Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Voices from Our White House: PJ Lynch

Contributor answers questions about "Hands" illustration

Welcome back to the NCBLA blog's weekly feature, Voices from Our White House, a series of interviews with some of the talented contributors to the art and literary anthology Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out, conducted by NCBLA high school intern Colleen Damerell.

Our White House
was created by the National Children's Book and Literacy Alliance. A collaborative effort by over 100 authors and illustrators, the book is the product of a desire to encourage young people to learn and read about American heritage. For more information, please visit ourwhitehouse.org and thencbla.org.

This week we feature PJ Lynch, a resident of Dublin, Ireland, who has illustrated Susan Wojciechowski's "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" and O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." He has also created posters for Opera Ireland and the Abbey Theatre, as well as stamps for the Irish postal service. His illustration in Our White House accompanies a story by Patricia MacLachlan about a young girl meeting Eleanor Roosevelt during the depression.

We asked Mr. Lynch a few questions about his piece:

NCBLA: You created your Our White House image to accompany Patricia MacLachlan's story "Hands." When you illustrate another person's written work, how much do you draw from the text? Are there occasions when your artistic interpretation can be more or less restricted?

PJL: For me the process begins with the text. If the story doesn't hold my interest, or make me laugh, or move me in some way then I just don't do the project. "Hands," by Patricia MacLaclan, did all three. I know and love Patricia's work, and I was lucky enough to spend a little time with her in New Hampshire once, so I was thrilled to be asked to illustrate her story. Once I have decided to illustrate a story, I proceed with full respect for the text, but that is not to say that I simply put the words into pictures. It's much more interesting to try to contribute something more to the storytelling process. A good author will leave plenty of space in a story for the illustrator to move around in.

NCBLA: The story does not tell us anything about the ethnicity of Ellie and her family, yet your painting portrays the young girl as dark skinned--she could be Native American, Hispanic, African American, or of Middle Eastern descent. What made you decide to paint Ellie this way? Did you use a model?

PJL: I always do a lot of research for any project I'm working on. And so for this illustration, I read up all about the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. My reading and photo research kept bringing me back to the image of Eleanor Roosevelt reaching out to the African American community in a way that no one in her position had done before. I felt a really strong need to try to reflect that in my painting. I knew that I was taking a considerable liberty with the story, but the longer I lived with it, the more I felt that Eleanor's stronger, older, bigger, pale hands, should be touching Ellie's soft little dark hands.

The publishers and Patricia had a good think about it, but in the end they agreed it was a good idea. I did use a model. A little friend called Chitra. And I like the fact that her ethnicity is not immediately obvious.

NCBLA: I read on your website that you live in Dublin. How did you become interested in a book about American history?

PJL: Some years ago when I was researching for a book called "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey" by Susan Wojchiechowski, I travelled to the Shelbourne Museum in Vermont to view the old American buildings and workshops that are preserved there. That book became a major success for me, and next I was asked to illustrate "When Jessie Came Across the Sea" by Amy Hest, which dealt with one young girl's experience of emigrating from Europe to New York in the early 1900's. Lots more research.

I spent a lot of time in the US promoting those books right across the country. It was a very great pleasure to me to meet so many wonderful people and to find out more and more about your history.

I still keep getting offered great stories with themes that lead me to continue doing more and more historical research in the US. My most recent book was a prime example. "Lincoln and his Boys" by Rosemary Wells. This book called for me to visit Abraham Lincoln's home in Springfield, Illinois with the author, just to be sure I got all the details right.

I suspect a lot of people think I'm an American illustrator, but I'm not, I'm an Irish impostor.

NCBLA: How much did you know about Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt before illustrating this story?

PJL: Not a lot really. One of the good things for me is that I learned very little American history at school so that now it's all nice and fresh when I read about it.

NCBLA: All the trouble in "Hands" is caused by a little orange cat. Do you have any pets? What are their names?

PJL: We have been holding off getting a pet until our kids are a little bit older. Our little girl is just coming out of nappies (diapers) so the time might be right to think about getting a puppy.

NCBLA: Who or what are your greatest artistic influences?

PJL: As a student I was very fond of the work of British illustrators like Arthur Rackham, but then I discovered the work of the American illustrators of the Golden Age of Illustration: people like NC Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, and of course Norman Rockwell. I think their influence still shows strongly in my work.

For more information about this author, please read his OWH bio or visit his website or blog.

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