Illustrators of the Future Winners 1992

An interview with Illustrators of the Future Winner, Illustrators of the Future Judge and Academy Award Winner, Shaun Tan.

With the Academy Awards event coming up just a block away from our headquarters here in Hollywood, I am reminded of one of our many Illustrators of the Future winner alumni successes.


That would be Shaun Tan, 1992 Illustrators of the Future winner when he, as a young teenager, was the first Australian to win this contest.


Almost two decades later, on the 27th of February 2011, Shaun Tan (along with Andrew Ruhemann) was presented with an Oscar for best animated short film, The Lost Thing.


We have since interviewed him about his own journey from being “lost” to being found and to now helping others to be found. I wanted to share some of his insights and his advice to any of you who are where he was.


How did you first find out about the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Contest?


I found out about both the Writer and Illustrator Contests in a copy of Analog Magazine. I started to submit as I had nowhere else to send my work. I got a couple of rejects and I got a response, a little handwritten note from Frank Kelly Freas, which was amazing. That was maybe the first contact I’d had with another artist, let alone an artist of that caliber. The comments encouraged me to submit again. And I finally won. It was quite a big deal as nothing was really happening in my life aside from going to school and doing my drawings in my bedroom.


What was it like to get the call “you won”?


Illustrators of the Future Winners 1992

Shaun Tan (bottom row, second from right)

When I got the call that I had won the contest it took a long time to register. It was probably the first time I’d ever had an international telephone call in my life. The person who called proceeded to explain that winning involved a trip and a workshop and also that they were inviting me to the writers’ workshop, not just for the illustrators’, because I had to travel such a long way. And traveling from Western Australia to Washington, D.C. was perhaps one of the longest trips a contestant has had to make. I was very grateful that they were able to host me to both workshops.


I was also interested in the writers’ workshop because I actually began my interest in science fiction as a literary interest. I’d always been a painter and had done a number of art classes and was very talented as a young artist. But as a teenager, my key ambition was to be a short story science fiction writer. I was really obsessed. I spent far more time writing than illustrating or painting.


You also submitted short stories to the Writers Contest. How did the Writers Contest and the Writers Workshop help you in your writing career?


The writers contest helped me in my writing career, especially at that young age, principally by just having a deadline. Nothing motivates you more into doing work than having an objective and a deadline. And the great thing about a contest like this was simply having something to submit to. I didn’t really have anywhere else to send my stories. At the time, there were a couple of very nascent science fiction magazines being published in Australia, but nothing like the industry that exists in the United States or Britain.


I never had any great ambitions or expectations, so it was a fun thing. It was like “oh – the deadline’s coming up yet again, I had better submit something.” That alone was quite a powerful motivating force.


What did you learn from the Illustrators of the Future Workshop?


A lot of the discussion was actually not as much about the craft of illustration but professional practice, markets and money─difficult information to acquire, especially in those pre-Internet days. It was  fascinating and a very realistic, very rational, methodical approach to craft. There was no false illusions about how easy it would be to work in this industry.

Meeting with these very established, accomplished writers and artists far more senior than myself and who were in some ways a little bit intimidating but super friendly, was the one thing that endeared me. What cemented my admiration for the science fiction and fantasy community was that sense of camaraderie, helpfulness, sheer friendliness, positive energy, no sense of competitiveness and no sense of selfish withholding of professional tips. It was extremely generous and people were just really nice. That was the first thing─how wonderfully nice people were. Secondly, just to see people who were so dedicated, particularly to a form of literature and art that I’d previously been led to believe in my mainstream environment as being quite obscure.


Tell me about your career since winning the Contest.


Since winning the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Contest and participating in both the illustrators’ and writers’ workshop, my career has followed a slow trajectory. I had time—I was still studying at university, various subjects and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. But having had that experience in Washington D.C. and having received that award and the kind of confidence boost that comes with that and with a better understanding of the industry that surrounds science fiction writing and illustration, I began to seriously consider being a professional illustrator. It was not something that I had thought about as a career. So I entered the contest almost as a hobbyist with an interest in something, like a very impassioned fan of the genre.


Afterwards I started thinking maybe this could be a career, and maybe not, but it was worth trying. I began to send my illustrations off with more confidence to other markets, some British and American magazines and had small amounts of success there. In the meantime there was a burgeoning movement of locally produced science fiction and fantasy in Australia, especially throughout the ‘90s and I had much more confidence in just submitting work to those. The fact that I had the award meant that people paid slightly more attention than maybe they otherwise would have.


It meant that I was able to progressively both have work published and train myself in the absence of any other formal training through a succession of small jobs, eventually leading up to professionally published book covers and higher paid work. These then began to support me once I finished my studies, eventually leading to picture books and particularly children’s literature, which is now where I’ve made a name for myself.


