September 4, 2018

Let's Talk Illustrators #80: Van Thanh Rudd

Today Australian street artist, sculptor, and now children's book illustrator Van Thanh Rudd stops by to talk about his picture book debut The Patchwork Bike, written by Maxine Beneba Clarke. A known activist, Van's picture book illustrations carry over the soul and energy of his activist work (like his murals) and provide accessible imagery for children to connect with Clarke's words. I'm excited to share here my conversation with Van about his foray into children's book illustration and what he hopes his contributions will accomplish. Enjoy! 

About the book:
When you live in a village at the edge of the no-go desert, you need to make your own fun. That's when you and your brothers get inventive and build a bike from scratch, using everyday items like an old milk pot (maybe Mum is still using it, maybe not) and a used flour sack. You can even make a license plate from bark if you want. The end result is a spectacular bike, perfect for whooping and laughing as you bumpetty bump over sand hills, past your fed-up mum and right through your mud-for-walls home.

Let's talk Van Thanh Rudd!

LTPB: How were you approached to illustrate this manuscript? (If I’m correct this is your picture book debut, yes?) When you received it, what about it drew you in? Did you immediately know what style you’d illustrate it in? 

VTR: I have been an artist for over 20 years, and it happened to be in 2013, when I was putting hyper-real sculptures on the streets of Melbourne, that award-winning author Maxine Beneba Clarke took notice. She approached me for an interview for the Saturday Paper (she has interviewed many well-known artists and writers for this paper). It was during this interview process that she mentioned some words she had for a children’s book. I asked her to send on the words to me and see what happens. I immediately thought, “I already have so many art projects. How will I find time?” But I gave it a go, and after initial failures, it seemed to work out. It would be my first children’s book (and Maxine’s). 

I’d already been aware that Maxine was a local legend in the spoken word scene, and that we’d met once where I spoke about art and racism at the National Gallery of Victoria. So when it came to a children’s book I was drawn in already by Maxine’s views on how endemic racism is in society. And that view entails acknowledging that racism exists and how we can fight it. I had no idea how the finished illustrations would look as I have such a vast array of art styles that I work in. I guess one thing was certain, was that the artworks wouldn’t be illustrations. I don’t believe I’m an illustrator.

LTPB: What kind of research did you do (factually and visually) to get the images right? How did you mix in the realities of your research with your own unique art style? 

VTR: I had no real deficiencies when it came to factual research. For the last 20 years I’ve been analysing and protesting against the systemic exploitation and oppression of the majority of working and poor people of the world. I know what it’s like to be arrested by police for political action, and my art has been censored by the Australian establishment numerous times. I’ve researched how social and political revolutions occur from a long historical perspective, and what it might take to create a new one beyond the horrific state the world is in now. I was also involved in the great global protests movements such as the Arab Spring, Occupy, and more recently, Black Lives Matter. So my mind was full of factual research based on theory and experience, backed up with memorable social media photographs that came from the world over. 

My visual art moved along parallel to all this, from political cartoons, street art, creative interventions, paintings, videos and conceptual gallery installations. But when it came to this children’s book, I had absolutely no idea how it would turn out. I simply thought I should do it all on used pieces of cardboard. Cardboard is sometimes an easy option for me so I don’t have to buy expensive paper, and you don’t have to get precious about your art. It all really came to into fruition when I’d seen paintings on cardboard by street artist EVOL. I thought EVOL made some very innovative artworks by combining aerosol stenciling with scrap cardboard, giving new life to both mediums. So I kept this innovation in my mind, plus I was interested in how I could take it further with the application of paint using brush strokes and smudges. 

LTPB: As an artist, you must be used to conceptualizing a lot of your projects from start to finish. What was your process like for creating visual representations of someone else’s words? How did you work to weave in your own visual story while staying true to Maxine’s text?

