A Fanboy Talks to Oliver Jeffers

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Oliver Jeffers is a painter, illustrator, author and heaven knows what else. But I do know he’s one talented, witty and seductive artist. I knew nothing of his brilliant work (I know I sound like a fanboy) until Rizzoli published (this very day) his monograph “Oliver Jeffers: The Working Mind & Drawing Hand.” An extraordinary collection of invention and inspiration. Makes me want to draw and paint and, damn it, be as or nearly as, or even slightly creative. No, this isn’t about me. This interview on the occasion of the book’s release is an insight into his insight. And if you want to see him live talking to Debbie Millman go to Rizzoli on Nov 1. Enjoy. In fact, if you read one artist’s interview this week, month or year, this is the one.

All images courtesy of Rizzoli

The first question may seem like a fanboy response query, but how did you get to know U2’s Bono and how did he get to understand what you do so well?It does seem strange to count him as a good friend, given that he is one of the most recognizable people on the planet. We have mutual friends and initially met a few times, late night in bars, when the bands were in periods of rest. It’s a very Irish thing, but it goes like this: if you praise someone to their face, the fairies will come and take them away. This probably comes from recent history, where the island was incredibly impoverished, families were large and food was scarce; there was an unwillingness to attach yourself to someone or something as you always had one eye towards emotional self-preservation. I remember my grandmother was very much this way, “never praise anyone to their face”.Anyway, it seeps into the pores.

I loved U2 when I was a kid, but when my friend brought her pal along who turned out to be Bono, I instinctively downplayed it. There was only five of us around a table in an after hours bar, and I think he found it refreshing I wasn’t gushing. Then I took it to the next level of weird Irishness, where I sort of started good-heartedly mocking him. Long story short, he liked my sense of humor. We were both participating in the TED conference in California a few months later and he sought me out to participate in a problem solving workshop for one of his charities along with a few other equally famous people (Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Guy Oseary, the then CFO of Facebook and other ridiculous sorts), for a minute or two I felt wildly out of my depth, but I felt that there were obvious questions that weren’t being asked, and I’ve always believed there is no such thing as a stupid question unless you just weren’t listening. I ended up making a short animation as a result of that workshop for ONE.org. It was a collaboration with my pal Mac Premo, and we were able to get Bono to do the voice over for it. He loved how it looked, and I showed him the final edit the day U2 was thinking of a new video for their song about Nelson Mandela, “Ordinary Love.” They asked me to do it, and then we started working together regularly for a while, which involved spending more and more time together. What I loved was that even when it to came to doing the art for their current world tour, they treated me as a collaborator rather than a gun for hire.

Having myself once been involved with an Irish cultural/political group I am interested in your relationship to the troubles in the North. How old were you? What did you experience? And is this the root of your early work?I grew up in the North. The 80s and 90s in Belfast were some of the most violent years. I remember it well, as I was coming of age at the time. It affected me in numerous ways. One obvious way, is that innocence is lost quickly. You become savvy. You know what to say and to who. You learn what not to say and those to avoid, where not to go and when. I was in my teen years going through secondary (high) school, when a truce was reached- The Good Friday Agreement. By that stage I had already witnessed a lot. I’d seen bombs go off, people I knew had been killed, imprisoned etc. The strange thing was, people weren’t quite ready for peace. It was almost unsettling to many people. A long trench warfare mentality had set in, and that became normal. People whose identity had always been quite clear to them, who’d defined their existence not in essence of itself, but anchored to something else, became quite confused in this vacuum it created. But it has so far held for 20 years, only to be potentially broken, not internally, but out of ignorant voting across Britain in the Brexit referendum.

Often I’ve thought about this identity crisis we in the north face particularly since leaving Belfast and moving to New York. 3000 miles isn’t so much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s an ocean apart. I always remember comparisons between Belfast and the Middle East being made when I was a kid. Whilst similar in many ways, there is one striking difference: the Middle East is effectively a chessboard for global politics, whereas Northern Ireland doesn’t really matter to anyone outside Northern Ireland (as the Brexit vote proved).

