This interview of me, written by Marisa Darnel, was published in the Jan. 2003 Artist Interview. Links to the cited works and additional images are added. My name in such big letters was their idea, and those wonderful things said about me in the first three paragraphs are Marisa's words. Thanks. *Sniff*
Frank Wu is an outstanding science-fiction illustrator who has done numerous book covers and magazine illustrations. His art has graced science fiction magazines such as Fantastic Stories, Darkling Plain, Talebones, and Altair. Wu has also done the work for the computer game "Xevil". He is a winner of the "Grand Prize in the Illustrators of the Future Contest" and a finalist for the Hugo Award 2002. He has received praise from renowned artists such as Vincent Di Fate and Bob Eggleton.
Frank was an undergrad in English from University of Rochester and a Ph.D. in bacteriology from Wisconsin. He was a Baptist missionary in his youth years. Wu has a remarkable and impressive talent. He represents the themes of the novels and short stories that he illustrates with an outstanding imagination and a keen sensitiveness for the interpretation of the message in the writing.
Artist Interviews had the pleasure of interviewing Frank Wu, and to enter into his world of fantasy, to learn more about his great talent, as well as his sense of humor and his great personality.
Interview by Marisa Darnel
ARTIST INTERVIEWS: You have used different techniques in your work. Which techniques do you use when you paint and which one do you enjoy the most?
Frank Wu: I try to do something a little different with every new piece. Otherwise I'd just be repeating myself, and I wouldn't grow, and I'd get bored. I'm now doing almost exclusively acrylic paintings, but I've also done work using stippling, line drawing, and digital techniques. Acrylics are fun. Depending on how much water and medium you add, you can go anywhere from washes to huge globs of paint hanging like stalactites off the canvas. You can sand it to get textures and reveal under painting. You can splatter and throw it. Great fun.
One of the things I’ve explored a little is working collaged elements into my pieces. There’s a piece I did for Ilsa Bick’s story “Build Me” for Talebones magazine. It’s about this killer mutant baby that decides to kill its own mother, while still in the womb. They do that sort of thing. For that piece, I built a bunch of plaster baby hands reaching out from the piece toward the viewer. Are the hands trying to strangle us, or are the little baby fingers just looking for love? There’s also a piece of dollhouse furniture you can open up, and there’s a screaming kid face in there. The furniture is painted like black prison bars. That piece was fun; it’s gotten a lot of strong reactions at conventions because it’s so creepy. But the collage thing is definitely something I’d like to do more of in the future.
A.I.: You have illustrated many book covers and magazines short stories. Can you tell us which illustration has been the most rewarding?
F.W.: All of them! Perhaps it is a cliché, but they all are like my children. But they have different personalities, though some of them are difficult births and delinquents and bad Ronalds. Every piece of art is hard, even the easy ones. So it’s always satisfying to see them finished and published, like my own problem kid actually graduated from high school.
A recent piece that I enjoyed a lot was for the Jay Lake story “The Courtesy of Guests.” Jay Lake and I are collaborating on a book called “Greetings from Lake Wu,” which is his stories and my illos.
This piece was a lot of fun, because it’s arranged like a drawer full of curios. Which meant that I got to paint curios, my curios. And boy have I got a lot of them. Boxes and boxes in the basement. I’ve spent my life picking up little bits and pieces of coolness. A trilobite here. A rhinoceros beetle there. A mastodon footbone I found in New Mexico. A plush toy shaped like the Eiffel tower. A plaster souvenir hand holding the leaning tower of Pisa. Lots of animal skulls, including a billy goat skull I found on the side of the road in Australia. So in “The Courtesy of Guests” I got to pick just a small sampling of my collections. Boy that was fun. I guess I’ve always wanted my own personal cabinet of wonders and by now I’ve more or less achieved it!
A.I. : Frank, have you met any of the writers whose book covers or short stories you have illustrated?
F.W.: Yes, and it’s terrifying every time. The world is full of nit-pickers, and the science fiction crowd has the most anal people of them all. But I mean that in the nicest sort of way. It just means that they’re smart, and attentive to detail. Yeah, that’s it. If there’s something that’s not historically accurate about the period dress in a painting, a costumer will come up to you and tell you. If the musculature or bone structure of the monster doesn't make sense, you’ll run into a Ph.D. in physiology who will point this out to you. Every time I show an author the illo I’ve done for his/her work, my heart skips, and I think I’m going to hear, “Well, actually in the story, the hero has red hair and lost his right arm in the war, and that’s not what I see here. You did read the story, didn’t you?” Yeah, it’s scary. Every time.
A.I. : You developed a website to show the late Frank R. Paul's art. How did you get to know his art which was done so many years ago and how has Paul influenced you?
