Sydney illustrator takes on NYC

Matt Huynh's ink dog

Dropping the anchor in New York City has been a chance for illustrator and comic creator, Matthew Huynh, to cross off some major career goals and ride the waves of international acclaim.

The Australian emerged during what may be seen in reflection as a boom time for illustration in the first decade of the 21st Century. He believes this may explain why he has never experienced a ‘weak’ period in his profession. However, if peer and critical recognition is anything to go by, timing has nothing to do with it.

Huynh’s career has gone leaps and bounds since being awarded the inaugural Design NSW: Travelling Scholarship (presented by Arts NSW and the Powerhouse Museum in association with the British Council) in 2008. He used the $18,000 scholarship to undertake a wide variety of professional development activities in Japan, the United Kingdom and New York in 2009. Huynh, who cut his teeth making comics from his home in Sydney’s western suburbs, has since been awarded Berlin’s Young Illustrator’s Award, and was named one of the most innovative contributors to Sydney’s culture at the 2009 Creative Sydney Festival.

Today, despite the GFC and global economic anxieties, Huynh is nothing but optimistic about his place in the world. “I think there is always call for a visionary, a unique and genuine voice, a skilled craftsman; that may come from a naive or inexperienced place, but it seems to me that those are enduring qualities that are trend proof, recession proof, whatever proof.” In the Big Apple in 2012, Huynh’s professional to-do list included having his work published in one of the most recognised newspapers in the world, the Sunday New York Times. A few of the editors at the newspaper had been familiar with Huynh’s work for some time, and it was a matter of waiting for the planets to align. In January, Huynh was able to draw a line through this career dream when the newspaper published one of his illustrations. “For a young illustrator, picking up a Sunday New York Times is the best, it is like a real, contemporary, exciting slice of young illustration at the moment,” he explains. “There are few outlets with the turnaround, vast thematic subject matter and sheer heft that can support regular risk-taking with illustration, exposing young artists, and always reliably showcasing the best of today’s professionals all in the one paper.”

American audiences seem to have taken to Huynh’s work with fervour. The illustrator has found the experience working in the US has already paid off. “It’s been rewarding and validating to see a positive reaction to work I’ve developed in great confidence and faith, but has had some difficult finding its own feet back home,” he says. “I know that has a touch of ‘I told you so!’ in it, but the value is not, or not only, in the accuracy or inaccuracy of my instincts or process, but that it has been a tangible demonstration of the right work only having to find the right audience.”

Back in Australia, although Huynh’s work may still be finding a mainstream following, it is highly sought after and no less highly regarded. He was recently commissioned by the Powerhouse Museum to illustrate a book about record keeping throughout time called, ‘Digital Dark Age: A Cautionary Tale,’ which seeks to act as a warning about the fragility of digital storage of our memories, stories and ideas. The subject matter made for a challenge. Once Huynh and the authors (Matthew Connell, Louise Preston and Helen Whitty) established a narrative architecture, work could begin on the design and aesthetic that would best express their aims – including telling the urgency of capturing information and evoking excitement and immediacy from a younger audience. “We ended up with a dog stealing a spear from a storytelling circle around a smoky campfire and trying to entrust it in the hands and bellies of any number of emerging and oft disappointing technological beasts,” he explains.

Matthew Connell, Principal Curator of Physical Sciences and Information Technology at the Powerhouse Museum and one of the authors of ‘Digital Dark Age: A Cautionary Tale’ (and ‘A Maths Odyssey’ which the Powerhouse Museum also commissioned Huynh to illustrate) praises Huynh’s illustrations for their simplicity, richness and evocative nature. “I was just amazed at how he captured the essence of the story with these images,” says Connell. “Each image caught a mood or series of events in a way that when it came to writing the story for the book we knew that our job was to say as little as possible. We knew he’d done it with these images.”

Huynh acknowledges the risks involved for authors in commissioning illustrators to help to tell their story. “It can be daunting for all involved when working on a book about something like recording technology with computers and digits and tape and vinyl and tablets and all sorts of gadgetry, and to have the artist hand back a book full of bold anthropomorphised monsters and a new animal protagonist,” says Huynh.

Huynh’s unique style is what continues to help place the illustrator’s work in front of high profile clients from Rolling Stone to the Rugby World Cup. Moving to New York has not only opened up his world view, but also helped to narrow his personal professional vision. “There are the tangible and obvious benefits of having myself and my work placed before the eyes of industry types and new friends, but perhaps most importantly has been informing and reshaping my own understanding of what I can be, what I’d want to be, and, just as importantly, what I wouldn’t want to be by my exposure to a wide range of work from professionals at a world class standard from all walks of life and perspectives,” he says.

On his transition, both geographically and professionally, Huynh is philosophical. “I return to New York a very different artist with a different mindset,” he says. “Under the scholarship, I was willing and open to learning as much as I could, embracing my role as student and apprentice. But today, I am captain of my own ship!”