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The Masterful Urban Symbolism of 'Turn Left, Turn Right' Author Jimmy Liao

Jimmy Liao is a prolific Taiwanese illustrator and author who has expanded readership of picture books beyond children to general audiences. With sensitivity and creativity, he crafts each of his stories to become a journey through human feelings, a pathway towards Liao’s inner world, a world worth reviewing.

Despite receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Chinese Culture University and having worked for years in the advertising industry, Liao taught himself illustration by learning from Japanese magazines and illustrated books for children.

A serious disease suddenly knocked on his door when he was middle-aged. Cloudy days of depression and fear followed one another and Liao changed his outlook on life. Once he recovered, he quit his work and became determined to devote his heart and soul to his art: drawing and writing his own picture books for children and adults.

Liao’s works reflect the positive and negative sides of life, which have shaped his personality at the same time: happiness – sadness; freedom – oppression; hope – despondency. “Life is a mixture of bittersweet moments,” he said in a previous interview. His life is full of contrasts; contrasts embodied in his illustrations as a mirror of his inner feelings; inner feelings which any of us could experience in a moment in life.

Thus, A Fish That Smiled At Me is a poetic metaphor of his feelings during his hospitalization: “I realized that I was the fish, locked in an aquarium, watched by people through the glass,” he explains. Fate is another thread running through his storytelling. Inspired by Liao's own story of how he met his wife, in Turn Left, Turn Right, he focuses on how happy coincidences could make two parallel lines cross one day. In Sound of Colors, Liao identifies with the main character, a blind girl whose adventures take place in the subway network. “She wants to explore the world in spite of her fear. She misses home and feels lonely. She has a disability yet she is complete. I think she is me,” he stated.

An illustration from The Sound of Colors (2001).

Training children to face both sides of life

"You may not know it, but in a corner of the world, in every great tree, there is a child who does not fit in the world."

The main characters of Liao’s books are almost always children, who remind us of the child we once were, or the one we still carry inside. In particular, Liao depicts girls who seem to be vulnerable, yet with strength enough to face grief, loss or nostalgia as inseparable parts of their lives. Through his pictures books, Liao has indirectly been illustrating the stages of life his daughter experienced while she was growing up, showing her the journey's lights and shadows.

“I often wonder why the child who likes to be alone is considered a freak; the child who likes to say what he thinks is called provocative; the child who likes to hide in a corner is labeled antisocial,” Liao says. His stories are usually on the side of children who suffer social exclusion. In this way, he encourages readers to face difficult situations with the emotional tools from his stories, an intangible dimension of dreams as a shelter to recover and search for hope and happiness in the daily reality.

As with the illustrated books of the Australian artist Shaun Tan, controversy surrounds what topics are suitable for children's literature. Is it inappropriate to explain to children that death, sadness or loneliness are also part of life? From a more contemporary perspective, maybe we should ask ourselves whether hiding the dark side of life from children is the best way to foster future generations of mature adults.

An illustration from Love Scenery (2007).

Contrasts in life, contrasts in style

“Perfect change is constant change.”

As noted above, Liao’s style is full of contrasts. The colors of his moods, desires, frustrations and hopes are translated into sounds and smells. His first illustrations were black and white but over time, they took on bright colors. Liao uses watercolor, acrylic and marker in his works, separately or in combination.

As an intuitive process, his technique responds to an “automatic drawing/illustration,” where his leitmotif is emotional communication, rather than visual precision: “I draw because I want to expose my most intimate world,” he says.

Despite being considered an Asian author when referring to feelings, his style is the outcome of multiple western influences, from Impressionism to Fauvism. He doesn’t hesitate to show traces of European masters such as Paul Klee, Vincent van Gogh, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso or René Magritte in his paintings. As a great film fan, he uses theatrical and cinematic strategies in his compositions: imprinted movement in the scenes, frames, sharp perspectives, aerial views, focus and blur images, etc.

An illustration from Jimmy Liao: a collection (2007).

Stateless scenes laden with rich symbolism

“The perfect imagination has no limits.”

Universal, timeless and stateless features define the characters and scenes of Liao’s stories. “The illustrations in my books come from my imagination,” he explains. We can find very few recognizable landscapes and architecture in his works though some remnants of his memories from Taiwan and Japan enter in Taipei 101 Tower, Gueishan Island, the Guandu Bridge in Taipei, or the Japanese fields. Like an obsession, Liao creates recurrent indefinite spaces laden with a mysterious symbolism: labyrinths, gardens, the city, roofs, Escherian stairwells, trains, subways, forests, the sky, the sea, rooms with their doors and windows, etc. Hence, a global iconography to connect with readers around the world.

The city as a main theme in his illustrations which allows him to tell the multiple stories that most city-dwellers feel when living in a metropolis. Haven’t you ever had the feeling of living in a city that is known, and at the same time unknown, with lots of people around who you probably won’t get to know despite all living in the same place? Let’s call it that kind of “urban feeling,” which Liao’s scenes transmit: "Living in a city, I always feel a sense of solitude. But I enjoy the time when I work alone. It's a beautiful solitude. I want to put such feelings into my works. I want to turn the loneliness into beauty.”

An illustration from The Sound of Colors (2001).

Taiwan’s most beloved and awarded illustrator

“Dear world, please don't worry about me. I'm learning to manage my worries. I beg you; give me a little more time so that I can deal with the worries of the whole world.”

Liao has published more than 60 works in all and sold millions of copies around the world. His books have been translated into dozens of languages, including Vietnamese: Hòn Đá Xanh; Đêm Thẳm Trời Sao; Vầng Trăng Quên Lãng; Ôi, tình yêu!Nụ Hôn Từ Biệt; Nàng Rẽ Trái, Chàng Rẽ Phải; and Hòn đá xanh.

Studio Voice magazine named Liao one of Asia’s “most creative 55 people,” and the Discovery Channel chose Liao as one of six outstanding Taiwanese in its show Portraits Taiwan. Many of his works have been adapted for musicals, television dramas and films. The animation of A fish that smiled at me won the prize for best short film at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival. His works have won several Golden Tripod Awards in Taiwan, the Belgian Literary Prize “Le Prix Versele,” First Prize for artistic illustration from Spain’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport, and “Peter Pan’s Silver Stars Prize” from Sweden. He has also been nominated for the Swedish Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, which is the world’s most prestigious prize for literature aimed at children and youths. In June 2019, Liao was the Guest of Honor of the Comic Festival in MunichGermany. Currently, his first international retrospective exhibition is being held at ABC Museum in Madrid, Spain.


An illustration from Kiss & Goodbye (2015).

Top image: an illustration from Jimmy Liao: a collection (2007).

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