There was a period of time where the struggle was an actual religious strife; in the years following World War II it became obvious to Northern Ireland, as well as most of the planet, that inequalities among groups of people were not going to be stood for. Catholics started protesting that they were being treated as second class citizens to Protestants. This was in the late 1960s and the same time as the human rights revolutions in France, the USA and elsewhere. However, within 10 years it had turned into something else; tribalism and gang territory violence that had nothing to do with religion, or politics. People who may have otherwise been irrelevant were powerful, their power lived solely in the presence of an opposite force, they were the ones telling the stories. You may not have known who you were, but you knew who you were not.

Around 2015 when our son was born, I was doing research for quotes to include in a guidebook I was making for him about the planet. In particular, I was looking at astronauts speaking about planet earth when viewed from space, as cosmology was one of the key pillars of that book. It didn’t take very long to notice the striking similarities between the way astronauts described our planet when viewed from the moon, to the way in which I was describing Northern Ireland when viewed from across the Atlantic. When talking to people from Mexico, or India, or New York (its rare to meet an actual New Yorker) or even ENGLISH people, they didn’t fully understand the conflict, the divide, that half the population identified differently to the other half. Most people weren’t even aware there had been conflict or that there were technically two different countries on the island of Ireland. At first this frustrated me. Why didn’t they know? And it slowly dawned on me, explaining our ‘troubles’
to the distant and unaware, that no one really cared. And then I started to ponder why they should know. We are in the remote top left corner of Europe. We have no resources that are worth anything to anyone else (apart from charm, hospitality, beautiful countryside and storytelling… that we do very well…) but there is no oil. No serious natural resources worth exploiting. So no one bother us. We fight amongst ourselves to be either British or Irish, but in reality we are a burden to one, and forgettable nuisance to the other. To me when I look back from a distance, I see the absurdity, the pointlessness, and the wasted energy. I see two peoples, identical in every way, save for the colors of the flags they fly.

There is something in the reality that the more life is sacrificed towards one’s perceived identity the more one doubles down on their cause, however ridiculous it may be. I see the logic in this. How else do you justify what you have lost? But how tragic. Its perhaps for this reason I’ve always been distrustful of the extremely patriotic, and skeptical about the existence of man-imagined borders.

To ask whether someone from Northern Ireland is British or Irish is a politically loaded question with traps every way you turn. We are an easily offended people. I have come up with a route through that quagmire by saying simply that I am from the city of Belfast. I went to an Integrated school, only the second of its kind in Belfast, and only in its third year when I went started. It was a very brave move on my parents part to send me there, as Integrated Education was treated with distrust at worst and disdain at best. I’ve become a patron to Integrated Education in Northern Ireland, but its a bizarre scenario to explain to some of my friends in New York, who have different colored skin than I do, what ‘integrated’ means where I grew up. Yes, I tell them, it merely means that two different groups of Caucasians who subscribe to different variations of the same religion actually mingle. My parents were very forward thinking, intelligent and open people. My ‘mixed’ education in Belfast was wonderful preparation for living in the cultural explosion that is New York City.

There is one other striking difference that being raised in Belfast had on me visually and conceptually. It is a city defined by public art. On the one hand there is the quite poetic, romantic, and emotional wall murals of the Catholics / Nationalists. On the other hand there is the quite graphic, stark and militant murals of the Protestants / Loyalists. Both are used as ways to mark out territories across the city. Both speak very different visual languages. I think I learned to embrace a simultaneous duality in my work, and in my thinking, by being exposed to these opposing stories visually told across the city of my youth. I learned how to tread the very fine emotional nuance of visual literacy. That has been an extremely important aspect of my work for almost two decades.

