20 questions with... Oliver Jeffers

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Oliver Jeffers is an Northern Irish artist, designer, illustrator and writer. Jeffers is most well-known for his picture books, especially Here We Are, his most recent publication. The work he produces varies from figurative painting, collage, installation and illustration and he is just about to launch, in April, his largest UK solo exhibition to date at the Lazinc Gallery, called Observations On Modern Life.

“Knowing where I am in relation to other things has always been fascinating to me," says Jeffers. "I suppose I’ve been blessed with an innate sense of direction and a curiosity to know my place. In recent years I have started taking political motivations for how maps have been drawn and turning them on their head, using the visual language of cartography as a means to make other social commentary. By making environmental, apolitical and sometimes humorous comments on maps and globes, I have been addressing issues I feel strongly about regarding how random maps are in the first place, how arbitrary the carving up of things and drawing of borders are.”

Observations On Modern Life is a showcase of approximately 50 of Jeffers' sculptural and collage work from the past decade. The exhibition will portray his engagement with contemporary life, presenting both the manic speed in which we live and society’s rapid consumption of information.

We Connect Ourselves to Everything: Artist Oliver Jeffers on the Planet We Call Home

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“If you are in a shipwreck and all the boats are gone,” R. Buckminster Fuller wrote in 1968, “a piano top buoyant enough to keep you afloat that comes along makes a fortuitous life preserver. But this is not to say that the best way to design a life preserver is in the form of a piano top.” However effective it might be for saving a life, a piano top can make for an intriguing subject for art—as one does in Oliver Jeffers’s exhibition at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in New York, where images of piano tops appear in paintings and sculpture as part a hanging installation that also includes a globe, a matchstick, a rowboat, and a car.

“This was fun,” Jeffers said, citing the Fuller quote as an inspiration for his arrangement in the space. “My work is too playful to just have canvases on walls.” Indeed, Jeffers’s practice extends beyond painting and installation. The Brooklyn-based artist is also an author and illustrator of children’s books, and his current exhibition, “For All We Know,” shares similarities with his 2017 bestseller Here We Are: Notes for Surviving the Planet, a how-to guide for navigating Earth and co-existing with its many creatures.

Though he is distinguished for his books (which have won him a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Book Award and an Irish Book Award, among other prizes), Jeffers began his career as a painter and discovered bookmaking “by accident.” “The books have always come from the things that I’m exploring in my fine art practice, and there’s a humor and accessibility to the fine art that wouldn’t exist without the books,” he said. Unlike books, however, art has no clear beginning, middle, or end. “This is so much more freewheeling and nebulous than that,” he said of his exhibition.

The show features richly colored paintings filled with deep purples and blues that often signal the vastness of outer space and the sea. One work shows two astronauts clinging to a piano in the middle of the ocean, not far from fiery wreckage of the Titanic. Another canvas, Constellation Road Map (2018), depicts a car barreling down a wide highway that cuts across a barren desert, with a star formation on a road sign and in the sky above. The paintings exude a whimsical spirit that carries over into the installation.

Oliver Jeffers, The Moon, the Earth & Us, hard-coated foam, steel, and acrylic.

DAN BRADICA/COURTESY OLIVER JEFFERS STUDIO

Jeffers’s works are like onions, he said, with their multiple layers of meaning—though he hardly intends for them be solved like puzzles. He doesn’t want viewers to “follow the clues and unlock some message. All of it comes from this awareness that we’re part of a larger system, and there’s a humility and a responsibility that comes with that.”

On request, however, Jeffers will happily expound. He said the bonfire in The Twelfth (2018), for instance, is a reference to a holiday celebrated in July by Protestants in Northern Ireland, where he was born. The event commemorates the defeat of the Catholic King James II by the Protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. Jeffers said he was interested in the kind of ritualization that attends “relishing in this glorified history.”

Jeffers’s recent High Line installation, which ran through February 7, was called The Moon, the Earth, and Us, and it comprised two globes separated by the distance of a city block—to illustrate the concept of what he called the “overview effect.” The phenomenon experienced by astronauts when they view Earth from space renders borders invisible, and Jeffers said that such dissolution of arbitrary distinctions extends to the art in his Wolkowitz exhibition as well. “A lot of this comes down to narrative and perspective,” he said. “We write ourselves into stories. We connect ourselves to everything.”

