“One of the joys of drawing is that meaning can be constantly postponed, and there is no real pressure to “say” anything special when working privately in a sketchbook... Nevertheless, interesting or profound ideas can emerge of their own accord, not so much in the form of a “message,” but rather, as a strangely articulated question.
A scene or character seems to look back at you from the page
and ask,“What do you make of this?” A drawing feels successful to me when it is both clear and ambiguous, something I try to underscore by adding an equally ambiguous title. While there is no set meaning in any of these drawings, there is an invitation to seek one (for myself as well as any other audience).” (Shaun Tan, THE BIRD KING, p.5)
I wasn’t exactly sure what would surface for me during this self-declared “SHAUN TAN WEEK”. I planned this section for the end of course because Tan’s work has been singularly special and almost “sacred” to me from the moment I first encountered it (2008), and I know that when I allow myself the time and space to dive into that world, I always find myself again…
not changed so much as “returned”.
Reading more from and about Tan these past days: his own words + those of positively-reflective critics and readers, has been a very interesting and helpful accompaniment to re-visiting the stories and images themselves because this has served to put words to connections that I feel so deeply, yet can seldom articulate. For example, in a 2011 speech/article published in The Looking Glass: New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Tan explains a bit of his understanding of what truths underlie art and literature… these things that are always available for us to be “in” and to move through in the most natural way if we allow ourselves to remain open to them and non-judgmental about our own truths that are all a part of some larger connectivity: this innately human experience of life told through story:
"The other great confession of literature, and one that I’ve actually found very comforting, is that life is hard. As much as it is joyful, wonderful and astounding, it can often be depressing – people suffer, irrational things happen, fairness is far from guaranteed and disappointment is commonplace. Just admitting this openly can be immensely consoling, especially for a child, given that childhood is so emotionally tumultuous – there’s a kind of relief to be found in an honest, safe and thoughtful examination of weakness, failure and fear. Here again, art and literature cast a very open eye over that basic human question: ‘Do others see and feel what I see and feel?’ Just asking that question ensures we are never alone, and to talk about disturbing things is inherently optimistic. For this reason I’ve often found it difficult to sympathize with those who consider some of my books to be ‘inappropriate’ or ‘too dark’. Even the word ‘dark’ itself misses the point considerably, as if one is dwelling on negativity rather than trying to question it in an enlightened way." (9/13)
I did not expect to stumble on this gift of words that speaks so pointedly to my own hurt and confused places as a human (let alone as an artist/writer/educator/academic)… I didn’t even think to hope that such a reflection of my own inner truths was a “thing”. I knew that Shaun Tan’s work spoke soothingly – consistently – to the abstract truth of stories I cannot help but try to tell through my own art, but this was nothing concrete before now.
To read that intuition articulated feels remarkable to me.
* VISUALLY – The affinity I feel with Tan’s work and process reminds me that I am not a graphic artist… nor do I particularly want to be one at this point in my life. I need my art making process to stay tactile and (for reasons I can’t yet explain) I think that I also need for the results to LOOK tactile. This may mean that a lot of the little elements admire, and even wish to emulate to from some of the other graphic stories I have read recently are not things that I will ever fully integrate into my own style, but – in spending more time again with Shaun Tan – I am ok with this. I think I can allow these “conversations” I have had with so many other artist/storytellers over the past 8 weeks to live and grow inside of me as I continue to develop my own practice, without the necessity to emulate any of them more exactly or explicitly.