The book is a mixture of delightful children’s stories and comically disturbing situational images. How do you balance what you do for children and for others?The short answer is, that I don’t. Not consciously anyway. This book is an edited selection of the last 20-plus years of my work regardless of its format- so in it there is sketchbook work, published picture books, installations, paintings and sculpture. I have never really been tied to one particular style or method of making. With a short attention span I move around a lot and get bored easily. Whilst I have a huge respect for craft in my work, I place concept before technique.All of my work comes from the same mind and the style of execution is selected by whatever means will best convey the concept. Sometimes this is in stories visually told. Sometimes this comes as questions asked in a way that circumnavigates words. Sometimes this is in political grievances aired, or observations on the modern condition we find ourselves hurlding towards.

The motivations for all of these works are similar; in so much as I am trying to satisfy my own sense of curiosity rather than make work with a particular audience in mind. This is as true of figurative oil painting as it is for picture books.

There is one part of me that remembers the simplicity, innocence and hope of childhood. I still feel aspects of this everyday; the sense of wonder at being alive at all, how beautiful the world is and the joy of simple storytelling. This is where the picture book work comes from. If I can tell a story simply enough and remove all of the excess, it can be enjoyed by anyone. I try to avoid calling my books ‘children’s’ books, as this by default relegates non-children from thinking they can enjoy them. My picture books really can be read by anyone regardless of age. It just happens to be that a ton of 4 year olds share my sense of humor.

There is another part of me, born from curiosity about how things work, that is frustrated by the arrogance, willful ignorance and inherent greed of humanity. This part produces work that is more poignant, grim and critical of our state of being. The combination of both represents either end of the sliding scale of my work. Ultimately it is all made first for myself, and then for everybody and anybody else.

I am aware of radical scale shifts in your work. People against the sea, the sea against the land, etc. there is a kind of nightmare quality to me. but where does it stem from?I suppose there are two types of scale shift in my work. That of the work itself and that within the work. Regarding the work itself, there is a huge range of scale from the tiny proportions of “Here’s What We Don’t Know,” for example, to the enormous, like some of the wall murals I’ve made. The motivation for these decisions is partly to do with the environment where the work is made (bigger studio = bigger paintings), and partly conceptual (will this idea work better as a postage stamp or a wall sized canvas?) The scale itself becomes part of the visual lexicon.

Then regarding the scale within the work, I think I’m reflecting upon a sense of profound wonder at the general scale of things, an awe of the natural world and how perspective defines everything. One of my favorite books when I was young was Eric Carle’s “The Bad Tempered Ladybird.” Toward the end, there is a spread that depicts a whale. That whale seemed so impo
ssibly massive to me, but yet when I closed the book, the book was the same size as all the other books. One day I worked out that it was because the ladybird was shown beside the whale, and it was a simple trick of scale and composition. I felt like I’d been let in on a secret and its a technique I clearly deploy to this day. Showing the small dwarfed by the large. I don’t think it’s nightmarish. It’s an honest attempt to regard humans place in this world, and there can be a brutality to honesty. Maybe I’m best described as a grim optimist.

The sea plays a big role in what I see. Why?

The coast along the north of Antrim, the top right corner of Northern Ireland just above Belfast, is one of the most ruggedly beautiful places on earth in my opinion, and I grew up going there. It’s where the Irish sea, the North Sea, and the North Atlantic meet, and its rare to get a calm day where these currents collide. There’s a hypnotic quality to the turbulence, and watching these rough seas as I grew up gave fruit to a perspective of our own fragility. It has become one of two great unknowns that are frequent undercurrents in my work. The other being the night sky. Interestingly. as I have written in my work before, we arguably know more about the solar system than we do our own oceans. Planet Earth is only the fifth best mapped object in our solar system, – following after the moon, Mercury, Mars and Venus – simply because we were more interested in outer space during the burst of technology that followed WWII than we were in exploring our oceans.

These great unknowns have come to represent something larger than ourselves in my work, and speak of the flimsy grasp we believe we have on control. As I write this, I am in a lithography printer in Paris making my next picture book that speaks directly to this and features the sea heavily.