Mapping Oliver Jeffers’s World

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The artist Oliver Jeffers, born in Northern Ireland and living and working now in Brooklyn, always has a lot going on. So it makes sense that his studio is in the Invisible Dog Art Center, a converted factory that is home to art exhibitions, performances and public art events, as well as studio space for several dozen artists. With Jeffers’s recent public installation, “The Moon, the Earth and Us,” on Manhattan’s High Line, we stopped in to his studio to find out how he makes it all happen. These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

How did you end up here?

I found it just by walking past. I was in between studios and I rented it absolutely temporarily. The first project I worked on here was the book “Stuck,” and I fell in love with the community. It felt like a breath of fresh air. The other artists here now are incredible — Mac Premo, Kevin Waldron, Prune Nourry, many others.

There’s all walks of artistic practice here, so you get great advice. I like advice from people who work in a different discipline. Prune, who’s a sculptor, helps me with painting. When you’re at any critical point in a project it’s easy to knock on three people’s doors and get three points of view. But you can also have absolute silence and isolation. I tend to do my best work late into the night or on weekends when there’s not many other people around.

hat’s your favorite thing about your space?

The charm. There’s a certain charm to it because it’s a really old building. It used to be a factory. There’s a rustic-ness. That of course leads to leaks occasionally, but that’s okay.

I also like the light. It’s southern facing. The daylight just streams in, and especially in the winter it’s quite piercing, which is not great for painting, but it’s very lovely. That’s why I’ve got a separate painting area at the back which has got a skylight. That light is a little more easy to control.

You have a lot of materials, but they seem very organized.

I do have an elaborate organizational scheme. I tend to plunge back and forth between different mediums. In an ideal world my studio would be four times larger. I would like to be able to leave projects sitting there when I’m working on more than one. But because it’s Brooklyn and there is so little space, I get around that by having a pretty organized space, so when I need to get my hands on something I know where it is.

That bin you have for “Mediocre” brushes” is even a bit poignant.

I’ve got brushes all divided up. The “Mediocre Brushes” — sometimes if you’re doing a stroke and you need to be quite brush-strokey and not perfect, it’s just the thing. Painting hair, for example, is sometimes easier to do with a really terrible brush.

You also seem to be a fan of to-do lists.

Oh yes. One of my favorite things to do is cross things off lists. So much so that one of my habits is I write something that’s already been done, just so I can cross it off. I tell myself, The wheels are turning!

Besides materials, what objects do you like to keep around the studio?

Books, of course — I’ve got two areas for books, one for reference and one that is collage material. I’ve got a photograph of my son the day he was born, and he actually looks like a Russian terrorist. I keep it right above my screen, on the blackboard where I’ve written pi to 500 digits. And I always keep globes and maps around.

Your installation on the High Line, “The Moon, the Earth and Us,” had two globes representing the Earth and the Moon. And your latest picture book, too, “Here We Are,” is full of globes and maps. How do you see the relationship between your fine art work and your picture books? You seem to bring the two together as seamlessly as any artist working today.

In Picture Books and Paintings, Oliver Jeffers Explores Our Place in the Cosmos

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Artist and illustrator Oliver Jeffers has been authoring picture books since 2004, but he was struck by the power of storytelling when his son was born in 2015. He realized that reality is just a series of stories told to us, or that we tell, and it was his responsibility to guide that narrative for his newborn son. “It was up to me to instruct this brand-new human who was a completely fresh ball of clay,” he explained. It was, he added, a chance to “fundamentally make a better story.”

Jeffers, who hails from Belfast and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, would go on to publish the New York Times bestselling picture book Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth in the fall of 2017, which he has called “a guidebook of sorts about our planet” and “the basic principles of humanity.” Around the same time, he began translating some of the same ideas into a series of oil paintings, “For All We Know” (2018), and later, a public installation, The Moon, the Earth, and Us (2019), both of which are now on view in New York.

