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Shaun Tan's curious creatures are just looking for companionship

<em>Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections</em> is a new collection of images from artist and writer Shaun Tan's best-known works as well as more than 100 illustrations that have never been seen before. The book also includes essays by the artist.
Shaun Tan
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Levine Querido
Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections is a new collection of images from artist and writer Shaun Tan's best-known works as well as more than 100 illustrations that have never been seen before. The book also includes essays by the artist.

Artist and author Shaun Tan creates semi-mechanical and animalesque beings that seem born of both the natural world and industrious humans. Whimsical, cerebral, socially aware, grotesque and cuddly, Tan's artistic universe runs the emotional gamut.

Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections is a comprehensive collection of Tan's artwork from the last 25 years as well as essays by Tan about his creative practice and lifelong fascination with creatures.

"As an artist, I'm interested in what you do when you encounter something that's really, really strange and unfamiliar," he tells NPR, "whether it's with fear or evasion or curiosity and maybe even love is really quite telling."

Over the course of 25 years, Tan has received numerous honors including an Academy Award for the short film The Lost Thing, based on his book of the same name, a Best Books for Young Adults from the American Library Association for his 2008 graphic novel The Arrival and two Hugo Awards for Best Professional Artist. Tan's admirers include fellow artist/illustrators Art Spiegelman, Neil Gaiman and Marjane Satrapi.

Shaun Tan's wordless, graphic novel <em>The Arrival</em> traces the immigrant experience, including encounters with other-worldly creatures.
Shaun Tan / Levine Querido
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Shaun Tan's wordless, graphic novel The Arrival traces the immigrant experience, including encounters with other-worldly creatures.

They start out as doodles

Tan talks about his creations as if they have minds of their own. He says he's constantly drawing in his sketchbooks, "It's often just random words and pictures and very playful, very nonsensical." But occasionally those "doodles," as he calls them, become something more.

In the case of The Lost Thing, he says it began with "just a little person on a beach having what looked like a philosophical conversation with a large, metal, crab like creature," remembers Tan, "the creature looked very frightening and strange and it was dwarfing this little person, but the person was not afraid."

"I thought, ok, what would happen if you saw something very large and scary on the beach...and instead of avoiding it or running away, you just went up and started talking to it," Shaun Tan on <em>The Lost Thing</em>.
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"I thought, ok, what would happen if you saw something very large and scary on the beach...and instead of avoiding it or running away, you just went up and started talking to it," Shaun Tan on The Lost Thing.

The human searches all over to find out where the thing belongs. Nobody else in the town, including the human's parents, seem to care. The Lost Thing is a kind of fable about apathy and belonging.

The need to belong can be overrated

Tan says the notion of belonging comes up "every time" he writes a story or paints a picture. "There's this sense that belonging can become a bit of a crisis. I mean, we don't really interrogate the concept that much. We consider it a virtue of some kind. And we're all searching for it," he says, "but we're not often questioning what it is exactly or whether it's always such a good thing."

"I think there's something really special about a human ability to love non-human things and quite deeply," artist and writer Shaun Tan tells NPR.
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"I think there's something really special about a human ability to love non-human things and quite deeply," artist and writer Shaun Tan tells NPR.

In The Lost Thing, the human helps the giant, metal crab-like creature find a place where it wants to stay, a kind of home filled with other lost things. The narrator says, "I can't say that the thing actually belonged in the place where it ended up. In fact, none of the things there really belonged. They all seemed happy enough though, so maybe that didn't matter."

Tan wrote The Lost Thing early in his career when he doubted whether his artwork had purpose. "It kind of tapped into something I was feeling at the time in my mid-20s of wanting to be creative but not quite sure where I belonged and what the meaning of my work was," he tells NPR, "And the story ended up being about all those things, about what do you do with meaningless work, and is that OK? And I've come to realize it is OK."

Tan grew up in the outer suburbs of Perth in western Australia, "which at the time was a bit of a castaway place on the coast. Very windy, sandy, sunny." He says a combination of "boredom" and "playing in nature" inspired his art-making and came "to shape who I am and the way I think about things."

Tan's fascination with birds began when he was around 11 years old. Walking through a local park, a small wattlebird fell from a tree right in front of him. In Creature he writes, "a deeper empathy snapped to attention, a deeper reality. A compassion that bypassed all other thinking with a sense of kinship and purpose." Tan writes that he brought the bird home and he and his family nursed it back to health.

In his new book <em>Creature</em>, Tan devotes one of his essays to his fascination with birds. For this painting, titled Empire, he writes that he "imagines a wattlebird as a kind of ancestral spirit."
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In his new book Creature, Tan devotes one of his essays to his fascination with birds. For this painting, titled Empire, he writes that he "imagines a wattlebird as a kind of ancestral spirit."

Drawing for companionship

"I think there's something really special about a human ability to love non-human things and quite deeply," Tan tells NPR.

He says he's always been interested in a creature "as a companion, not as an adversary or antagonist or a threat or something even scary and mysterious. But as the person sitting next to you."

In his illustration titled "I Know," Tan imagines a faucet creature hugging a little girl. Tan says it's saying, "I don't have a solution for you. I may not be able to help you, but I know what you're feeling. It seems a little more poignant that it's coming from an almost inanimate object."

In Shaun Tan's world, even a faucet can be turned into a creature companion. "It's such an emotional object for me," he says, "the fact that water flows out of it, you know, whether that's sort of tears or a source of nourishment."
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In Shaun Tan's world, even a faucet can be turned into a creature companion. "It's such an emotional object for me," he says, "the fact that water flows out of it, you know, whether that's sort of tears or a source of nourishment."

Creature is partly the result of Tan being "trapped at home" during the pandemic, without access to his studio. He took the opportunity to organize hundreds of his sketches. As he looked through them, he says, he discovered "some connective tissue between all these random bones and joints and particularly this idea of the creatures." He hopes readers, particularly kids, will look through the collection and realize, "here's an adult that never stopped drawing funny creatures and actually figured out something serious to say about them."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.