Interview published 7/1/02 on the Marsdust website.
The Heart and Soul of Frank Wu
A discussion about his art, science fiction and pissed-off clowns
by James J. Heiney, Eater of Souls
If you are a science fiction or fantasy reader, chances are you've seen Frank Wu's artwork. His work has been featured in such publications as Fantastic Stories, Strange Horizons and Darkling Plain. His career as a genre artist was given a rousing start when he won the L. Ron Hubbard Illustrators of the Future Gold Award. This year he is nominated for a Hugo Award that will be decided at ConJose in August/September.
Our resident fictioneer puts on his journalist hat for a discussion with
Frank about his life and his work.
A hearty congratulations on your Hugo nomination. As one who may never know the thrill of that honor, what was your reaction when you found out?
Frank: My first reaction was to call Ken Wharton at one in the morning. Ken - author of "Divine Intervention" and who later found out he was a nominee for the Campbell award for best new writer - was so tired he didn't know he was already asleep when I called. I was so excited! I've always wanted a Hugo. Since I was a kid, I knew the Hugo winners were folks like Asimov and Heinlein and Frank Herbert and Frank Kelly Freas. The superstars. The giants. Just be nominated is a great honor. You said that you think you might not ever have the thrill of that honor. What's amazing about the sci-fi field is how open it is to new people. Anybody who writes a story or novel can get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula or the Philip K. Dick or a World Fantasy Award or a James Tiptree, Jr., award, or an Arthur C. Clarke award... The science fiction field full of awards, ripe unto harvest. You can be a nobody, but if you write one story, one really good story, you can springboard to fame all in one go. The awards and nominations are there for the taking. Every blank sheet of paper is an opportunity for greatness.
Has the nomination put you in higher demand as an artist?
I seem to be getting a lot more commissions these days. More, unfortunately, than I have time to do.
I see on your site that you have some poems commissioned for some or your work. Do you like to have a "story" behind each of your works?
Many of my pieces are either commissioned as illustrations for stories, or inspired by stories. What I'd like to do is create cycles of works, stories which inspire paintings, which in turn inspire poems, which inspire music, which inspire plays, etc. Each created by a different person. So commissioning the wonderful horror poetess Christina Sng to write poems inspired by my work was part of that.
But, in answer to your question, yes, I do like to have stories that go with the artwork. For me art is more than just pretty pictures, but a way to get at the heart and soul of what it means to be a human being. A lot of my stuff is really symbolic. If you see my work at a convention, you'll notice that there's a little paragraph of text to go with each piece, like at a museum. They mean more if you know the context. A painting of John the Baptist with a lamb makes more sense if you know that Jesus was called the "Lamb of God." Picasso's "Guernica" is even more powerful if you realize that the Nazis bombed and obliterated this defenseless Basque town - which had no strategic importance - simply to test military methods that they would later use to try to take over the world.
What are some of your favorite topics or ideas to work with?
I enjoy drawing aliens and robots and spaceships, but I've found I really love drawing people. Faces. Eyes. If there's a face anywhere on the piece, no matter how small, half of my time spent on the piece will go into the face. And half of that into the eyes, even if they're tiny. I saw a medieval fresco once, where you work in wet plaster. You wet as much as you can work in one day. So the art historians could tell that in one day, the artist had painted three sheep; on another day, it was two cows. On one day, it was just one face, that of Mother Mary. One face equals three sheep. Seems about right.
What kinds of feelings do you like to elicit from the people who enjoy your work?
All kinds. Sometimes I want people to be shocked or creeped out. Sometimes
sad, sometimes filled with wonder, sometimes filled with spiritual reverence. It
all depends on what the story is all about. In my pieces on homeless, I really
want people to think about this issue and maybe do something. Maybe go out and
make the world a better place.
You state that you set down your paintbrush for some time and then came back to art after your grad work. How has the advent of tools like PhotoShop affected your work?
Looking back, I think I used the digital art as a transition, from doing no art to going back to acrylic painting. Acrylics are technically complicated and you need a lot of tools. But with the computer, there was no set-up time. If you've only got half an hour, you can just turn on a switch and work the whole time. There's no set-up, no time spent mixing colors and washing brushes. PhotoShop is also really great because it's easy to move things around and fix really bad mistakes in composition. Not so easy to do with acrylics.
You seem to have a fairly even balance of both black and white and color artwork. Do you prefer one over the other? Do you find yourself experimenting with color in your works?