VTR: I’d worked in cartooning and storyboarding for friends’ films in the past, so I’d had no real fears about mixing someone else’s words with my imagery. When Maxine showed me her words for The Patchwork Bike early in 2015, I remember how simple and poetic they were, and how clear the content was; the story of kids in an African village somewhere building a bike out of various unlikely materials, and showing dignity in that process. But I wasn’t really thinking about Africa during the whole creative process. I couldn’t stop thinking about the BLM protests in the USA. Due to my involvement in BLM protests in Australia (for example, fighting for Indigenous rights alongside the BLM protests in the USA), I was sharing on social media many of the photos of kids on cop cars coming out of Baltimore, when the BLM movement got rolling. I really wanted to include these types of images in the book somehow, and reinforce the content of Maxine’s words. It helped that Maxine and I were aware of the clear linkages between Africa and the history of the USA. So when I conceptualized the characters in the book, I felt like I was bridging a gap of about 400 years. I also recall too that during my creative process in 2015, Beyonce has just released the Formation video clip where she was singing on top of a police car. This type of imagery gave me more confidence to go ahead with this more open political approach with a mainstream publisher.

It is very important to note that during the period since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, Australia hadn’t, and still hasn’t experienced the weight of social and political fallout as has the USA, so publishing more blatant political statements in mainstream children’s books is still pretty much forced to the margins. This was one of the main reasons I kept looking to the USA for inspirational political content and the confidence to infuse it into this book.

LTPB: What did you use to create the illustrations in this book? Is this your preferred medium?

VTR: I locate second hand scrap cardboard (warehouse packaging boxes laid flat) from various places around my home city. I paint on these pieces using synthetic polymer paint with a brush and sometimes various other devices to help smudge the paint. There’s also a decent supply of dust and dirt and dog footprints that end up on the artworks because I love to throw them on the ground, whether that’s indoors or outside. Cardboard isn’t at all something I work with frequently, but it seems to be shaping up as my preferred medium for children’s books.

LTPB: It looks like you do a lot of commissioned work and side projects! Can you tell me what else you do in addition to writing and illustrating children’s books?

VTR: Yes, my main type of art is political street murals, sci-fi political painting, cartooning, street sculpture and conceptual art. I love playing football (soccer) and I sometimes work as a construction labourer. I’ve had many exciting and sometimes very controversial exhibitions in Australia and overseas. In 2017, I had one of my sci-fi influenced #trumptank paintings projected onto a building opposite Trump Towers in Chicago as part of a protest against racism in the USA. I was also invited to contribute one of my #trumptank paintings towards a multicultural art group’s fundraising in New York and Philadelphia, USA. A project I developed over 15 years ago called the #richforks has received worldwide attention due to its unique approach to commentary on wealth inequality. Some of my past highlights include assisting Black Panther artist Emory Douglas paint one of his murals in Australia in 2015, and also helping install large photographs taken at Standing Rock by activist Tracie Williams. Children’s book illustration is now adding another interesting element to all of this. 

LTPB: Are you working on any other children’s books at this time? Anything you can show us? 

VTR: Yes I’m currently writing and illustrating one based on the theme of football (soccer), and there’s also plans to finish another with Maxine’s words. I’m sorry I can’t show anything yet :(

LTPB: If you were to write your picture book autobiography, who (dead or alive!) would you want to illustrate it, and why?

VTR: This is a very hard question to answer. I think it would have to be a combined effort by the following creative types, even if their focus isn’t necessarily on illustration: 

Noel Counihan (Australian Artist, 1913 - 1986)
Dread Scott (Artist, USA)
Chelsea Manning (Former US Soldier, Whistleblower)
Frida Khalo (Mexican Artist, 1907 - 1954)
Carlos Latuff (Brazilian Cartoonist)
Diego Rivera (Mexican Artist, 1886 - 1957)
Ridley Scott (Film Maker, USA)
Boots Riley (Hip-Hop Artist / Film Maker, USA)
Francisco Goya (Spanish Artist, 1746 - 1828)
El Lissitzky (Russian Artist, 1890, 1941)

I have chosen the above because of their uncompromising commitment to fighting for social justice (except for Ridley Scott - I just love his early films) in very dire and destructive times, and showing an instinctive and inspiring vision for a society beyond capitalism.

Thanks, Van, for stopping by to talk about your children's book debut! The Patchwork Bike publishes from Candlewick Press on September 11, 2018!

Special thanks to Van for use of these images!

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