How many books and/or short stories have you published or illustrated?


I’ve lost count of the number of books and short stories that I’ve worked on, but it must be in the order of maybe twenty books. And if you include illustrations for stories on various magazines or periodicals, I would say about 250. And if you include theater productions and designs for feature films, it would be maybe eight of those. So, quite a lot of work and quite a variety too.


How has winning the Illustrators of the Future Contest as a seventeen year old teenager affected your life?


I think that perhaps winning such a big award at such a young age gave me a sense that it was possible you could actually win an award that felt very distant and far away, organized by people that you would otherwise never meet that seemed like from another universe. Since the age of seventeen and that trip to the exotic land of the United States, I have had this sense that I’m working in a global community.


That germ of confidence way back then has allowed me to approach these other things with confidence. A key ingredient to being a successful artist is believing that you can do stuff. Once you get that out of the way, which is a huge hurdle, then you can get on with doing it.


How does winning the Illustrators of the Future Contest compare to winning the Oscars?


Shaun Tan with his Oscar in 2011

Shaun Tan with his Oscar in 2011

Winning an Oscar felt like a very similar experience to winning the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future award and actually a similar pattern of the unexpected, traveling to the United States, discovering a whole community of people with like-minded interests, in the case of the Oscar, animation and film design.


As a young person, I was very introverted and I lacked confidence in myself. And I think the experience of having to not just go to win an award and have it given to you from somewhere far away, but to actually go there and participate, that was very important for me personally in my development as a confident artist who could communicate with other people. Otherwise, it may have taken me a lot longer to find my feet in that part of my life.


Why did you decide to become an Illustrators of the Future judge?


Becoming a judge is a big decision because it’s a big responsibility. Having been on the other side of the equation and being a contestant, I realize the extent to which your hopes really hinge on the decision of a person that you’ve never met, in a distant place, and that you’re hoping that they will really examine the work as closely as possible.


I also feel there’s some responsibility to give something back because it was such a good thing for me and such a helpful thing for me that I would like other people to experience that. To have their work commented upon and have the feeling that a person such as myself is not any different to them. I still feel the same as I did when I was seventeen. I still feel I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing and I spend most of my time just mucking around in my bedroom trying to come up with ideas for stories. My bedroom has now turned into a studio, but it’s just as big and just as messy. And I think a lot of young or new artists that are approaching this contest would take some comfort from the fact that I don’t feel like a wise professional preaching down to them. I’m actually there with them and I understand—particularly in speculative fiction—what they want to achieve and the problems that they’re facing as a young artist.


How do you view L. Ron Hubbard’s vision with the Writers and Illustrators of the Future contests and what they have accomplished?


I think L. Ron Hubbard’s vision for the contests is extremely generous and  based on a realization that great art doesn’t just happen. It does have to be nurtured and encouraged, especially because it’s a vocation that really challenges your self-confidence and self-knowledge. And it can be a difficult thing to pursue as an individual, particularly because your work is by nature isolated, intensively self-reflective, idiosyncratic if it’s any good, and produced in solitude. And I think there’s some awareness in the contest of the need to have some centralized focus, bringing together of the disparate threads of imaginative people into a singular community, something that extends into the future as well. So, not just about what’s happening now, but about things that are going to happen, work that’s going to be produced that we have no concept of. That’s a very generous vision.


You have entered both Contests. From your perspective, how do these contests affect the field of speculative fiction?


The contest affects the field of writing and illustrating for speculative fiction by providing a forum for discussion, a place for critical reflection, a feeling amongst amateur artists that their work is valued, that the word amateur is not necessarily a negative word, that it’s something that suggests promise and undiscovered success. I think also just the sense that you become part of a tradition, especially as the award has been going for so many years, it becomes something that makes you feel connected to a longer history of production, so that you are part of a continuum of experience, not just an isolated event.


Is there anything else you would like to say about your success and winning the contest back in 1992?


Well, I think it’s kind of nice to be here in a position to reflect on winning the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Contest and see it not as a weird, strange event that it may have seemed at the age of seventeen, but actually part of a continuum of experience. And it’s only something that I’m able to understand in hindsight. And I wish I could have said to myself back as a seventeen-year-old “don’t worry, it’s all going to be okay.”  This is quite a great business to be in. But I think people were already saying that to me back in Washington, D.C. at the workshops and the illustrators’ discussion group─that this is worth pursuing. That was maybe the first time I’d ever heard that from another person. So it’s really nice to see it as a singular history, not a scattering of random events.


Shaun Tan’s Illustrators of the Future award in 1992 was just the beginning of an outstanding and impressive array prizes and recognitions in the fields of writing and art

Shaun Awards

Shaun Awards