantastical has changed at all as the world becomes even more surreal?

ST: I suppose the strangeness of the real world that I read about in the news every day only confirms my suspicions! There is the world we build in our minds, and then there is the real world, some objective reality out there that’s constantly tossing curve balls. I probably had the first inkling of this through science more than art, particularly learning the very convoluted history of science, and the ways in which people have misunderstood the natural world, and have been so resistant to obvious evidence, whether it be the existence of oxygen, the radical notion that the earth may not be the centre of the universe, or that humans may not be the center of all biological creation. If my own work has changed at all over the years, I think it may be that fantasy and realism are less separated as categories, both in my mind and on the page. That is, I understand reality as semi-fictional, and vice versa, fiction constructs reality.

My book Tales from the Inner City for instance is painted in a much more naturalistic way, with realistic animals that are not especially anthropomorphic, they don’t speak or do very human things. They are ‘real’ creatures, existing as a troubling counterpoint to some misguided human activity or pretension. But even then, as a writer and artist, I was struck by the realization of how estranged I am as a human from the rest of nature, from other animals, and how I could do little more than create fiction or fantasy. I would be at the easel spending months meticulously painting deer, tigers, owls, and realizing that each stroke was a struggle to connect to a being with which I had no direct first-hand experience, but rather knew through TV, film, photos, books, and captured zoo animals in artificial enclosures. And here I was making further representations, several times removed from reality, perpetuating that process. Is it right or wrong?

Well, I’ve come to realize that this it’s probably neither. That all of our ideas and impressions, our memories and projections, are separated from reality one way or another. I often enjoy explaining to my nine-year-old daughter that colors don’t really exist, that red and green, in fact all light, is something reconstructed in your brain from colorless wavelengths… which I’m not sure she enjoys hearing about so much as I enjoy dad-splaining! Although I can see she is finding these concepts fascinating. And that’s the thing, there is wonder in that distance, that discrepancy of perception and reality, in both believing and not believing your eyes at the same time. It’s quite exciting and empowering, the notion that everything is weird, that things are not ‘just so’, that nothing is obvious or normal.

KM: You said recently, “Our relationship with nature is completely dysfunctional,” and that the best description you could give was that it is “spiritually wrong.” I was taken by the word “spiritual” and wondered if you could elaborate.

ST: Well, I feel a bit careless in making such grand statements. In truth, I don’t think our relationship with nature is completely dysfunctional, just mostly dysfunctional. My own included. I get the sense that the core problem has to do with emotional attachment and detachment, and perhaps this is a better expression to use than ‘spiritual’. Our ideas of division and separation seem to be all quite wrong. Even when we talk about preserving wilderness areas or ‘pristine’ environments, there’s something that seems a bit off about it, a bit disconnecting. Not only because no such things really exist, given our massive influence on climate for instance, but it sets up a mindset of nature as separate from human culture, that we are best kept divided. As if we can continue compromising one huge section of the earth so long as we leave another smaller one alone. Which of course never works long-term because everything is connected.

Nature and culture are not separate categories of existence. I think post-industrial society has ridden on the back of that delusion for too long, and I’m drawn to any activity where nature and culture are combined, even at the smallest scale like making a backyard garden. In such instances, a natural human passion for reuniting nature and culture is always forthcoming, it’s what we all seem to want desperately.

Art and literature obviously do the same. It sounds like a bit of a mantra, but one that never loses its truth: the key is imagination. Being able to exercise your mind to imagine other ways of existing, and being able to get excited about that, to pre-visualize, to feel in advance something hopeful. Facts and logic don’t seem to cut it with humanity. Even fear and crisis don’t afford the proportional response – in the face of slow death we drag our heels and turn inward, we elect false leaders, we make excuses. The real motivation for change has to be positive, being able to imagine things already getting better. Stories have a huge role to play here, given that everything significant change that’s ever happened in human society has begun with someone telling a story, for better or worse. As artists and writers, we have a natural bias toward truth and honesty, so our stories can be strong and enduring. Not necessarily right or wrong, but able to advance the imagination towards positive, motivating feelings, to have conceptual enthusiasm, beyond the terror of facts and seemingly insurmountable problems.

Two images: On the left is a painting of a black birds watching a gloomy, winding road. On the right is a painting of an oragnge creature rising up from orange ground. From its mouth sprouts water and trees. It is holding open a large book, reading to a green dinosuar and a small group of children.

Art by Shaun Tan

KM: I thought of you with the recent passing of English author-illustrator Raymond Briggs, because elements of his work—the wordless narrative moments, the approachable nonhumans, the flouting of ideas of “child-appropriateness”—feel kin to your own. Are there other artists whose approach to words and pictures continue to inform your work and open up the possibilities of visual storytelling?

