In addition to theatre and film adaptations of my picture books, I have also been involved in a number of other projects as a freelance visual artist. All of these have been challenging and problematic in their own special way, involving different questions of scale, audience and logistics. My approach has always been to ‘learn by doing’, so I’m always happy to try new things.

Please visit my blog, thebirdking.blogspot.com.au, to find out about my most recent projects, as I tend to keep this updated more regularly than my website. The archive below lists some earlier projects which I've found interesting in their variety.

The Oopsatoreum: Sydney Powerhouse Museum

The Odditoreum: Sydney Powerhouse Museum

Children's Book Week 2008: 'Fuel Your Mind'

Australian Chamber Orchestra: The Red Tree

The Tea Party

The Hundred Year Picnic

Art Award for Young Artists

Sydney band Lo-tel’s ‘The Lost Thing’

Philbert and Oscar, a children’s art trail

CHILDREN'S BOOK WEEK: Fuel Your Mind

August 2008

I was approached in 2007 by the Children's Book Council of Australia to contribute artwork for the 2008 Book Week Poster and related merchandise, constrained only by the theme 'Fuel Your Mind'. I had just returned from a trip to Mexico City and the time, and been very impressed by the a fusion of Aztec and Pre-Columbian design, and contemporary folk art culture (from murals to pinatas).

I also liked the idea of reading as a kind of fuel, both metaphorically and literally, and imagined some kind of ancient Aztec creature brought to life and powwered by the act of reading: thus creating an environmentally sound form of transport, with the bonus of increased literacy. I was also in the middle of my book 'Tales from Outer Suburbia', and saw this as a related kind of picture-story, hence the suburban-looking street.

Various pieces of well produced merchandise (posters, book bags, banners, badges etc.), predominantly sold to schools and libraries, are available from the CBCA here, as well as more information about Book Week, which happens in late August.

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AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: THE RED TREE

July 2008

In late 2007 the Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the directorship of Richard Tognetti, proposed a project involving composer Michael Yezerski (perhaps best known for his soundtracks to films such as The Black Balloon), the ACO and a children's choir directed by Lyn Williams, Gondwana Voices. Their concept was to perform music while images from The Red Tree, scanned in minute detail from the original paintings, were projected on a large screen.

The production opened in July in Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and also featured a performance of Shostakovich's String Qartet No.15, arranged by Richard Tognetti, concurrent with selected images from The Arrival. Both music and image 'conversed' with each other to create a sombre meditation on exile and conflict.

I personally did not have direct involvement with the project, aside from an initial meeting with artistic directors. My approach has always been to remain very open to adaptations of my own work in other media, and trust in the vision of collaborators. This is partly because I see my own imagery as open-ended and 'unfinished', and The Red Tree especially welcomes broad interpretation. The ACO production inherently recognises that condition to be shared between image and music, and even where words were part of the performance by Gondwana Voices, they remain essentially abstract, like brushmarks or notes. Each element successfully enhances the other, without unravelling the central mystery that makes the experience so interesting. For me the music was a real revelation: inventive and inspiring, familiar and strange, and remarkably complex.

I was especially fascinated by the approach of Michael Yezerski's composition, which to some extent applied the physical shape and gesture of my tiny painted lines to the physical structure of written music - sweeps, peaks, hooks, cadences and so on, beginning with the path of a falling painted leaf. I often listen to music when I am drawing and painting, and see that similarity of 'shape' too; lines, masses and movements converging and dissipating.

Look more details about the performance, click here. There is also an interesting mini-documentary produced by the ACO where Richard Tognetti and some young members of Gondwana Voices talk about the project.

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Working on the mural in the library, after the unfinished panels had been installed.

The Tea Party

2002 - 2003

My largest painted project is a mural produced for the children’s section of a library in the Perth inner-city suburb of Subiaco. The building had undergone some renovations, and as part of this I was invited to paint one of the bare walls with an appealing design - no small feat given that the area was some 24 square metres, all of it above bookshelves.

The solution was to paint eight separate canvases that could be locked together as a single composition. My concept was that long T-shaped area would depict a flowing landscape with whimsical creatures strolling, swimming, flying and rowing through it, some having conversations and reading books, others breathing fire and stormy oceans, with many drinking cups of tea made by towering teapots. Hence the title ‘The Tea Party’ which nods towards Lewis Carroll, as well as being an alternative or ‘extended’ version of the strange world that is briefly glimpsed in my picture book The Lost Thing.

The entire project ended up taking about three months, painted using acrylic and oils with some collage of printed materials, fabric, coloured paper and gold leaf. My biggest problem was trying to paint something so big in parts that could only be placed together, two at a time, in my backyard. I relied heavily on detailed colour sketches to ensure continuity, and also spent a week or so working on a large ladder once the work was installed in the library, joining everything up as a fluid composition.

