Joycelin Leahy (TribalMystic)–Illustrator/Storyteller/Artist

paperartist_2015-06-28_15-18-25 Joycelin Leahy 2015 story illustrationIt was the turtle that drew me in.

Joycelin Leahy had posted images of her work in progress on her website Tribalmystic, and they were stunning. It’s her illustrations along with stories of her Papua New Guinean culture and heritage that keep me a regular visitor to her world. She’s managed to combine her ancient heritage with very modern technology to create art that celebrates both the natural world andv our tribal links.

I was delighted when she agreed to be one of my interviewees for this month. And that turtle had its say too! Joycelin Leahy’s story, A Song Of The Turtle, with accompanying illustration, is the winner of the Children’s Story category in the 2015 Crocodile Prize–the National PNG Literary Awards.

From lucky turtles to the debate on the accessibility of cultural artifacts, here’s Joycelin to tell us more.

The images in this post are the intellectual property of Joycelin K Leahy. Please see the copyright notice at the end of the post.

You seem to draw a lot of inspiration from your tribe, the Ahe, yet your work seems new and modern to me as well. How do you go about deciding which elements of ancient and modern to use?
My subconscious would be my guide in my art and most of what I do. In that sub-consciousness is my sense of identity, my culture and heritage that nurtured me from birth. I can’t separate but draw from my experiences and life I grew up with. I guess I don’t decide, this sub-consciousness decides for me. I am an Ahe woman from Morobe in Papua New Guinea and also being a Melanesian (regional) gifted the ability to create.
Freda Watercolour Joycelin Leahy 2015Our culture is in the sub-categories and the greater Melanesia is a culture based on living art.

Many objects and things we use, own or discuss would have been created with meaning and for a purpose. The objects also have a spiritual representation.

This kind of art practice is quite natural and has been handed down through generations and most children would easily have inert abilities because they are part of the rhythm – people, nature and culture. So, for my modern take – my subjects such as birds and turtles are from what I grew up with, but I have to simplify the layers of complexities in a simple drawing to be able to share with my contemporary community.
I use pen and pencil most times because I like drawing. I could sit in an office meeting and draw something substantial while listening and being part of the discussion without thinking about the drawing. My other love is watercolor. With acrylics and oil, I like working with my hands, and with watercolours, I enjoy the feel of paper and watching how the paper drinks the pigments into form or a picture.
My sons have got me two different Apps for the artwork and I have started transferring some hand-drawn pictures and play with these drawings on the Apps.
It is quite exciting and new to me.

It is also far from drawing on sandy beaches or using garden dyes to paint a bark. Having said that – I think each medium or style and material I use, all have their benefits and they somehow have a connection.

I loved your Swimming Turtles (pen and ink) which you blogged about at the end of April. I was blown away by the texture, which looked like coconut fibres and shell to my untrained eye. Did you use a special technique to create that effect?
paperartist_2015-04-29_17-36-01 Joycelin LeahyThank you for the compliment. I enjoy telling stories and writing stories about anything. I am a visual person, so often if I look at something, the story would instantly flash before me. It is like creating a 3-D effect – my mind would be curious to cover all angles – questions asked and answers bringing piece by piece to complete the total form. When I tell a story – I like to draw too because the picture is in my hand and I am transforming it to share with others.

I also think that a storyteller can offer another angle to the story with pictures. Let the reader arrange and interpret as he or she likes, but give him as many choices as you can – as long as they are clear.

About the turtle and fish swimming illustration – I used pen and drew the original turtle on handmade paper. Then I scanned it onto computer as well as photographed it on my phone to add other effects including that ‘coconut’ look. I had to laugh at your question because I created that effect with one of the Apps I talked about. It is simply downloaded onto a phone. The App is called Paperartist.

You are a firm believer in preserving cultural heritage. How do you feel about private collectors of ancestral artifacts?
I had a dream once to become an Intellectual Property (IP) Lawyer and travel the world to ‘rescue’ all heritages that were taken illegally from my people. Much of the heritage that is stored in large museums serve no purpose for the directors and the audience – except objects of curiosity or purely a possession with no meaning. Many objects stay in dark, dusty storage places for decades. Visit Australian museums and ask them how many objects they have from Papua New Guinea or even the Melanesian region – you will be shocked. Hundred of thousands are sitting there idle. There is more to say on this, but you will not be able to stop me if I keep going. Hahaha.
The same goes for
collectors. Now these collectors are a whole range and it is a subject I could talk about for years. Collectors range from missionaries to greedy businessman and women who have conned my people into exchanging their heritage for valueless rubbish. What is done is done, we cannot reverse history; however, one day, I would like people – collectors and the so-called museum experts to re-connect these objects or even return them to their country of origin. I know bits and pieces have been repatriated in some countries and especially remains of humans have been repatriated to countries of origin because of the work of the ICOM – International Council of Museums. Some not so clever museums (I could name a few) have started a virtual museum to “re-connect” objects to owners, such as Papua New Guineans. Now, who is kidding who?

(The) Majority of the PNGeans who created those objects live in villages with no electricity or computers – how could they have Internet to ‘connect’ to their objects? What a joke!

The most humiliating thing – to top it all is, our own government does not care about our heritage. They prefer gold, silver and oil. Money – that is their priority. They do not realize that this heritage is worth so much more. Now you are sorry you asked me these questions, Leenna. (No I’m not. I also believe we need to know how to be responsible and sensitive when it comes to buying cultural/heritage artwork :-D)

Most of your subject matter is natural. You also did a wonderful portrait of a LikLik Meri girl. Which subjects would you like to explore in the near future? And techniques?
LikLik Meri watercolour Joycelin Leahy 2015 I love birds and fish and insects.
I like the human body and its forms and I also like textures in barks, leaves, and flowers.

I really like water, the surface and the movement.

Sometimes I wished I studied art and architecture and built huge sculptures that had something to do with water with movement.

Besides your tribal heritage and nature, where else do you draw your inspiration from?
I watch and learn from other artists – no one in particular because I prefer to develop my own style.
I read and try techniques and experiment often.

Any messages for artists beginning to explore our connection to the natural world?
Sit somewhere quiet. Listen, watch and feel. I sit in my garden to watch birds and how their wings and feathers move when they fly. birds1 Oil Joycelin Leahy WIP July 2015

When they are up close, I ‘zoom’ in on their feathers. Then, if the feathers fall, I collect them and study them.

Then I try to draw and draw until I get it right. Try any medium, and learn from who you admire then practice.

So we’re all wondering: do you accept commissions? Where can we find your work and contact you?
cropped-jl-tami-is1 joycelin leahy Yes – I accept commissions. I have been hopeless at selling my work until recently I decided to place a ‘shop’ on Tribalmystic Blog. It is being built. I can sell directly through email. I hope to open shop in my blog in September 2015, if not before. If anyone is interested to buy prints or download cards or buy catalogues from my exhibition – Pacific Storms, email me at
Thank you so much.

Next week

I finally get around to a follow up interview with my favourite ‘punny’ artist, who always brings a ‘smile to the mind’–Frans Groenewald. Catch up on my 2011 interview with him in Seethroughit to find out what I’m talking about. ‘Til then 🙂

Copyright Notice: The images in this post are the intellectual property of Joycelin K Leahy ( Please do not copy/paste (except on social media) or otherwise reproduce these images without the express permission of Joycelin K Leahy


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