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Meet the man who's helping Irish children embrace their artistic sides

PJ Lynch is the latest Children’s Laureate.

Sightsavers Launches Juni PJ Lynch with costume designer Joan Bergin (left) Source: Sasko Lazarov/Photocall Ireland

WHEN YOU’RE A child, reading and drawing can fit so easily into your creative world – if you’re lucky enough to be introduced to them.

As Laureate na Nóg, the children’s laureate, artist PJ Lynch could be just the man to introduce a whole new generation to the joy of art and reading.

One of the country’s most impressive and lauded illustrators, he has been awarded the Christopher Medal three times and been given the Kate Greenaway Medal on two occasions for his work on children’s books.

The Belfast native has been drawing from a young age, and managed to make illustration a career as well as a personal passion. It took him 30 years, but he’s even written his own book, The Boy Who Fell Off the Mayflower.

He’s has also collaborated with Ryan Tubridy on a forthcoming book called Patrick and the President which Tubridy has written and Lynch has illustrated.

Source: Laureate na nÓg/YouTube

“It was an honour”

For Lynch, taking on the role of laureate means spreading the word about art and literature to young people around Ireland. It’s not a role he takes lightly.

“It was a huge honour,” he says of the laureateship (the role was created in 2010). “It was mind blowing – the biggest honour of my career.”

He was particularly chuffed to be following in the footsteps of the previous laureates, Eoin Colfer, Siobhán Parkinson and Niamh Sharkey.

“Eoin was a storyteller and his laureateship was very much to do with stories – I love stories but I’m artists and for me it’s got to be about making pictures,” he says of his intentions with the two-year role.

Lynch is almost evangelical about how children can benefit from reading. “It’s really important, because I think whenever children read books it’s a way for them to slip into someone else’s situation, it’s a way for them to understand other people’s problems.”

“It helps people empathise,”he says. “Reading is absolutely vital for our development as human beings. It’s important.”

It’s interesting, then, that he admits that as a small child: “I did love reading but I didn’t read enough.” It wasn’t until he hit college that he got the reading bug.

Lynch knows the importance of being inspired by other people. ”I remember back when I was little when I used to watch artists drawing, I was so fascinated to see people drawing,” he recalls, calling the process “really magical”.

“I want to share that process,” he explains. Part of that involves creating a video podcast series called The Big Picture, where he meets with artists and illustrators and gets them to talk about their work – people like Oliver Jeffers and Chris Judge.

So I want to cover the whole range of drawing and I want to show how people draw and I want kids to get in and say ‘wow, I love that drawing and I want to give it a go’.

“Art was my thing”

Lynch, who has illustrated over 20 books, was the kid in the class who was always scribbling and sketching. “I think it was the thing I was best at in school, it was the thing I absolutely loved.

“You know you get a kid in the class who is the artist or the musician – I was the artist and it was my thing, but I was always going to do something arty. In my family or my school I don’t think anyone had gone to art college. I was breaking new ground.”

But he got “huge support” from his parents – “at a time when other people might have said ‘go out and get a proper job’”.

Lynch went to college in Brighton, where one of his tutors was the man behind The Snowman, Raymond Briggs.

“He was getting really successful – he inspired a lot of us,” Lynch recalls. “Living in England made it easy to get to London and make contacts with publishers. These days I think you can live anywhere and I think you can communicate through the internet.”

It’s a far cry from when he used to fax in illustration ideas to people.

What’s a typical day for Lynch? When we speak, he’s preparing to give a talk to some school children in Cork and do some drawing with them, as part of his laureateship.

“Typically I get to do a bit of work in the studio,” he adds, though he loves the new opportunities the laureateship offers.

I do try to work 9 – 5 and if I have a tight deadline I can really push the work out. Usually I get a year for a book. At the start I spend a lot of time reading and researching, probably dawdling. And towards the end I really work hard and fast. It depends on where I am in the project.

Since he has become more established, he’s also gotten to take part in large projects like a huge mosaic he worked on in Knock. It’s the height of a five-storey building.

“I’m hoping I will get the chance to do a big picture [like that] in Ireland [as part of the laureateship],” he says. “I really want that image to be a testament to the whole idea of the imagination and children’s literature. I have a few sites in mind.”

Want a career in art?

Source: Laureate na nÓg/YouTube

If you are a young person who’s thinking of a career as an illustrator, Lynch has advice for you.

“I would say it’s one of those jobs that you can do an awful lot by yourself at home, but I don’t want to just encourage people to do that. If you are a certain age you can go to art college and find a certain college that specialises in illustration. Some of the colleges here are pretty good on illustration as well. It’s one of those jobs that you don’t have to get the qualification before you get a go at it.”

He advises to keep practicing and studying – and even try and make your own dummy illustrated book that you can send off to publishers, and make sure you get feedback on your work.

“If you’ve got an idea there’s nothing stopping you,” he says. “It is a brilliant job for anyone who’s interested in art.”

PJ Lynch will officially open the 20th Baboró International Arts Festival for Children which runs in Galway from October 17 – 23. On Monday 17 October, Lynch will take part in a panel discussion with fellow artists Tarsila Krüse and Shona Shirley Macdonald, chaired by Alan Clarke, about their careers as illustrators. For more details, visit the festival website.

Read: Meet the Galway teen who’s published her first book at just 16>

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