I have always been more logical than whimsical, believe it or not. I very much believe in facts and in science, and it is this, rather than poetic romanticism, that fuels my work. Astronomy over astrology for example. Though recently, I have been realizing the gulf between these things isn’t all that large. There may be something to astrology after all, I’m coming around to thinking. We are made up of 70% water. We see what the moon does to ocean tides, so how does that not have any impact on our mostly liquid selves. To think we are not connected to the rotation of the planets, to the pull of the sea, is absurd.

You mentioned nightmares in the last question. Interestingly, for two decades I have had two recurring dreams. They would almost be nightmarish but for the lack of fear in the dream. I watch, often from a distance, with fascinated curiosity, as either a large ship capsizes and sinks, or as a comically large tidal wave heads for the shore and breaks above me. I am somehow always safely on the other side of some unbreakable piece of glass. Not sure what that says about me, but analyze at will.

What brought you from Ireland to New York? And how did this impact your art?I suppose I’m a late participant in a long historical line of one-way traffic across the Atlantic. When I was 11 years old, my older brother Rory and I had the opportunity to attend, on scholarship, a summer camp in upstate New York called Camp Dudley. We had a fabulous time. I went back a couple more summers. We both stayed in touch with people from there, and nearly a decade later my brother and I went to stay with one of those friends in NYC, Mac Premo. We crashed at his apartment in the East Village for a week, and I fell in love with the city during that time. It seemed anything was possible.

I decided that year that I would come and live in New York at some point, although it took a decade before that would become a reality.

Being in NYC (I live and work in Brooklyn) has brought a huge amount into my life and my practice. The sheer energy of the place is palpable. The quality of the art and culture produced here is fuel and inspiration- seeing a real life DeKooning, a good broadway play, a show at Arlene’s Grocery, or countless other events and art pieces being cooked up by artists (friends among them) serves up plenty of fire to keep one going and spark new ideas.

Though, I think it is the people that I am most drawn to. New York City attracts a certain sort of individual, and I have thrived in meeting and being surrounded by so many brilliant and talented people from all walks of life. The exposure to other cultures has been profound in really cementing my belief that people are all alike, and really only want the same thing: to feel safe, loved and appreciated. It strikes me there are two very different sorts of people regardless of gender, ethnicity or social status; those who are governed by fending off fear by whatever means they have at their disposal, and those who are governed by chasing love. It’s harder to be afraid of people when you are exposed to them and understand them somewhat.

Am I wrong in assuming there is a Steinbergian underpinning to your work. The landscapes the hammer on the wall?I assume you mean Saul Steinberg, though at first I thought you meant John Steinbeck. I think either influence would be equally relevant. Steinberg’s visual simplicity and spontaneity, marked with intelligent observation, is something I’ve always tried to and continue to seek in my work.

Steinbeck’s epic scale, and brutally honest depictions of the movements, obstacles and desires of people are humbling in their scope. Both speak to the great desire of all peoples to convey, as best as possible, themselves to others. This is something I too strive for.The first hammer painting was made in the months after I first moved to New York. I knew where I was, I knew where I wanted to be, I just did not know that missing step in between. It all seemed like an impossible conundrum.

With my landscapes and seascapes I speak about how much and how little we as a society actually comprehend. On the one hand, we over complicate simple thinking with excessive information, so with the landscapes I muddy the clarity of a simple painting by inserting superfluous information. You do not need to know the specific angles of parts of the topography to appreciate the view.

The seascapes, on the other hand, speak to the limitations of the human mind. By showing parts of the sea depth in fathoms, I’m speaking to the futility of trying to understand things that are beyond our comprehension, by trying to measure with an outdated system, something that cannot really be measured.

What is the significance of the moose?Well, I had actually never seen a moose with my own two eyes before, until I was visiting a friend in Maine several years ago, and early one morning, one wandered through their back yard. I couldn’t believe how big it was. It felt like I’d easily be able to walk underneath its spindly legs. This led to me making a drawing in my sketchbook of someone standing beneath a moose. Written beside it was a random note about being a good pet and providing shelter from the rain.

