An Interview with Matty Huynh

'It is impossible… to explore and discover anything worth a damn without giving yourself permission to scramble and stumble and be ugly.' Matt Huynh, graphic novelist and artist talks to The 5 to 9 Life about his creative process and the impetus behind 'MA', his recent comic book - part family history and part response to the 'distorted rhetoric' of the 'Stop the boats' political campaign.

An Interview with Matty Huynh

When I think about Matt Huynh’s achievements, I suddenly feel old and unaccomplished.

He has artwork displayed as part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), he was named one of Sydney’s most innovative cultural contributors for his graphic novels by Creative Sydney Festival and boasts a client list that includes the likes of ‘The New York Times’, ‘Esquire’, ‘Rolling Stone’ and ‘Adobe’. Oh yes, and he recently released a comic book, “MA” – all before the age of 30!

MA tells the story of Huynh’s parents when they were displaced by the Vietnam War and fleeing to a Malaysian refugee camp. In crisp, black brush strokes Huynh paints us a portrait of uncertainty and cultural displacement, but also of young love and hopefulness for a new beginning.

The desire to tell this story is worldly and personal at the same time – Huynh was deeply disheartened with the current political landscape regarding refugee policy (i.e. “Stop the boats” and other associated abominations), and he had his parents’ story to tell which focused more on the everyday details of leaving your home, seeking refuge and the short, beautiful, and painful moments that punctuated the experience.

We decided this is the kind of guy that we wanted to get to know, and as you read through his answers to our questions, you will soon understand why. Matt Huynh – for all the delicateness of his observations and brush strokes – is fierce in spirit. He does not believe in ‘creative blocks’, he feels like he has hundreds of stories to tell, he wants the world to know that there is beauty, pain, complexity and surprise in everything; and that it’s okay to “stumble and be ugly”.

1. Introduce yourself.

I’m a NYC based artist using brushes, ink and words to make comics that surprise in the space, breath and intervals between the lines.

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2. You recently launched your first comic book “MA” – what was this process like? What was the most unexpected thing you had to do?

I had to work very fast. It is a personal story that I’ve carried with me for as long as I’ve known, but it had to pour out of me very quickly in response to unfortunate developments in Australian asylum seeker policy. I relied on a lot of intuition to tell the story and there was little friction in the telling, all the decisions with how to tell the story were making themselves for me. The most unexpected thing was deciding how to get the story out to readers beyond a comic book influence, and beyond those immediately vested in the humanitarian issue.

I’ve questioned my position to tell this kind of story in the past, as I know many of my friends and fellow artists have, but it felt urgent and natural to me this time. I still ask myself how to get comics out before the butcher, the bartender, the doctor, to all sorts of people, let alone to have them read the comics. I am often occupied by the context and quality of the display of my work and its distribution.

3. What inspired you to tell the story of MA? What sources did you draw from to tell the story?

I was appalled at the short term memory of the backwards Australian ‘boat people’ policy. The distorted rhetoric and exploitation of people in need for political games, the inflammation of debate from non-issues. My greatest contribution and ability as an artist happened to be a facet I found missing from the discourse – to connect and restore empathy with brothers and sisters put out of sight, out of mind and made the problem across borders. “MA” is primarily poetic, optimistic and romantic – in both the intimate level of the young relationship growing despite the odds in the Pulau Bidong refugee camps and the broader, compassionate relationship to the humanitarian issue.

I drew from personal history, from my family’s story. The headlines struck me with as much gratitude as shame and disgust. ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ When I have ever asked my reluctant parents to discuss their escape from the Vietnam War, it’s filled with as much fond memories of their love and kindness to each other. They were, after all, a young couple and this was their genuine experience as silly, young 20-somethings at the beginning of raising a young family and these intimate shared moments were as valid and vivid as the horror and fear they were exposed to. By telling my story, the refugee issue becomes undeniable – these pages directly wouldn’t be touching your fingers without a country’s compassion, these words rolling in your mind wouldn’t have been thought, these drawings and this work and the life of this artist would never have existed.

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4. At your comic book launch in Sydney, you included snatches of text that look like diary-entries or overheard dialogue. How do you use words in your creative process?

I wanted to unpack my process for my exhibition in Sydney and expose my process, much like how I was opening my personal history to readers. To let people step into the making of the work as much as the content and its concerns, a vulnerability to the craftsmanship as much as my personal history. It is a bit of a mess like walking into my studio, seeing the walls covered in notes and sketches. I write, re-write, draw, re-draw, over and over.

My comics are characterised by a fateful serendipity in the lines, symbols, words. Patterns are found between moments and connecting people, places, like choruses that rise in music. They are poetic in their careful, deliberate choices and their economy of line. They are filled with chance and chaos. I will draw many ideas and thrown them against the page, cut them out, rearrange pages and words and balloons, finding something with my hands or my eyes that I might not in my head. Often what’s important, or what I am really trying to say doesn’t reveal itself in my intention but only after sitting and working with all the words and pictures together. It is a bit of detective work. I am working through everything that I might only see in retrospect or not for a long time to come. It can be valuable to have all the material before me.