Many of the details in the final work were not visible from ground level, and for a while a pair of binoculars where installed in the library for anyone who wanted to see everything! (Until they got broken by overzealous children!)

Click here to view some sections of The Tea Party

Click here to see the entire mural

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‘The hundred year picnic’ acrylic, oils, collage on canvas, approx. 4m x 4m.

The Hundred Year Picnic

2004

This first mural proved to be very successful for library visitors, which led to the commissioning of a second, smaller painting facing the ‘adult’ part of the library - still being about 16sqm though. For this image, I wanted to do something quite different, and drew upon my interest in reinterpreting old photographs to produce large-scale portraits and landscapes.

I visited the nearby local museum, which houses a vast collection of old photographs, mostly drawn from private family albums donated to the museum. I thumbed through some two thousand images of streets, houses and people before finding a small photograph that seemed to capture the mood I was looking for; a family having a picnic somewhere, probably around 1920 or 1930, when Subiaco was a relatively undeveloped suburb.

I was attracted by a certain sense of candidness here, missing from many formal photographs of that period, where the individuals expressed something of themselves in the absence of a directed composition; one man holding a puppy, another playing an accordion, children playing distractedly, a woman shielding her eyes from the intense sunlight. It was all quite casual and unpretentious; they were perhaps a family of working class people having a Sunday outing. There was a strong feeling of early community, where people probably had to depend on each other in close-knit groups to endure hardship, and also a feeling of optimism and lightness as well.

Rather than simply scale up and reproduce this image I wanted to abstract it in some way, particularly using colour to evoke a certain meditative mood. I imagined that each character was showing a different reaction to their environment, as if they were each living in different personal universes that happened to intersect - some are green, some pink, some white, and seem to be fading in and out of the background like fragments of memory.

Subiaco Library (Evelyn H. Parker Library) is located on the corner of Bagot and Rokeby Rd, Subiaco, Perth.

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The ‘Shaun Tan Art Award for Young Artists’

This is a Perth-based annual award (I hate words like ‘competition’ or ‘contest’) for school age children and teenagers, from kindergarten to year 12 which began in 2003, and attracted some 900 entries. I am involved as one of four judges who spend a lot of time discussing the submissions and awarding modest prizes, and selecting works for an exhibition at Subiaco Library, which organises and runs the award. It is the brainchild of a friend, the entrepreneurial librarian Susan Marie (also responsible for commissioning the murals).

The same Library also runs the ‘Tim Winton Young Writer’s Award’ which has been around for over ten years. The main idea behind both awards is not so much a ‘search for the best’ as an opportunity for young people to have a target outlet for their creative work. As a school-age student, I used to enter many art competitions and awards, with varying degrees of success – what was most valuable was the motivation to do certain projects (and get them finished), and to have that work seen by others, as art is meant to be.

For more information, entry details and images of winning works, click here.

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Lo-Tel’s ‘The Lost Thing’ (2003)

This was an interesting collaboration between myself and the Sydney-based rock band Lo-Tel. The lead singer, Luke Hannigan, noticed my picture book The Lost Thing in a bookstore and enjoyed the story so much that he asked me to adapt both the text and artwork as an accompaniment to their forthcoming album.

Although the subjects of Lo-tel’s lyrics and my own book were superficially very different, they shared a common sub-text and narrative approach, relating to feelings of individual alienation and disempowerment.

I spent some time trying to compress the story of the Lost Thing into a form that would be readable as a CD-sized booklet, with few pages. The result is an interesting and, I think, thought-provoking fusion of pictures, text and music - both works stand in isolation as independent works, yet relate by underscoring similar themes. I personally found it pleasing to have my work used in a manner that resists the inaccurate classification of ‘children’s literature’, as I see The Lost Thing as being very much a fable about the problems of adulthood, and the tension between dreams and reality.

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Philbert and Oscar take a closer look at the Art Gallery of WA, Perth.

Philbert and Oscar

2005

I was commissioned by the Children’s Book Council of Australia and the Art Gallery of Western Australia to develop written text and artwork for a children’s ‘Art Trail’. The idea was to introduce children to various artistic concepts by having drawn characters beside particular works of art in the gallery collection, and making comments as spectators.

This was a concept that I had been playing with some years before – of using illustrated characters to talk about art - but which I had subsequently abandoned for various reasons. Working with the State Gallery I was able to mine my old sketchbooks for a duo of imaginary art critics – a small old man with wings and a pointy hat, and his feline sidekick, named Philbert and Oscar respectively.

Philbert did most talking, commenting on colour, pattern, abstraction, realism, style and so on, while Oscar’s thought bubbles supplied additional references, such as definitions of words and quotes from famous artists. I wanted to keep the writing fairly simple and understandable for children, but also to be engaging for adult visitors, and this formula seemed to work well for that purpose, particularly where humour was involved.

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