Nick Stathopoulos has painted some of the best cover art in Australian science fiction, winning eight Ditmars for his work. He has also been nominated for a Hugo Award, while his cover for the anthology Dreaming Down Under was nominated for a British SF Association Award. In 2009 he held a solo exhibition, ‘Toy Porn’, at NG GALLERY in Sydney, an exhibition of hyper-realistic paintings of favourite toys.
1. Late last year you held a solo exhibition, ‘Toy Porn’, an exhibition of hyper-realistic paintings of your favourite toys (including OMG! Astroboy!!). How did it go? Did you choose the subject matter because you thought it would appeal to a larger audiences, or simply because it appealed to you? What toys still make your heart race?
The show went brilliantly. It was opened by David Stratton, who was the subject of one of my successful Archibald finalist portraits. He was hilarious. (He confessed to me later he always wanted to be a stand up comedian! ) It had one of the largest crowds at the opening I’ve ever seen. I received lots of publicity and the show almost sold out. Strangely the painting of one of my favourite toys — a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang — failed to sell. It was the one I spent the most time on and was the most detailed. I want to bring it home but the gallery is holding won’t let go of it because they still expect to sell it. I hope they don’t. That’s a toy that definitely increases my heart rate. I’ve just had a massive Chitty poster mounted onto linen, and on my recent trip to Europe I visited Neuschwanstein, the castle featured in the movie. In Stuttgart I found the original car that was the basis of the modified movie car at the Mercedes Benz Museum.
As for the subject…well it was a bit of both. The gallery and I took a risk with the subject. It was something that clearly appealed to my obsessions, and we were delighted to see that others shared the appeal. Art Bank bought two of the paintings, so it goes beyond mere fandom, it’s seen as fine art.
2. In 2008, Jack Dann’s Australian fantasy anthology ‘Dreaming Again’ was published, highly anticipated after the success of ‘Dreaming Down Under’ in 1998. One of the features of ‘Dreaming Down Under’ were the beautifully detailed covers you painted for both the hardcover and paperback editions, featuring a dilapidated robot head in the midst of lush forest or marine environment. For ‘Dreaming Again’ it appears that the publisher have chosen to go with stock photography over illustration, yet the final product is very reminiscent of your original covers. Do you think it is coincidence that they’re so similar?
Hmmm. OK, this is a long and infuriating story. I anticipated a series back in ’98, so I came up with a concept that would go beyond the original collection. The same robot and composition would feature on future books, but the backgrounds would change, dramatically in colour and Australian locale. And that worked when they split the first collection in two for paperback release with the coral reef version. So when I was approached by Harper Collins at Jack’s insistence, I had a concept ready to go. This time the robot would be trapped in concrete, with the sails of the Sydney Opera House emerging from sand dunes in the background. On the back cover would be a glittering new city in the distance.
The art director said that as Jack and I had worked together in the past they were happy for us to do so again, so I got to work on a colour rough of the concept. Now, you have to keep in mind that my first cover was very well received all over the world; it was nominated for a number of awards including a British SF award. I think it won a Ditmar here. So it’s not like it wasn’t a commercial success. But before I had finished my rough, and without even seeing it, the art director emailed and said that they weren’t interested in my concept as they had now come up with their own: a camel walking on a beach with a rainforest behind it.
Well, frankly I thought that sucked, and so did Jack. We didn’t think it reflected the contents of the book, or the nationality, and it wasn’t a particularly appealing image. So I politely suggested we all get together and come up with something that was a more viable commercial concept. At the same time I did a couple of roughs with Harper’s concepts so we had something to look at. The next thing I get is an email from the art director saying I clearly had no faith in their concept and they were getting someone else to do the cover. That was it…no replies to my emails…nothing. Totally unprofessional. Of course I was furious.
I’ve been treated poorly clients in the past, but this made no sense to me or Jack. All I ever wanted to do was create a nifty cover and sell them lots of books. It was a total waste of my time. I remember at the time saying to Jack that if they didn’t produce a book with a camel on the cover I was going to be really mad…and guess what? They didn’t. What they did do, was a Photoshop pastiche of my original cover with a guy in gold make-up superimposed over a rainforest. It didn’t look like SF or Fantasy…it looked totally…well…gay! It was a real shocker. I just shake my head in disgust. I own the copyright to all my work, and when I pointed that out, they did pay me a kill fee, to their credit. I’d love to know how it sold.
After that I said to myself “no more book covers”. Hence the shift to fine art and gallery shows. At least I don’t have clueless art directors dictating crap to me. I still do the odd cover, but for the love of the genre, and usually small press. I did a lovely cover for Deb Biancotti’s “Book of Endings” Twelve Planet Press collection last year, and one for Terry Dowling’s “Amberjack” collection coming soon from Subterranean Press. That’s looking gorgeous. I like to design the whole cover…all the text, everything.
3. During the last Snapshot in 2007, you were working towards a feature film based on the life of the aboriginal artist, Albert Namatjira. Are you still working on the project or have the vagaries of the film industry brought it undone? What else do you have planned for 2010?
The film was happening then. The team got a grant from the SA Film Commission to go and get all the requisite permissions from the extensive Namatjira family which we got, we did our final location hunt and were about to go into preproduction when the SA Film Commission (they were funding half the budget ) pulled out due to the global financial crisis which was looming at the time. SBS turned it down because they were ceasing feature-film production to concentrate on series programs to bolster their audience, and the ABC — after extensive deliberation — turned it down because none of the principal team are indigenous. I’m reluctant to say it might be dead…I’ve spent years on it. I hope to dust off the project after I finish this year’s Archibald portrait, a bust of composer Peter Sculthorpe, and a couple of commissions. Who knows?
Oh…I nearly forgot…In the next couple of months my new TV show hits the TVS screen! I’m hosting a weekly movie show called SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY and will be scheduled once TVS goes digital. The first season of 13 episodes are in the can, and it looks great. All shot on location in my lounge room! I’m also interviewing various personalities including Grahame Bond (Aunty Jack) and Catherine Knapman (producer of Moulin Rouge and Australia).
4. Which Australian writers or work would you like to see on the Hugo shortlists this year? What have you enjoyed reading?
Shaun Tan for best professional artist….Jonathan Strahan for editor…Sean Williams, novel…Greg Egan, best collection….there are lots of worthy local writers that have an international profile. I’m currently reading a manuscript THE CLOWNS AT MIDNIGHT from Terry Dowling which is a ripper; a real page-turner. It may be the best thing he’s ever written. It’s horror, which I think he has a real gift for. He’s one writer that should have been embraced by the mundane writing community years ago, much to their discredit. This is first class writing. I’m in awe of every word.
5. Will you be at Aussiecon 4 in September? If so, what are you most looking forward to about it?
Of course! It’s not often we get a Worldcon on our doorstep. Too bad it’s not in Sydney. But If Melbourne is where the all fannish action is at, then Melbourne it is! It’s such a cool city. Can’t wait to catch up with all my friends from around the world.