For example, there is a moment when when my mother is begged for her ration of food by an elderly man. It is heartbreaking, but such a small moment, especially when I heard the story from my mum herself. Compared to stories of her sons, leaving her hometown behind, the escape, pirates, it is hard to have the foresight to see how or if this will sit in the story at all, but it is a moment that so many respond to. I certainly do, even so seemingly far away, 20 some years later, across the other side of the world in NYC. When I first moved here, I was shocked at the class disparity amongst a mega city forced to walk shoulder to shoulder along the same streets, sharing the same utilities and resources, how poverty and need can be so common as to be mundane and easily ignored. That kind of environment is hostile to the person who turns away, and it’s hostile to the person who is walked over. If we haven’t been there, we’ve been on the other side or we’ve seen it, and that tears an event that happened some 30 years ago across a foreign sea to ‘alien’ people and places it right in to this moment, to this life in this city.

5. You’ve previously mentioned that you submitted your drawings to a magazine at the age of 12. How were your dreams or ideas of the creative industry different to what you’ve experienced now?

Of course! I wanted to live inside the comic books. Comics are so intimate, they are a whisper, a secret. You open a comic and go inside a spread into a page, into a panel, into a balloon, into the words and thoughts of a character, and it happens just to you, just to one reader at a time. That’s magic to a younger me. I went in, in, in, in, into these colorful, highly charged symbols, gods and magicians and monsters, that were living adventures bigger than my small days on planets bigger than my city with biceps bigger than my head.

I remember tracing the brushline of my comics, over and over. They can be expensive things to a young boy and so treasured and worn down. Tracing the lines, I could see where the artist’s hand moved. I could see a man behind the monster, the gods, the heros, I could be that person! So I made my own. I don’t need to go into those worlds or spend time with those symbols and ideas so much any more, but there are plenty of other people and feelings and things I am burning to lead people closer towards with a brush line. Things people would be surprised to be feel or realise or learn or changed by with some panels and bubbles on a page. A Love for your fellows. An awe for the world, for the little that we share that make all the big differences. Magic best left unexplained, un-scrutinised.

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6. Your work combined styles from sumi-e painting and shodo calligraphy. What draws you to these art forms?

A direct connection from my breath, my body, my thoughts, my feelings, through my hand, onto the page and into the eyes of the audience. It is something like a beautiful, warm, mahogany acoustic guitar. It is vital in a way that speaks for itself and needs little production or filtration or adjustment after the fact. The instruments for themselves are very genuine and warm in a way that you can see the health and ills of its user. The tone is in the fingers and the weight in your shoulders. There’s chance and chaos in the instruments. The best use of them is to dance with this randomness and surprise and serendipity and to get out of its way. The worst, to hold tightly onto your wishes and control, to beg for it to do your bidding.

7. How did you come to your decision to make the move to New York? Would you recommend this to other budding creatives?

I wanted to be closer to comics and magazines, books, a publishing history, and generations of artists who grew up with a legacy of that. Where people go to school under the artists they grew up reading and collecting from their local newsagents. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend NYC for everyone, no… but, I always wanted to be closest to my Loves, to be standing in the warmest light. It had to be where I could do what I love, to the people I love, to the people who love me, to the work at I love. At the same time, one of my best friends decided to move for her work and I knew I could pursue what I loved doing there and so, for me, NYC was the obvious next step for me at that time in my life.

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8. “MA” is quite a tender, family story but your work also features very dark, emotionally crazed characters. Do you find that you need to be in a certain ‘mood’ or state of mind to depict particular emotions?

Not at all, sometimes I am being an actor in a funny costume. Sometimes you are seeing me work through something else where I am today in my life. Sometimes I am interested in surprising and mixing unexpected elements, like horror in a tender moment, earnestness in a glib, funny situation, cynicism in a fairytale. When I was younger and writing and making comics, I would have to make them so quickly because I knew that as soon as I was no longer obsessed with a topic, or if I had grown out of a curious issue, it would be harder for me to commit to the long, demanding marathon of finishing the work. There is an urgent, frenetic howling energy to propel that kind of work, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve also realised the value of distance to whatever it is I am exploring. I might be able to more clearly articulate a tumultuous experience and have some wisdom to weigh what’s important and disposable about it, than from the center of the storm when all emotion is tossing judgment out of proportion.

9. How do you cope with creative ‘blocks’? Do they worry you?

I don’t really have creative blocks, I certainly don’t worry about them. I don’t really know where this mysterious question comes from! The artists I know are never in want of ideas, but time and energy and resources to do them. What might be thought of as a creative block isn’t the lack of ideas or good ideas, but that they are just not that ideas you are wanting to have at that moment and so genuine experiences get disregarded. I think at its root might be fear – the permission to do something, ideal circumstances to make something, having the right resources, the fetishised paper or pen, or some idea of taste (this is good, this is bad, this is successful, failure, beautiful, ugly, worthwhile, a waste of time, etc), that you haven’t done the hard yards to earn this show or that opportunity – that can be overcome with an honest kindness to yourself.

To value your own feelings, ideas, hand, scribbles, dribble, to be made at all in the first place, to be put in a book or on the radio or in a gallery, to be shared with someone else. It is impossible to reach for a higher mind, for a greater, transcendent self, to explore and discover anything worth a damn without giving yourself permission to scramble and stumble and be ugly. You have to be fearless about it.

10. Pay it forward: What’s the best advice you’ve received that you would happily share with others?

Everything changes, everything is connected, pay attention.

*Words by Claire Benito
*Photography provided by Paula Mijares and Matt Huynh.