Jeffers was schooled formally as a painter and believed that painting would be his path, before discovering his talent for making picture books. He’s since authored and illustrated more than a dozen books, which celebrate curiosity, adventure, and empathy, and have been avidly read by children and adults alike.

“Rather than separating or taking a tangent [in my] career, I just decided to do both things until someone told me otherwise—and nobody ever did,” Jeffers said.

The varying facets of Jeffers’s practice often mirror one another. He becomes fixated on a concept, and may interpret it through different projects at the same time. For example, while writing and illustrating The Incredible BookEating Boy (2006), a tale about a boy who quite literally consumed what he read to become the smartest person in the world, Jeffers was also producing a series of paintings, “Additional Information,” inspired by the conversations he’d had with a quantum physicist about the search for “ultimate intelligence.”

In Jeffers’s latest book, exhibition, and installation, the commonalities have never been more direct, each exploring one’s place in the universe and our responsibility to the world we inhabit. In the nocturnal, cosmic scenes of “For All We Know,” on view at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery until February 16th, astronauts explore the dark skies and deep seas—two expanses of unimaginable depth and mystery. Symbolism abounds in the form of matchsticks, pianos, and ships set aflame, against the backdrop of glimmering constellations and ebbing tides.

The series began with Jeffers’s fascination with star patterns, and the idea that the tradition of naming constellations—which has been handed down since ancient Greece—was ultimately a form of storytelling. “It was a very early attempt to make sense out of chaos,” he offered. “[It was] a way to understand their place in the world.” Then, in August 2017, when Jeffers drove to Tennessee to experience the totality of the Great American Eclipse, his own understanding of Earth’s place in the solar system shifted. “Seeing two objects line up against each other with your own eyes…is very different from understanding the numbers and being told what the distances are,” he recalled.

That sense of perspective is an undercurrent through both Here We Are and “For All We Know.” The constellations that serve as a guide for Jeffers’s younger readers in his book appear in his paintings, too, entreating older viewers to consider the mysteries of the ever-expanding cosmos and their role within it.

Perspective also inspired Jeffers’s current installation on New York City’s High Line (between West 15th and 16th Streets), The Moon, the Earth, and Us, which considers the relationship between Earth and its lunar companion.

The piece was inspired by the accounts of astronauts on their first voyage to space, which Jeffers found while working on Here We Are. “Astronauts orbiting planet Earth have been known to point out their home cities and countries in the first days,” he wrote in his self-titled monograph, published in 2018. But eventually, they only point out their continents. Finally, they realize “that the whole planet, the tiny blue marble in a sea of impossibly immense blackness, is home. Upon returning to Earth, it’s impossible to see anything the same way again.”

Jeffers sought to capture this phenomenon, called the overview effect, in the installation, which features to-scale models of Earth and the moon. Passersby can walk from one globe to the other, and as they approach the moon, they will see hand-painted text reading “No one lives here”; as they walk toward Earth, “People live here” will come into view. Through the project, Jeffers asks viewers to consider the artificiality of borders: The further away that one gets from their home city or country, the less it matters where one comes from. When in space, nationalism means nothing.

Despite making work for different audiences, Jeffers doesn’t tailor his projects to children or adults. “It’s all coming from the same place,” he noted. In Here We Are, he had to follow a more traditional narrative structure; in his paintings, he could address the idea of belonging in the universe in “a bit more abstract and meandering” way, he explained; and in his installation, he focused on one particular aspect of his larger message.

While Jeffers wants viewers to enjoy his work and to “get the sense of playfulness” he imbues in each project, he said, he also wishes to use his work to catalyze a paradigm shift in how they look at the world and their own lives.

“I guess there’s a quite obvious tone to the work about the extreme fragility of it all, like of existence in the first place,” Jeffers explained. “And rather than that being a dire, morose, morbid thing, it’s…this appreciation that we’re here at all to begin with.”