ST: Yes, Briggs was a big influence on me at the beginning of my illustration journey. I’m very sad about his passing, and also that I’ll never have the chance to meet him and express appreciation in person. I came across When The Wind Blows around the time I was tasked with illustrating John Marsden’s apocalyptic text The Rabbits, and it really gave me the confidence to push my vision into more adult territory, to not feel constrained by picture book conventions or the umbrella of ‘children’s literature’. Briggs’ story was, and is, a genuinely shocking book: seeing these cute, porcelain-colored pensioners, characters that might have migrated from some cheerful comic strip, gradually dying in their home from radiation sickness, all the while trying to reconcile their trust in government leaflets and the idea of a benevolent world. I understand it may be the only picture book discussed in British Parliament, and helped galvanise the nuclear disarmament movement. I find that remarkable, the power of a fictional narrative drawn by one person in a small room to shift societal attitudes, simply by saying ‘this is what such a thing might look and feel like, let’s just think about it.’ Briggs had a wonderful way of taking big ideas and scaling them down to the size of a teacup on a kitchen table. His modest portrait of working-class parents, Ethel & Ernest, channels a swathe of twentieth-century social change through small and unassuming domestic spaces, more memorably than any number of historical textbooks.

I’m routinely learning from other artists, writers and filmmakers all the time, too many to mention. The area of comics and graphic novels is especially diverse and complex these days, much more so than when I started out in the mid-90s. I was never much of a comics reader, and only came to graphic novels really when I noticed I was starting to make them, that is, having smaller and smaller panels in my picture books. I came to be very intrigued by the work of Chris Ware, taking visual narrative to a whole other level, and Daniel Clowes, whose character studies are wonderful and disturbingly accurate. In the world of picture book illustration, I always enjoy studying the work of Isabelle Arsenault, Kitty Crowther and Sydney Smith, all of whom have a wonderfully lyrical way with pencils and paint, an apparent spontaneity and lightness of touch that I always aspire to achieve with my own painting and drawing.

KM: What books, films, shows, or graphic novels have you recently appreciated, or always loved? What do you read, for inspiration, for fun, to alleviate climate anxiety?

ST: When you ask about alleviating climate anxiety, my immediate thought is, perversely, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’m not sure it’s my favorite book of recent years, but it’s the one I’ve read several times. Of course, it’s incredibly depressing and horrifying, but I think this results in a positive recoil, a reverse inspiration. I’ve probably never appreciated the existence of nature, of sunlight and growth, as much as I have since reading this harrowing vision of its near-total obliteration. McCarthy paints such a disturbingly realistic alternate present, it really makes you want to hold fast to this one. That’s an interesting way in which ‘depressing’ art and literature can inspire you in an unexpected way. I often try to explain this when asked about dark themes in my work, that you need to have that kind of deep shadow before you can cast light upon it. In a similar way, I typically paint on a canvas primed in dark gray, and work from dark, dull colors to bright ones. It’s always something of a relief to be painting those highlights over all other muddy wranglings.

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the work of Swedish author and painter Simon Stålenhag, who often portrays alternate technological landscapes, not so much the future as the recent past, ominous electronic towers over 80’s suburbia, robots wandering the fringes like obsolete junk. I recently had the good fortune to illustrate some stories by Kelly Link, a magic realist writer (for want of a better term) and always enjoy reading her short stories. This collection White Cat, Black Dog is loosely based on familiar fairy tales, tuned to a contemporary sensibility, with mobile phones, air travel, the internet and so on. I enjoyed reading some Italo Calvino stories again recently, ‘The Distance of the Moon’ is one of my all-time favorites. I was unexpectedly moved by the excellent ‘A Primate’s Memoir’ by Robert Sapolsky, about his life as a primatologist in Africa studying a tribe of baboons, which offers so much to think about on the subject of our relationship with other animals. I’m quite fortunate too that friends and colleagues often send me things to read, including their own work, as I’m not very good at finding new things myself. That’s one good thing about being a writer and illustrator, others get a good idea of what you like, your weird interests, and make great recommendations accordingly.

KM: Finally, do you have a favorite creature?

ST: Aside from my immediate family you mean? They are of course my favorite strange creatures! Of those created on paper, I like them all in different ways, but if pressed I’d have to admit a soft spot for the Lost Thing, that huge, rusty, crablike, pot-belly-stove-like mutant washed up on a beach. Actually, it’s the creature I least enjoy drawing, it’s far too complicated and hard to render in perspective, to draw with emotion, movement and even physical orientation, but I guess that’s part of the point. It’s challenging to look at. I first doodled it in my mid-twenties, struggling to carve out my identity, as many of us are around that time, and this creature seems to be a condensation of all kinds of youthful anxiety, as well as some concern about a nature-culture crossroads, and some political angst too. It’s a perfect creature in that way, it so represents how I felt at that time, even without me realizing it. It has some mysterious creative power but no idea how to access it, no means of communication, and appears to have no recognizable place in a real-world economy. Sound familiar to any would-be artists out there?

I’ve come to understand that this is the real function and value of imaginary creatures in painting, film and literature, they are possibly a crystallization of anxieties and aspirations, presented in an entertaining way. They are a wonderful way of describing life indirectly, without a particular place, language or culture, and touching on the fundamental enigma of existence. That we are always ‘lost things’ to some extent. I also frequently return to those three dinosaurs I drew as a small, preliterate child, especially that tiny reptilian fetus. Whether I knew it or not, I was basically drawing myself. It’s difficult not to. No matter how outlandish a creature is, it always ends up being a kind of self-portrait, but one that any other person might identify with, weird beings that we all are.

 

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Kyo Maclear is the author of Birds Art Life, as well as two novels for adults and many books for children. She lives in Toronto, where she shares a home with two sons, two cats, and a musician.