F.W.: Frank R. Paul is such a great artist. The first man to make a living drawing spaceships. He basically invented the rocketship and the flying saucer. He did all the early Amazing Stories covers, including the August 1927 “War of the Worlds”, which I think is one of the greatest paintings done in the last century. I was wandering around the internet looking for information about him, but could only find bits and pieces here and there. I thought, what a shame for such a great artist. So I decided that I would build my own FRP site, collecting copies of all his cover art – over 150 paintings, and as much of his interiors as I could. FRP died forty years ago, but I got to talk to his son on the phone, and that was a lot of fun. I also found out from another family member that the Paul family didn’t have any of his paintings anymore. They’d been sold to pay for another family member’s hospital bills. They didn’t even have any of the magazines with FRP’s work. I thought that that was a shame, so I sent them a big box full of magazines.
How has Paul’s work influenced mine? I hear his voice every day. He said that when he was doing a piece, I would find the most outlandish image described in the story, and then paint it in the wildest colors imaginable. Something that would just scream out. He said he wanted his work to have “too much of a muchness.” So I am working on a painting and I hear Paul say, “No no no. Not loud enough. Not contrasty enough. Not exciting enough.” And that drives me to higher heights. Thanks, FRP.
A.I. : How did you get to know Forrest J. Ackerman? Would you share some anecdotes?
F.W.: I got to know Forry partially because he’s just around. He’s everywhere. He’s been a wee sick lately, but he used to go to bi zillions of science fiction conventions, and he still does when he’s well. So of all the great icons of our field, he’s one of the most accessible.
Which is just wonderful. I mean, how many men wear Bela Lugosi’s Dracula ring on his finger? Um, one. How many men invented the term “sci-fi” or single-handedly created the science fiction convention masquerade? Uh, one.
About twenty-five years ago, Forry had a little magazine published about his career up to that point. He called it “Amazing Forries.” And the cover was a painting by Frank R. Paul that he had especially commissioned. FRP recreated one of his old Amazing Stories space covers, but he repainted the astronaut to look like Forry. It’s one of Forry’s prized possessions.
I spent probably a year trying to track down a copy of “Amazing Forries.” Eventually I found one of eBay. On Saturdays, Forry used to open up his cabinet of wonders, his house of sci-fi props, and he would get out Bela Lugosi’s Dracula cape and make voices and tell stories, and then he would autograph things. When I presented him with the copy of “Amazing Forries,” his old eyes lit up and he screamed out, “Where did you find this?!” He was so giddy and happy, I think I added a couple years to his life.
A.I.: How do you feel receiving many awards and being a finalist for the Hugo Award?
F.W.: They like me! They really like me!
I mentioned the fear associated with meeting the authors. Well, there’s fear associated with meeting fans, too. And that fear is realized every time someone walks by my art display at a con, glances over artwork I’ve slaved for years to produce, nods and smiles and then just walks away. That sucks.
So awards are a nice way to get some love and care in this field. Because generally they’re given out by people who care. Fans vote on the Hugo awards, so, in a way, a Hugo is a love letter from the fans. And that’s just sweet.
A.I.: Having been a Missionary in Mexico, how did you feel when you were commissioned to paint Jesus Christ for the Fantastic Stories Magazine: "Cloning Jesus". How do you feel with the sensationalism about cloning?
F.W.: I am a Christian. Sometimes this is a problem in a field where a lot of the writers and editors – and fans – are atheists. Sometimes. Not always. I don’t preach, I don’t harp on people’s lifestyle choices. I don’t pick fights or judge people. They are my friends, and I try to work with them and be their friends. Are we not put on this planet to love each other?
One of the weird things about doing commissioned art is that you accept the commission before you read the story. An editor asks if I have time to do an illo for an upcoming issue. I say yes. Then he sends me the story. I hate turning down commissions, because book and magazine illustration is sometime I’ve dreamt of my whole life. But sometimes I get stories that make me tingle, and not in a good way.
“Cloning Jesus” was weird, because it was about the attempt to clone Jesus from chips of blood in the Shroud of Turin (we assume for the story’s sake that the Shroud is authentic). It would have been an interested conceit, if a similar idea hadn’t been done in a Star Trek episode years ago. Anyway… This is the only piece of art I’ve ever gotten hate mail for. I think the letter-writer was offended by the whole idea. It was sacrilege. Part of the problem I think is that people don’t really go deep enough into the theology. Who was Jesus? He was God, who put on human form and came to earth. So He was fully God and fully human. Human in that He had blood and ate food and it must have really hurt when they put the nails in His hands. Why did He come to earth? Well, partially to tell us that we should love God and love our neighbor. But also, and most importantly, He came to earth specifically to die on the cross, a sacrifice for our sins, a payment for our transgressions. For we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. His sacrifice meant that we did not need to be sacrificed ourselves. Our sin no longer separated us from God, and we were forgiven. Jesus took our place on the cross. But Jesus only had to pay that price once.