I didn’t think much of that drawing, but my editor sa
w potential in it and encouraged me to develop it a little. At the time I was reading a history of New York, and how the Dutch bought Manhattan from the Native American tribes living there, and the confusion that ensued when two totally different ideologies of ownership collided. I combined the two and made a picture book about the concept of ownership. So, I suppose the Moose represents the natural world.

I’m well aware of “The Boy In The Striped Pajamas.” Yours is haunting and serene. What were you feeling when you did these?Oh boy! I have known John Boyne for years and have illustrated two of his other chapter books for young adults. There was always a sense that I would turn my attention to Boy in the Striped Pajamas at some point, and the tenth anniversary edition seemed the right window to do so.

I deliberately didn’t watch the film so to not be unduly influenced by it, and knew I wanted to convey things as economically as possible, reducing them down to their most simple form. Hitler’s face simply has the square mustache, his mistress Eva only the red lipstick, Bruno only the blue eyes, and Lt. Kotler’s face is only ever shown as a cloud. It did require a lot of research, which was fairly grim. This was all happening in the build up to and over Christmas of 2015. My family were staying with us for that Christmas, and they were going out to carol services, shopping, visiting Santa, and being generally festive, while I was going back to the studio and working nights researching concentration camps. The paradox was striking, but also, in a way, helped put me in the right mindset for dealing with such material. I hope I portrayed things with the sensitivity I was aiming for.

You break from illustration with “Nothing to See Here”, Can you explain this series?It’s interesting the way you phrase the question here. If you mean I employed a more figurative painting style with that series, you’d be correct, but it is not the first time. I often withdraw from the word ‘illustration’ and ‘illustrator.’ When I was starting my career nearly two decades ago, it was a burden; I was trying to establish myself in both the fine art world and the illustration world simultaneously, and ran into many obstacles by trying to effectively exist in two separate realms. In those days (much more so than now) illustration was looked down upon by the art world, for various reasons, some warranted, and some not, and as the publishing world had no problems at all with my art career, (actually, it was seen as an asset) the obstacles mostly came from the fine art world who would shy away from me once they realized my work in illustration, which I found belittling. When I first graduated from college there were three strings to my bow; fine art, publishing work and commercial illustration. The latter I enjoyed somewhat occasionally when there was an interesting visual problem that needed solving and I was left in peace to do so- this comfort only existed in editorial commissions, which there was very little money in, and because I was only really engaged with commercial illustration to make ends meet as an unknown painter and book maker, my earliest career goal was to be in a position where I could give up being a gun for hire altogether and concentrate solely on the work that I was self generating. This happened about 10 years ago. In that time I managed to come to terms with my own definition of what ‘illustration’ and ‘art’ are. While my work is sometimes called ‘illustrative’ in style, this doesn’t really enter into my break down. For me the key differences between the two are this: with illustration, someone else is asking you to work for them. With art, you are working for yourself. With illustration you work out the finances for the work before you begin. With art, you make the work and hope to sell it when you are done, if only for the ability to make more.

Digression aside, I think the first time I used quite a figurative style for a project was with Additional Information, a series of work I made with a Quantum Physicist about trying to the search for the elusive Theory of Everything. The idea was to examine something from dual perspectives: artistically and logically. I overlaid mathematical equations on paintings, where the equations represented the clinical and the paintings represented the emotional. It seemed that classic figurative painting suited this quite well, so I taught myself how to paint this way. Turned out I wasn’t bad at that style, and so it has been cropping up in my work ever since in the form of still lifes, landscapes, but mostly portraits.

Nothing to See Here was a project specifically addressing the limitations of the human mind. It was about not knowing everything. We will likely never discovery a unifying ‘theory of everything’, and it is no secret that no single person has all of the information. But there are two ways in which people are kept in the dark; from censorship, and from willful ignorance. This series of works asked whether we were deliberately and comfortably oblivious, or whether we had our eyes open in the dark.