Oliver Jeffers: Picture Books for All Ages

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Oliver Jeffers
Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery and The High Line
Now—February 16

Oliver Jeffers is having a New York moment. His solo show “For All We Know” is currently on view at Bryce Wolkowitz gallery, while his installation “The Moon, The Earth, and Us” just opened on the High Line between 15th and 16th streets. At Bryce Wolkowitz, you’ll find a new series of oil paintings that open the door into a dreamlike world inhabited by deep-sea divers, astronauts, sinking ships, burning matches, and floating pianos. Jeffers utilizes years of observation to create his imaginary universe where the night sky and ocean are a constant, and brief glimpses at the interconnectedness of the world leave his viewers wondering, and ready for more.

“The Moon, The Earth and Us” public work includes two large sculptures of the Moon and the Earth, allowing passersby to experience an astronaut’s point of view, seeing the entities in an accurate depiction of size and distance from one another. Aiming to highlight the wholeness of our planet as a single organism, the works also pose questions around the manmade borders that divide, rather than unite humankind.

Oliver Jeffers' Out-Of-This-World Art Installation Takes You Far From Earth

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NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday, interview by Jeff Lunden. Listen to the full story.

Belfast-born Oliver Jeffers paints, writes and illustrates children's books. He recently premiered a new art installation on the High Line in New York City called "The Moon, The Earth and Us."

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Oliver Jeffers is an author of children's picture books and an artist. His latest installation is called "The Moon, The Earth And Us." It's in New York on the High Line - a park built on an old, elevated railroad. And since Jeffers' work appeals to kids and adults, reporter Jeff Lunden brought two children along to meet the Belfast-born artist.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: On a dank, windy, January afternoon, we met Oliver Jeffers to get a tour of his new installation, which consists of two scale-sized globes of the Earth and moon separated by a scale-length dotted line between them.

ELEANOR: My name's Eleanor. I'm 5 years old.

HENRY: My name is Henry, and I'm 9 years old.

OLIVER JEFFERS: Hello, Henry. I'm Oliver - 41 years old.

LUNDEN: Jeffers told Eleanor and Henry Ying and me that his work was inspired, in part, by Apollo 8, which flew around the moon about 50 years ago.

JEFFERS: And it was the very first time the planet had been photographed in its entirety. And it completely changed people's outlook on Earth.

LUNDEN: So Jeffers wanted to recreate that perspective for people visiting the park today. On one side of the installation is a globe representing the Earth - eight feet in diameter, made of foam, steel and acrylic - all hand-painted by Jeffers.

JEFFERS: This thing is actually spinning but very, very, very slowly.

LUNDEN: As you get closer, you see writing all over the globe.

JEFFERS: Every single country that exists is drawn in here with all of the borders. And inside every single one, it says, people live here.

ELEANOR: Except for the bottom.

JEFFERS: Well, there it says...

ELEANOR: People...

JEFFERS: People sort of live here...

ELEANOR: Yeah.

JEFFERS: ...Because that's the South Pole.

LUNDEN: We walked around the globe.

JEFFERS: All of South America, all of North America, all the Caribbean islands, it just says over and over and over again, people live here. You know, even this border right now that's been very contested in the news at the minute between the U.S.A and Mexico, you know who lives on either side of that border?

ELEANOR: Who?

JEFFERS: People.

LUNDEN: Then it was time to blast off - figuratively - into space. Jeffers pointed to a spot on the globe.

JEFFERS: Cape Canaveral, I think, the Apollo mission took off from. And imagine you're a little astronaut. You come flying out of the Earth's atmosphere.

LUNDEN: And the two little astronauts followed Jeffers along a dotted, yellow line with marks saying 10,000 miles, 25,000 miles, 60,000 miles. At each mark, we turned back to look at the Earth.

JEFFERS: It's getting smaller and smaller. You're probably feeling very alone right now in your spaceship. It's a long way.

ELEANOR: (Laughter).

JEFFERS: I hope you brought a book or, at least, some sandwiches. So here we are. This is about halfway. And we're 120,000 miles from Earth.

ELEANOR: I can see...

JEFFERS: So right now we're halfway between the moon and the Earth. Let's keep going.

LUNDEN: Finally, we reach the hand-painted moon - two feet in diameter. And in golden letters written across the surface, it says...

ELEANOR: No one lives here.

JEFFERS: No one lives here. And that's it.

LUNDEN: While there's a political component to Jeffers' vision, he also means for his work to be playful, which Eleanor and Henry totally got.

JEFFERS: I love that these guys right away got the idea to play, to pretend you're an astronaut, pretend you've got a spaceship and actually traverse this and what it feels like to have actually venture that far away from our planet and then do a loop around the moon and come back. And I'm hoping that people do that and enjoy that experience and consider what it is like to think of our home as just this tiny thing floating in the middle of nowhere and with a hopeful sense of unity that that might bring.

LUNDEN: Both Henry and Eleanor Ying certainly enjoyed experiencing Oliver Jeffers' "The Moon, The Earth And Us." As they got one of his picture books signed, Henry, age 9, looked back at the globe of the Earth and observed.

HENRY: Last time, it was ocean. Now I see Africa.

JEFFERS: Yep - slowly rotating.

LUNDEN: The installation will be displayed on the High Line in Manhattan until February 14. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

The Moon Lands on the High Line

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Oliver Jeffers’s new installation, The Moon, The Earth and Us pays tribute to the most famous photograph taken of earth and questions our place in the universe.

It’s an auspicious week for those looking to the heavens. Last Sunday, much of the world was treated to a rare, crimson-hued lunar eclipse, known as the Super Wolf Blood Moon, and starting today and lasting through February 14th, visitors to Manhattan’s High Line will be able to actually “meet” the moon itself—care of Oliver Jeffers’ installation, The Moon, The Earth and Us.

Conceptualized to spark dialogue on the significance—or lack of significance—of man-made borders, replicas of the earth, and moon made of steel, foam, and coated in acrylic, will transform the Chelsea Market Passage of the High Line between 15th and 16th street into a micro-solar system. The Earth, built to scale at eight feet in diameter, and The Moon at two, will both be mounted at a height of 10 feet, roughly a city block apart, with the earth positioned to rotate slowly, almost imperceptibly, on its axis. Inside each man-made border on this faux-earth will read the simple inscription “People Live Here,” while The Moon’s surface will state the obvious: “No One Lives Here.” Through this ambitious lens, Jeffers seeks to underline just how arbitrary man-made constructs like borders and walls truly are when juxtaposed with the magnificent vastness of space.

“I recognized the same language I would often use when describing Northern Ireland from the perspective of New York.”

The installation is also an exploration of the shift in perspective that occurs when our planet is seen from a significant distance, the “Overview Effect” normally reserved for astronauts and space satellites. The most famous example is the "Earthrise" photo taken by astronaut Bill Anders from the Apollo 8 mission on Christmas Eve in 1968 which just had its 50th anniversary last December. The first photo to capture the earth in its entirety, it briefly lassoed the global imagination, enabling Americans to put aside the horrors of the Vietnam War to contemplate the cosmic power of the universe. “We'd seen our planet from above with the help of satellite imagery, but Apollo 8's crew were the first to witness the full globe of Earth rise up in the distance, providing a speck of dazzling color against the alien lunar landscape,” astronaut Jim Lovell said of the view during a live television broadcast. “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth."

Jeffers, a prolific illustrator and children’s book author from Northern Ireland, has made the globe and planetary travel something of a motif in his work, which includes his illustrated books Here We Are: Notes for Living on the Planet Earth and How to Capture a Star, a children’s story about the transformative power of exploration in space and on earth. “I’ve always created maps and globes to make political comments,” said the artist, who has often found inspiration Buckminster Fuller’s seminal work Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, a series of essays on the challenges and idealistic solutions of man, as well as his own upbringing in Northern Ireland.