So what would be the point of forcing a second coming of Jesus by cloning Him? So He could die on the cross a second time? That doesn't seem necessary. So He could announce the end of the world and bring down the new heaven and the new earth, because the old ones were used up? Seems premature, not quite God's timing yet. I think the writer’s point is that the world is a less than perfect and peaceful place. But rather than having God see the wickedness and destroy the world, as He did with a flood so long ago, perhaps there might be a more pleasant alternative. Maybe if Jesus could return, we would hear the message “Love God and Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”. And maybe we would do this, and the world would be a better place. For me and you. If we put a little love in our hearts.
And I think that’s what the story is about. And that’s not a bad message.
A.I. : Speaking about science, you are a Ph.D. In Bacteriology. How did you make the transition to art?
F.W.: There’s a line in the Dylan song “Things Have Changed,” where he says, “Don’t get up, gentlemen, I’m only passing through.” I feel like that about life. Maybe life for me is just one long weird trip, passing through from this point to an eternity in heaven. But, also, along the way, I’ve done a lot of seemingly unrelated things. And now for something completely different.
I’ve been a missionary, as you mentioned, an undergrad English major, a graphic designer, a scientist, a patent agent, and I sold insurance for a month. That was a mistake. Being an artist is like a phase. I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing in ten years, and I’m not really sure I’m doing to be throwing myself full-tilt-boogie into art in ten years, like I am now. Part of the way I like to live life is to really throw myself into something, but then I reach a goal, an end-point, a logical stop, and that’s it. Like John Laroche in “Adaptation,” who, after assembling the most impressive private set of aquariums in the world, decided one day, I’m done with fish. Now for something completely different. I was a good scientist, a really good one. I had four scientific papers published, and my advisor once told me I was his best grad student. But after I got my Ph.D., I was done.
I think part of it is that it hasn’t just been a random drifting from one thing to another. I’m not just spinning my wheels. Everything has built on the thing that came before. I loved science fiction and wanted to write it, so I became an English major. I took the writing and reading skills I developed as an English major into science, and in grad school I had a better grasp of the literature of our field than most, and I could write better. I took my science credentials from grad school and parlayed that into a well-paying job as a patent agent. I took the money from being a patent agent to live on while being an artist. And I take my art skills to celebrate what I have always loved in the first place, science fiction. So, in a way, my life may look like a crazy quilt, but it all works together.
A.I. : Do you listen to music while you paint?
F.W.: I was in a drawing class once and the professor said we could listen to music while we were working. We were all happy and excited, until he put on some dreary old classical music. It was like doing artwork in a funeral parlor.
No no no – give me Motown! Hrah! Yow! Hyuh! I listen to all sorts of music, surf guitar (Dick Dale is a genius), Everclear, Smashmouth, an aboriginal band named Yothu Yindi, a Japanese bubble gum singer named Kahimi Karie. Any band named after an airplane, like B-52’s or U2, is by definition great. Sometimes I’ll listen to a mid-tempo thoughtful singer named Shawn, like Shawn Colvin or Shawn Mullins, but then I’ll get bored and have to put on something rowdier like Talking Heads or DC Talk. Lately I’ve been getting into the Future Bible Heroes and Phantom Planet. For my money, though, the best music was created in the period from 1964 to 1973. “A Hard Day’s Night” to “Quadrophenia”, with stops at John Mayall and Yardbirds and Janis and Credence and “Let It Bleed” and “Led Zeppelin II” in between. I’ve done whole paintings where all I did was listen to “Who’s Next” over and over.
Painting is like dancing. When you dance, you draw your fingers and toes through the air, but then there is no record. The air molecules don’t remember. But if you have a paintbrush in your hand, you can record the movement. You can’t dance to Bach. At least not the way I dance.
A.I. : What's a day in the life of Frank Wu?
F.W.: I quit my job doing patent law a little over two months ago. I figure I can live off savings for another year or maybe more before I have to go back to work. So now everyday I wake up and I do art. There’s a quotation from Salvador Dali where he says that every day he wakes up and experiences a miracle, and that is the realization that – oh my gosh! – he IS Salvador Dali. And what prodigious thing will he do today, this Salvador Dali? An arrogant, but really sort of fun way to live your life. Every day I wake up expecting to create something really cool, to experience something really fun and wonderful and wacky and unexpected. Every day is a joy, and every hour is an opportunity for greatness.