There is a former illustrator turned painter, Mark Tansey, that I used to work with. You and he both appear to make odd juxtapositions that are at once deadpan yet sarcastic. Do you know his work? What is your goal in doing this?Yes. I adore his work. Although I had never heard of him until I moved here, and was introduced to his work by Mac Premo, the same artist who I first stayed with in the East Village some 20 years ago.I think Tansey went through some of the obstacles I was referring to in the previous question, but a decade or two before me. Although his work was often criticized for being too ‘illustrative’ at the time, a comment I think was staggeringly inappropriate. He was tackling figurative painting a couple decades before it came back in style.

Tansey inspired me in multiple ways. When I read about his process of painting in reverse it occurred to me that taking paint away was as legitimate as applying it. I also loved the way he painted subtle impossibilities. “Action Painting,” 1981 may be one of my favorite artworks by anyone and my painting The Wall is certainly a direct response to “A Short History of Modernist Painting.” There is a certain intelligent humor in his work I find very appealing, and the comparison to him extremely flattering. Thank you.

You seem to be fatalistic in your later work. I mean, the maps and globes have a quality that suggests “the end”. Given the inherent joy in your style, is this just me, or are you purposely making this contrast?That’s pretty intuitive of you. You are sort of right. I still see joy, but not necessarily in the patterns of humanity. I do think that individual people are tremendous, generous, and beautiful, but as a collective, we are moving faster than we can responsibly keep up with, no one is driving and we are dangerously close to the edge of a vortex from which we cannot return.

There is a weird paradox in my being. I think we are all fucked, which is somehow freeing and creates a lightness of touch, a humor, a why-the-hell-not sense of frivolity. But at the same time I feel a deep sense of frustration. We are smart creatures. We could figure out our current mess. The problem is that one of the strongest urges of being human is greed. It’s not all necessarily a bad thing; not being satisfied has spurred on some of the greatest innovators. We didn’t really need the car when we had horses, but it made things faster. We did ok before the Internet, but that has connected everyone everywhere all the time (jury is still out whether this is good or not). But greed unchecked will n
ever fill itself. Was it really better when man evolved from killing a single mammoth that would feed a tribe for a week, to running a herd of mammoth off a cliff, and have more meat than could possibly be consumed?

The great flaw is not actually greed in itself, but the lack of knowing when you have enough.I’ve always been a grim optimist I suppose, but one of the biggest milestone shifts in my life has been having children. Not even in the usual parental ‘my-kid is-wonderful’ sort of way, but the actual responsibility for keeping another heart beating forces a different perspective on you. It forces you to not always put yourself first and to think about a future longer than your own. I think the timing of my wife and I having our first child was particularly interesting as we found out she was pregnant right at the beginning of this current sweep of xenophobia that seems to be crossing the western world. Thinking the world is fucked, and then realizing you’re responsible for raising a life in it, carries some weight. Maybe I felt all of the things everyone is currently feeling a little more intensely with this awareness at the back of my head.

I started making a book for my son, a guidebook to living on earth, that said all the things about how I think the world does, and should, work. There is a cosmic aspect to this book in the way in which it places our earth inside a far vaster system than we normally consider. At the time of making it, our family travelled to Tennessee to witness the path of totality during a midday eclipse of the sun and this has turned out to be one of the most profound moments of my life – it has massively influenced my work since. For two brief minutes in the middle of a cloudless summer afternoon, the moon moved in front of the sun and the world around became nighttime, Where the sun should have been was a black hole in the sky, and as you registered you were seeing two floating orbs in space in relation to each other, the sudden, and massive perspective shift that washes over you is extremely powerful. We are but a blip on a map more massive than we can comprehend. We are but a firework seen from an airplane; tiny and brief but beautiful nonetheless.

So, while yes, there is a fatalism in my work, its a hopeful fatalism. It is not fear that drives my bus, but an appreciation for being alive at all. There is a beauty in the darkness. And there is that duality again. Hope is a very powerful force. The acceptance of futility can be liberating. Oftentimes, the joy is all in the search. We will never get there, yet we go on…


About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →