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ALAN CHEN – A Visual Artist Breathing Life into Stories

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

By Dr. Renée Ralph, Co-Founder, The Brilliant Foundation

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of interviewing and chatting with Mr. Alan Chen, who graduated with a Masters of Arts in Production Design in Film and Television from the Australian Film Television and Radio School. He is a delightful and cheerful individual who has worn many hats as a filmmaker, an illustrator, art director, graphic designer, director, producer, writer, comic artist, head of department, and a teacher. He says: “A long time ago, people gathered around fires to listen to and tell stories. I believe that this tradition is what brings us together and can help inspire us to reach our greatest potential.”

Organisations who have called on Alan’s services include Fox Films, Nintendo, Universal Music, YouTube, Screen Australia, NSW Health, Transport for NSW, BPay, Australian Film Television and Radio School (AFTRS), and the Australian Maritime Museum.

Photo : A sneak preview to the new book "The Mummy Daddy's Book" by Alan Chen

Over the last 24 years, Alan has been on a quest to acquire the skills to become a master storyteller. Especially now, he is a father to his 5 year old daughter, Arya who is learning fast to be a narrator, illustrator and storyteller herself. The proud father says that she is an articulate conversationalist who is clear on her instructions and artistic ideas. (Hear Arya's narration below introducing The Mummy Daddy's Book that will be launched on 31 October 2021)

Video clip : Arya who is 5 years of age introducing The Mummy Daddy's book that will be launched on 31 October 2021.

Alan with his Chinese heritage and Macedonian wife, Aneta have created Arya, their daughter, is a wonderment and gift in itself. The trio have embarked on a magical journey of discovering, nurturing, laughing, chatting and playing.

For their daily family activity, Alan and his wife spend time together drawing with Arya – they share stories, delight in each other’s company, draw and paint on paper and dabble with digital art.

Photo : Arya drawing and learning the Macedonian language.

Alan shares when he was little, he never thought he would be a teacher. As a student, he would always skip school, it wasn’t because he was deliberately playing truant – he felt that the education system did not provide for his creative or artistic needs. When he wasn’t in the classroom, he would travel to the Art Gallery and visit various art studios to get inspiration and learn more about art and history.

He remembered that he was told at school to write neatly on the lines in the book. Alan would tell his teachers: “Why can’t I write or draw differently? I see things in a three dimensional form and not something that is flat on a straight line.” The teachers could not offer him any solution.

Photo : Alan live scribing with his clients

Now he sees real value in teaching and as an accidental teacher – he has been a guide to hundreds of students for the past 14-15 years. Alan comes from a family of teachers – his mother, his father, his wife are teachers. His elder sister who has a Masters in Education specialises in helping Autistic children. His other sister lives in France and works as an international lawyer defending for human rights. He has two young Asian nephews that speaks French and Alan finds life fascinating.

Photo : Alan's work involving culture, diversity, inclusion and de-colonisation

It is clear that his family’s heart is in the space of kindness, respect and giving – of finding value in life through elevating one’s self through education and being in a world that is optimistic, bright and ethical.
To Alan, the categories of art changes and cannot be stereotyped through nationalities or defined solely to which country you are born in. Art is seen through individuals with different lineage or cultural heritage; and their mixed bloodlines becomes an artefact of one’s culture, innovation and identity. Alan has become less judgemental of individuals, he has become more accepting, more understanding and appreciates a human being for who they are.

Currently, Alan runs his own company Sh8peshifters which specialises in visualising conversations and ideas for organisations with Diana Ayoub. The other company, Project Midnight allows him to create whatever he wants and he finds joy in seeing his art come to life in a form of a book, a simple illustration or digital work.

Photo : Alan Chen with Aneta and Diane

In Alan’s words, he shares his artistic journey as a visual storyteller.

1. What do you do? How did you become a visual storyteller?

I am a visual artist and storyteller. I run my own company Sh8peshifters which specialises in visualising conversations and ideas for organisations. I have always worked in industries that make use of visual storytelling. I got my first job by accident.

I was sixteen, and drawing during a school excursion when a teacher from another school gave me a job drawing environmental themed imagery for the Observatory Hill Environmental Education Centre.

Since then I’ve spent many years working in illustration, advertising, graphic design and filmmaking. I’ve also spent a long time teaching drawing, storytelling and design in tertiary education.

Photo : Alan painted this picture whilst his family were on holidays recently

2. How long have you been in this role as a visual storyteller?

I’ve been in my current role for two years, but I feel like I’ve been working my way up to this point my whole life. I’ve spent 24 years in visual storytelling industries, hopping from job to job, working in different countries, trying to understand what my calling is.

3. When did you start drawing as a child? Where did you come from? What’s your ethnic background? How long have you been living in Australia?

According to my mother and father, I started drawing since I was 1 year old, and haven’t stopped since then!

I grew up in Rockdale, a suburb in Southern Sydney. I was born in Sydney and am a second generation Australian Chinese. My mother was born in a refugee camp in Victoria during WWII which itself is another epic story.

Photo : One of Alan's works to stop domestic violence

Photo :Introducing The Mummy Daddy's book that will be launched on 31 October 2021

4. What prompted you to write and draw a children’s story book? What is the story about?

I was prompted to write this story ‘The Mummy Daddy’ because of the nightly routine my daughter and I have had since she was born. I tell bedtime stories to Arya and the vast majority of them are made up by me.
This one came about when Arya asked me what the difference between a Mummy and Mummy?

So I came up with a comedic way to help better define it. The story is about a dad trying to put his kids to bed, and recounts a fantastical tale of how he became a mummy in order to become a daddy. I have many more stories in my head, so I like to think that this is only the beginning.

Photo : Alan's work with Karen O'Connell, Associate Professor, UTS Law for the People that Fall Through The Cracks in Society

5. Why is visual story telling important?

Visual storytelling is one of the oldest forms of communication, its known origins dating back nearly 50,000 years.

It helps us to deeply understand what is presented to us by creating a visceral connection to the subject matter which actually makes it more ‘real’ for us.

It’s where the phrase “seeing is believing” comes from. It is the most dominant form of communication we currently have, because it combines our deeply ingrained bias for storytelling with the lasting power of visuals.

6. How will you encourage other youths or students who want to go into this career? What are the 5 main tips that you will give?

For anyone who is interested in visual storytelling, these are my top five tips:

1. Don’t wait for permission: As the famous Nike slogan goes “Just do it.” It’s so important to just be part of it, to get your hands and feet wet.

2. Develop your craft: Education is important, but it doesn’t always come in the form of school. Look for ways to deepen your skills and keep practicing.

3. Be open to new experiences: Every aspect of our life feeds into our work. Go and experience the world. Be part of it.

4. Learn to accept feedback: Feedback or criticism is a gift. Listen to learn.

5. Collaborate creatively: Working with others is one of the great super powers we have access to. It can push us to new heights, and helps to push us out of our comfort zone.


Copyright@The Brilliant Foundation

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