Through this ambitious lens, Jeffers seeks to underline just how arbitrary man-made constructs like borders and walls truly are when juxtaposed with the magnificent vastness of space. (Oliver Jeffers Studio)

“When I was researching what astronauts noticed about looking at earth from a distance of the moon, I recognized the same language I would often use when describing Northern Ireland from the perspective of New York,” he said, referencing his attempts to explain Britain's complex geopolitical troubles to American audiences. “But when you remove yourself, when you get enough distance, you see the earth entirely differently.” And, he found, it takes away daily life's power to inflict emotional distress. During the eclipse, Jeffers experienced the same feeling of repose. “That sense of perspective you get when the moon is blocking the sun, you feel infinitesimally small and are left with the realization of just how isolated we are.” The installation, coincidentally, went up just a day after one of the largest full moons of the year.

This installation will be Jeffers’s most structurally ambitious project to date, realized with the help of set designer Jason Ardizzone-West, who conceptualized the schematics and renderings, along with Showman Fabricators, and filmmaker Guy Reid, of the Planetary Collective.

Ultimately, Jeffers would like visitors to walk away from the installation with a sense of awe, placing in perspective our own petty concerns in the larger context of our solar system. “People who have gone up to see the earth in its entirety—every single one came back with a changed perspective. The realization that you cannot see borders in space, that we are just part of one single larger system, that the lines of countries are drawn arbitrarily, the result of battles or tensions that only really exist in the imagination of humans, is something astronauts first noticed." Today, he explains, "people are often caught up in the everydayness of their lives, which generally doesn’t involve an awareness of being part of a larger system.”

This installation is Jeffers’s second project to appear in New York this month. “For All We Know”, a series of paintings and illustrations with a cosmic-bent, opened at the Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea last Thursday. These two works are part of a larger project that soon may have a more immersive aspect but, for now, the artist’s lips are sealed.

Oliver Jeffers Paints Our Place in the Stars

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Oliver Jeffers is still talking about the total solar eclipse of 2017. You remember—the once-in-a-lifetime celestial event which spanned the entire contiguous United States. The national spectacle that brought us a slew of marriage proposals, live tweets, and our very own president peering into a partially eclipsed sun.

Visibility of the shrouding varied, as the path of totality covered only 16 percent of the country. I, for one, could not see anything from my hilly Los Angeles viewing place. But Jeffers, who traveled with his family to the path of totality in Tennessee, saw everything—and nothing.

“It’s like a black hole in the sky,” Jeffers says. “There’s magnitude in watching something so vast. In a total eclipse, you get a split second of new perspective. You feel infinitesimal.” Though with this last total eclipse, Jeffers says, it was more than a split second. And as the disk of the sun remained veiled by the moon, he began to feel smaller and smaller.

Perhaps best known for his illustrated children’s books, Jeffers has been intimately exploring themes of earth, space, galactic relativity and the unknown for some time now. But becoming a father in 2015, he admits, has caused him to do so with renewed urgency. “My son doesn’t know anything yet, so it’s up to me and his mother and his entire community to teach him absolutely everything. Both the gravity and the possibility in that were sort of terrifying and awe-inspiring at the same time.” In 2017, Jeffers published Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth. Dedicated to his son and much like his artwork, the book serves as an exploration of the unexplored. Constellations serve as connective tissue between the earthly and the celestial, while human figures are scaled dramatically against boundless purple skies.

In his latest series of oil paintings, many of which are drafted using an iPad Pro, Jeffers plays with crisis of identity at home—such as in his depictions of his native Belfast—and anxious wanderlust for a universe we’ll likely never know. The iPad acts as a mapping tool for imagining works before they’re realized in paint. Atop a high-resolution image of old book bindings arranged into a makeshift canvas, Jeffers shows me how he sketched a mobile-like pattern. The goal is to plot the whole painting so that nothing falls between the cracks. Otherwise, Jeffers tells me, it becomes difficult to paint.

Inspired by American Futurist Buckminster Fuller, he uses earthly symbols like a piano and a car to represent the need for innovation and a lack of care for planet earth. “In a way, Earth is a spaceship with all of us aboard,” says Jeffers, referencing Fuller’s famous analogy. “If we treated it as a mechanical vehicle, things would be much different than they currently are.”

With his first New York solo exhibition at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery in Chelsea on view through February 16, running in conjunction with his High Line debut which launches tonight, Jeffers approaches the earth and its solar system from a place of genuine curiosity. For All We Know, at Wolkowtiz, is about representing different perspectives and telling stories—stories of self and one’s place in the galaxy, stories that come to us through star gazes, through eclipses. Similarly, the High Line engages perspective through the lens of borders both galactic and earthly.

In The Moon, the Earth and Us, Jeffers explores the relationship between the Earth and its moon with two massive globes displayed at 15th and 16th streets. The surface of the moon reads, “No One Lives Here,” while each country on the Earth features the words, “People Live Here.” Nearly 50 years since the American moon landing, Jeffers intimates that the lunar body is still largely a thing of mystery, especially to us Americans who have trouble imagining a world beyond our own national boundaries. It’s a reminder that everyone matters, and as Jeffers tells me, that we’re “part of a greater system,” that it’s not just “you, your life, and your country,” that we are at once crucial and infinitesimal.

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Transcript:
Oliver Jeffers is forever striving to better understand the world around him. His musings have populated canvases, galleries and books. But in 2015, Jeffers faced his most daunting blank slate, his first child Harland, who was a stark reminder of what it means to start from scratch.

Oliver Jeffers: We brought him home from the hospital and quite comically, I started giving him a tour of our, then, One bedroom apartment, you know, like “This is the living room, this is where we keep our chairs, chairs are what you use to sit in.” “This is the kitchen, this is where we cook food. Food is what you eat.” And I was like, "You really know nothing, "you know absolutely nothing."

On behalf of his newborn, he reevaluated everything he thought he knew about the world. Letters to his son took on a life of their own, eventually turning into a best-selling picture book, called Here We Are.

Jeffers: I try to be very, very careful about not putting anything in there that's opinion, but only factual, so people come in all shapes, sizes. We may all look different, sound different, but don't be fooled, we are all people. That's a truth. There are animals too, even more shapes and sizes, that's a truth, you know.

AJC: Some of them can talk, "I can!"

Jeffers: Yeah, yeah. Everything in there is, no matter your religious, or your political beliefs or anything, there's nothing in there that you could really take up against.

AJC: What are the parenting dos and don'ts that you got from being a kid yourself, and how is that then reflected both in the books you create and in your own parenting style?

Jeffers: Well did you notice there's a quote from my dad in the back of the book.

AJC: I did.

Jeffers: All the way through, growing up if you ask any of my brothers "What were dad's three words?" It was respect, consideration, and tolerance.

These words were particularly powerful in the 1970s Belfast of Jeffer's childhood. The so-called Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict that killed an injured thousands, was still decades from a truce. The circumstances weren't ideal for raising a family. Indeed, mister and missus Jeffers had tried moving away to Australia, where Oliver was born. But they returned to Ireland when his mother began showing the first signs of what would later be diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis.

Jeffers: Which she was afflicted with for the rest of her life and died, what year is this? 18 years ago, from that. But in a way, yeah, everybody is going, if it works the way that it's supposed to work, everybody will lose their parents at some point or another, and in a strange way, I feel like me and my brothers were given a bit of secret weapon because of the way she decided to treat her illness and treat us and treat her own... I suppose, reason for living. We, I think, at a young age, more earlier than most people, got a sense of perspective of what is actually important and what is not, and what is worth worrying about and what is not. And in a way, we celebrated her life rather than mourned her death, whenever she passed, and it felt empowering, very, very empowering, and actually my book, The Heart and the Bottle, was about that, but not in the obvious way. It wasn't my relationship with her, but it was more a comment on, I remember watching a couple of different friends lose people close to them, and the way in which they mourned was very aggressive and sort of inward facing and quite destructive. And I just thought... Well we were actually, we had been quite fortunate in the way in which we've embraced this loss, this death in a way in which it was not hidden, it was not, not a sad thing, but it was celebrated and it was out in the open and it was talked about. And I think we have a much more healthy perspective on life and death, simply because of that.

From a young age, Jeffers knew that given his druthers, he would grow up to become and artist. He tended to spend his time with creative people, pursuing philosophical conversations. But when he met the woman who would become his wife, Suzanne, an engineer by training, they both discovered new ways to think about the world.

Jeffers: The reality dawning on both of us that art and science or logic and emotion were two totally different but equally valid ways of interpreting the world around us, and the mathematics and science at a very high level is not that different from philosophy in art, it's just asking questions and not necessarily thinking you're gonna get the answers. Like many things, immediately I was struck with a visual, I wonder if I can try to explore, if it's possible, to look at one thing from two totally different perspectives at the same time. And that's when I started making these figurative paintings and putting mathematical equations over them. And so the very first one was this glass of orange, and then I picked an equation that showed how light refracts when it hits curved glass, and then created that as the light source. So that was that. Then I was like "Okay, that's an interesting thing." And I may well have just left it at that one painting, but then, it was exhibited and bought by this, a doctor of quantum physics, Hugh Morrison. And he got in touch with me and said "I am fascinated by what you did,” "clearly you're making work about Bell's string theory," can we meet for a cup of coffee?" And so I met him for a cup of coffee and was like "I have never heard of Bell's string theory.” "What is that?" And we started having these conversations, and he was interested in talking to me because I was coming at these scientific problems from a completely different perspective than any of the students that he would be teaching.

AJC: And a far more, probably, naive post?

Jeffers: Much more naive. But he said that naivety was actually an advantage in a lot of ways, cause I wouldn't get tripped up in the same reasoning that other people would take for granted.

Those conversations resulted in a series of paintings about equations as explained to him by Morrison, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Of the many theories they discussed, Jeffers became particularly interested in something called the uncertainty principle.

Jeffers: Which as he put it, proves mathematically that you can't prove anything mathematically.

Also known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it states that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured simultaneously, even in theory. This, despite the fact that an object must, of course, exist before it can move.

Jeffers: So, sort of making art, and then hiding it in as a way to explore. Even though the art is underneath there if you can't see it, does it still have these properties that you would attribute to it, like beautiful or ugly or whatever it might be. When I saw the end result, there's something really intriguing about this, just how crisp that line is at the top that's made by gravity. But I didn't quite understand what it was about yet, and I left it there at that point. And then, it was, I suppose, months later the painting was exhibited, and caught a little bit of a life online on its own, and people would ask "Did you really paint the whole thing? "Or did you just paint the top half?" I was like "No, I really painted the whole thing."

But Jeffers didn't have any proof until a year later, when a picture of the original finally surfaced.

Jeffers: When I saw this photograph of this painting I made over a year prior, it looked completely different from how I remembered it. I find that really jarring. And then, the same day, my younger brother was over visiting, and he started telling the story, to a group of my friends, about my mother. And he started telling the story wrong. And normally as a big brother, I would feel a moral obligation to publicly correct him, but I didn't this time, because it happened the same day that I had seen this photograph. I was like "Wait a minute, maybe he's not wrong. "Maybe I'm wrong." At that point, the whole project clicked into place, and I wanted to try and recreate the circumstances around the first performance, and look at what is this idea of... an objective truth, and is it really there? So I started making these paintings, not photographing them, then recreating the ceremony, inviting people, getting them to leave their phones, cameras at the door, so the only way in which they could be at the performance was to just look at it with their eyes. Then, dip it in sort of this quite ceremonious way, then afterwards, ask them to speak on camera about what they remember seeing, and then follow it up a year later with "What do you remember seeing now?" and I, without realizing it, I was tapping into this whole thing about the way in which people basically create their own identities, and the more I was doing this, the more this sort of vast truth was sinking on me which is that any person is no more than the stories they tell, the stories they are told and the stories that are told about them, and that's it.

Oliver Jeffers in Mexico

Hello to all our friends in Mexico! Oliver is very excited to be visiting Mexico this November to celebrate the International Children and Youth Book Fair (FILIJ), share his favorite books with you and draw some pictures. Great ready for some fun.

November 9, 2018
Book presentation of Here We Are and book signing|
FILIJ - Parque Bicentenario
12:00

November 10, 2018
Book presentation of Here We Are and book signing
Rosario Castellanos Bookstore
12:00

November 11, 2018
Illustration jam and book signing
FILIJ - Parque Bicentenario
12:00

Find out more here and here.