Oliver Jeffers on art, New York and fatherhood

The Brooklyn-based artist Oliver Jeffers – best known for his picture books – tells Johanna Derry why his books appeal to children and adults alike, what connects science and art, and how he’s taking to fatherhood…

Oliver Jeffers is known for his picture books, which are well-loved by children and adults alike, but there’s more to the Sydney-born, Belfast-bred, Brooklyn-based artist than his books. Working in different styles and across media he’s designed album covers, worked on music videos, and is currently exhibiting a series of oil paintings called Measuring Land and Sea at the Lazarides Gallery in London. Oh, and he became a father for the first time last year. He shares his unique view of the world with us.

You call your books picture books rather than children’s books. Where do you think the universal appeal lies?
Well, with simple stories — there’s that concept that there’s only ever seven stories ever told, and every book, film, play, et cetera, is a variation of one of those stories. I think that some of the greatest books written on various subjects have been different forms of picture books, because they can reduce things down to their simplest possible selves, which allows people plenty of room to go in and interpret the concept or the story as it best suits to them. So, while children are certainly capable of enjoying my picture books, I hope that a range of audiences can appreciate them.

Do images need explanation and do words need artistic expression?
No, not always. It depends on the project. The images and the words in my books often do different things. The words don’t need artistic expression necessarily, and the images don’t always need explanation. But by giving them different jobs to do, the book is neither expressive nor explanatory exclusively – it tries to strike a balance between both of them.

How would you describe the relationship between words and numbers and imagery in your work?
Earlier in my career, I was often trying to tell stories by putting words on top of images. The words sometimes contrasted and sometimes complemented the image, and I graphically liked how the words that were put on a painting became a visual device to anchor the image or become a centre point.

Once I started making picture books, though, my desire to play with words and images and paintings went away, and the paintings just became about stories and images on their own. But then very very quickly the desire to put some sort of information on the painting came back, but this time in the form of numbers. And that also was partly graphic-based – the sort of visual look of the typed, clinical numbers and equations balanced well with loose, gestural paintings. And then rather than about storytelling, it became about question-asking.

How much research went into your Measuring Land and Sea project?
Quite a lot. The idea for the Protracted Landscapes came after a fascinating conversation that I’d had with a quantum physicist several years ago. During our long and fairly complex dialogue, I began to wonder about the limits of human cognition. At points in our exchange, I began to think that some simple concepts were potentially being overly analysed; I imagined an image of a beautifully rendered landscape littered with numerical values representing various the angles contained in the painting. These measurements, while factual, serve simply to distract from our appreciation of the landscape, rather than provide us with any deeper understanding. The idea, really, is that additional information is not necessarily always a good thing.

In developing the Fathom Seascapes, I spent a time consulting with a marine biologist who sort of helped me with what to look for in the sea charts. And then really my travels came to form a lot of research as well — I started taking the photographs that came to be the landscapes and seascapes over a period of three years. When I began to realise that I needed further help researching the seascapes, I roped in the help of some sailors who were recommended through friends of friends.

Generally in the UK, creativity in education is very, very low-priority, which I think is a bad thing

Are science and art two facets of the same thing, or are they juxtaposed?
I think that there are overlapping creative impulses that inform art and science, which is why I like to explore elements of both in some of my work. The paintings in my Measuring Land and Sea show definitely use juxtaposition, but it’s not so much about creating a dichotomy between art and science as it is about exploring a sort of dissonance that occurs when you combine systems of communication that typify each pursuit — i.e. lush and emotive classical landscape painting set against orderly and conservative recordings of ocean depths and angular measurements of mountains.

When did you realise that you wanted to make art your livelihood and how equipped were you for this by your education?
I always knew I wanted to make art. I realised I was good at drawing in school – I would get pulled out of geography class to go and help do the set for the school play, and I realised that, well, I can do this as opposed to “proper” work, this is amazing. Then I got accepted into art college before I even finished my end-of-school exams.

How well-equipped was I by my education? Not so well by the actual education system — I grew up in the UK, where it’s a very closed-door system. You start to pick a path at the age of 13 or 14, effectively thinking about what your one degree will be in and starting to aim towards that, whereas in the US you pick the college and then you pick what you want to do, which I think is a much better system.

Weirdly, that system did work for me, because I did know what I wanted to do and I was funnelled straight through art college. Generally in the UK, though, creativity in education is very, very low-priority, which I think is a bad thing.

The main support that I got for education was from my parents, really, who were very supportive. As the dedication to them in my Alphabet book says, “Thank you for never making me get a real job.”

Has your art changed or evolved since the birth of your son?
Too early to say — he’s only five months old, and I’m still working on projects that were started long before he was born.

Is yours a strict 9-5 (or thereabouts) working day, or does your role as a father mean that you work less conventional hours?
Not until now, but I don’t want to miss him before he goes to bed, so it probably will be.

What’s the most important thing you can be taught?
I think that, speaking about education, the most important thing that anybody can be taught is how to be curious and to have a sense of wonder about the world, and that doesn’t come from being told to sit down, shut up, and do your math homework. It comes from a genuine need to want to figure out how things work. There’s a great quote I heard at a talk given by an educator, which said, “Education is what somebody else does to you, whereas learning is what you do to yourself,” and I think that, for me, sums it up.

Any thoughts on fatherhood?
As far as fatherhood goes, I hope I can be the father to my son that my dad is to me.

Do you work from a studio, and can you explain your workspace?
I work from a studio in Brooklyn, which is definitely a necessity for the volume of work that I need to both produce and store. The studio is set up with separate areas for different types of work, which allows me to carry on a number of projects simultaneously (illustration, painting, collage, and digital work) without having to constantly pack or set up new materials. It definitely allows for work to roll out smoothly, which makes my life much easier. I’m also friends with a number of other artists in my studio building, so I’m never lacking in great creative inspiration.

Do you feel you have different ‘voices’ depending on whether you’re painting figuratively or working illustratively? Do you see your work as one discipline or as multiple?
That’s a really good question — I don’t know. Other people would say no, that it’s all obviously from the same brain, but I see massive differences where other people only see very subtle ones. So I’m not sure I can answer that — I feel I do have different voices, but they both come from the same place, but other people see the similarities in my hand throughout all the work.

What was the appeal of Brooklyn over Belfast?
I mean, it’s New York City, who doesn’t want to be here? But also Belfast, when I left, could be quite an aggressive and small-minded place, and I often felt frustrated there. And New York is really a gathering of people who want to accomplish something. So it’s filled with people who want to get work done, and that creates a palpable energy.

This interview was originally published in January 2016