I do a lot of black and white work, and a friend of mine does only stuff in color. I realized later that I grew up watching black and white TV and she grew up watching color TV. I spent a lot of my childhood shivering in a basement, my eyes inches away from a tiny, grainy, contrasty set watching "Attack of the Crab Monsters" and "The Brain from Planet Arous" and "The Creature Walks Among Us" and other "classic" fifties sci-fi films. They taught me all about composition and atmosphere and tension and emotion, but of course zilch about color. And when we finally got a color set, I watched a lot of old "Star Trek", which is all pink and orange and fuchsia. I think that skewed my sense of color a bit. But I recovered - I think one of my strong points is that I draw on other a lot of other people for inspiration. I try not to repeat myself. Sometimes I'll borrow a wild color scheme from Matisse or Van Gogh, and sometimes I'll use a more limited palette like an old hand-colored photo. Again, a lot of times, I'm following my own twisted misinterpretation of what the story I'm illustrating is all about.
I sense an aversion to clowns. Is there anything we should know here?
Ah, you speak of my scary clown piece, "Dunk the Clown." Well, in that piece, the dunking clown has been dropped into the water at the fair so many times that he's about to blow. But that the piece isn't so much about my aversion to clowns, but the clown's aversion to us. Maybe it's about being taken advantage of. When you're an artist or performer, there's always the danger that people won't value your work. I know an artist who used to have the hardest time getting paid for her work. People would say, you're just doing this for fun, so why should I have to pay you? Here the person who commissioned her is driving up in a big, expensive car, and my friend the artist doesn't even have medical insurance. A workman is worth his wages. Just because it looks easy to do artwork doesn't mean it is. Artists need to eat, too, to put gas in their cars. We hate it when people say, "You're an artist, do a painting for me. Or design a tattoo for me." Not asking, but demanding, bossing us around. People say, just whip something out, but that's impossible if you really care about your work. What they're really saying is that they want us to do art for them, but they don't want us to spend so much time on it that they feel guilty about not paying us. That's just wrong. People who would never steal a loaf of bread or ignore their dentist bill think nothing about cajoling an artist to do work for them for free. I'm starting to get really angry about this, so maybe we should go on to the next question.
What artists have most shaped you as an artist?
Hard to list just a few artists to thank for their inspiration... Piranesi, for his gloomy etchings of impossible prisons... Boccioni and the other Italian Futurists, who painted with action and verve and loved machines, and who believed that war would make the world a better place by destroying all the stale, archaic institutions that strangled the human spirit. And they believed so much that they went off to fight in World War I and gave their lives for what they believed. Frank Kelly Freas, who taught me all about wonder. Vincent Di Fate and Chesley Bonestell, whose spacescapes took my imagination far, far away. Michael Whelan, whose works constantly blow my mind. Bob Eggleton, a master of paintstrokes. Frank R. Paul, for his amazing spaceships and robots and Martian War Machines. James Bama and Steranko for astounding images of Doc Savage and The Shadow. Virgil Finlay, for his sparkles. So many great artists... I could go on for hours about all my favorites.
I see you got to a lot of conventions. What's your favorite part of going to cons?
I love standing in front of my art and telling people about it. It's like show and tell. Even better when the audience is made of authors and editors, like at a con. I've found that these people - whom some treat as minor deities - are actually, generally quite approachable. What could be better than sitting around, drinking beer and chewing the fat with your favorites authors, artists and editors?
Do you have enough time to meet your fans at cons?
Sure, if I had any.
You've also met quite a few luminaries. Do you have any anecdotes for us?
OK. A couple stories. I met the cartoonist Russ Heath, who spent over a decade drawing Sgt. Rock of Easy Company for "Our Army at War." A great World War II comic. I mentioned my favorite story line - wherein Sgt. Rock has to work together with a Japanese soldier to survive. And he told me that the first page had a map on it, and he would ask people to "look for me in the picture". Turns out there is no self-portrait of Russ Heath hidden therein, no signature. But, if you look closely at the map, there's a tiny arrow pointing to Chicago, where Russ lived at the time, and in even tinier words, the letters "ME."
Another story. I was at a convention thinking about the never-ending madness in the middle east and I thought of a piece I want to do about the insanity of war. It's inspired by the Bob Dylan song "Knockin' on Heaven's Door," which has the line, "Ma, put my guns in the ground - I can't shoot them anymore." And I envisioned this large mound, with these rifles (maybe laser rifles) stuck in the ground, maybe with helmets on top of them, like memorials. And around this memorial mound are soldiers weeping, gnashing their teeth, agonizing with guilt over all the people they've killed. And, since I was at a convention, I grabbed author Jay Lake, who's written a bazillion stories, and Jerry Oltion, Nebula-winning author who has a story in every issue of "Analog" magazine. I had them posing, lying on the ground in mock agony, weeping, gnashing their teeth. These famous and important writers, merely models bent to my will and wedged into my vision. Muhahahahaha.
What do you consider to be the highest praise (other than a Hugo) that you can receive?
The highest praise an artist can receive is to have his work recognizably parodied in a beer commercial.
I see on your site that you're a Star Trek fan. Do you have a favorite episode?
Of course, "Voyager" was a wasteland... "Enterprise" has plots that fail to gain any traction or generate any suspense... "The Next Generation" had some great episodes like "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "Best of Both Worlds I and II"... "DS9" had the best story arcs and the most interesting characters, but the "Star Trek" of my heart is classic Trek. Of course old "Trek" looks increasingly amateurish as the years go by, and half the episodes can be summarized by the plot line "Kirk and Spock beam down to a new planet where they meet strange aliens who endanger the ship." But... There are no greater characters than Spock. OK, here are my favorite episodes (but this might change next week):
1. "Metamorphosis": Lonely space girl merges with lonely space cloud to love lonely spaceman.
2. "All Our Yesterdays": Lonely girl trapped in frozen wasteland has the only visitors she'll ever get. Then they leave.
3. "Obsession": Vampire cloud becomes physical manifestation of Kirk's failure as a youth.
4. "The Empath": Sad-eyed girl feels your pain.
5. "Amok Time": Spock has to kill Kirk (an innocent bystander), so a scheming Vulcan b---h can engineer the dominating relationship she always wanted.
6. "Galileo Seven": Spock has to panic to save their lives. But he won't admit it.
7. "Balance of Terror": Cat and mouse game between Kirk and Romulan commander ennobles both.
8. "This Side of Paradise": For only one day in his entire life, Spock is truly happy. And all it took was drugs.
9. "The Trouble with Tribbles": Tribbles are the only love that money can buy.
10. "City on the Edge of Forever": Sometimes the good have to die.
You hint at a "big project" on your site. Is there anything you can tell us about that?
Not really, you fascist bully boy. No, seriously. It's a book project where I do the cover and interior artwork for all these short stories, but I can't tell you who wrote them. Not yet.
What other goals do you have in your future?
They said in the sixties they believed that rock and roll could change the world, and maybe I still believe that about art. In "Star Trek," Gene Roddenberry believed he could use aliens and robots and spaceships to make social commentaries about race relations and war and peace and other social issues. I've done some work that addresses the issue of homelessness, but I have other pieces in mind. One shows a bag lady reflected in a huge piece of metal. And then as you look more carefully, you see that the metal thing is an enormous boot, the boot of a giant robot that symbolizes all the technological advancements happening. And the bag lady represents all the people left behind.
I also want to do a piece about people throwing other people away, physically and psychologically. It will have these garbage bags tumbling down this enormous maw of a pipe. And from the shape of the bags, you can tell that there are people inside, and all along the inside of the pipe are people - big, motherly types - with nets trying to catch these people as they tumble down.
Can you explain "Structural and Functional Dissection of a DNA Replication Origin Enhancer" in ten words or less for us? I'm just joking of course. You received a Ph.D. in bacterial genetics. Are you still working in the field?
Ten words or less. How about: I spent six years studying a tiny snippet of DNA. The end. I generated four scientific papers from 100 basepairs of DNA. Not bad. Right now my day job is working in patent law, doing biotech. I'm working on a big lawsuit right now, but I can't tell talk about it. And at nights and on weekends, I'm free to do art.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
Don't just imitate one artist (like Giger) or one style (like anime). Lay your work side by side next to that of the giants of the field, and give yourself an honest evaluation. Don't be too emotional about your stuff, but see it as others do. Draw in backgrounds, not just isolated figures floating in whiteness. Learn draftsmanship. Most images can generally be cropped in to good advantage. Don't make wimpy art. Make your blacks black, your reds red and your whites white. Let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Every drawing you do should be different than anything you've done before. Otherwise you're just repeating yourself and you'll never improve. Learn to draw eyes and expressions. Otherwise your people will never really breathe. Most of all never use "I'm an artist" as an excuse. Don't go around with the attitude that "I don't have to worry about my appearance because I'm an artist" or "I don't have to worry about money because I'm an artist" or "I don't have to act in a healthy, civilized manner because I'm an artist." That's just b.s.
How about words of wisdom for those of us who drop paintbrushes with more grace than we can use them?
As Bill Staines wrote, "All God's critters got a place in the choir. Some sing low, some sing higher. Some sing out loud on the telephone wire. And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got." Some are artists, some are thinkers, some drive fast cars, some drive buses. Me, I sing more like Bob Dylan than Pavarotti, and I'm never gonna bowl 300. I'm never gonna be the President. But that's ok. I draw stuff. I think the key thing is to know yourself, like yourself, and use whatever talents you've been given. End of sermon. Go now in peace and may the spirit of love surround you.
To see more of Frank's original and imaginative art, you can visit his "House of Crunchy art at:
James J. Heiney has a wonderful wife who usually puts up with him. He has a degree in Secondary Education in English and during his spare time can be found either in the racquetball court, writing, or getting his butt whooped playing Go on the net. If you would like to get in line to whoop that butt of his (at Go oof course), he can usually be found trashtalking his betters at http://www.dragongoserver.net/
Samples of his short fiction can be found in our Tales section.
Back to Frank Wu homepage.