'Picture books fill holes. They calm people down'
“I wanted to establish all this diversity that I was using in my other practice as early as possible. So I asked them to take a gamble on the next book” – The Incredible Book Eating Boy – “to let me make it collage style. They reluctantly agreed on the understanding that I would then make the book they wanted me to make. Then, because that went so well, they gave me free rein to explore these other techniques.”
He sees all his art, whether for the gallery or picture books, as part of the same body of work. “The Incredible Book Eating Boy was made at the same time that I was making a project about quantum physics. There was this idea of a quest for ultimate intelligence that was at play in both of them. More recently I’d been painting on old paintings I found on the streets of New York, and that carried through to This Moose Belongs to Me.”
So that book began as a collaboration with obscure, long-dead landscape painters. “HarperCollins nearly had a heart attack, because they saw a potential lawsuit. So we tried to find the creators to get permission. One guy’s grandson looked after his estate and was totally game, and because we were having a more difficult time finding the owners of the other paintings he gave us some other paintings to use. It’s turned into a weird collaboration with this old American Czech guy who’s now dead.”
Jeffers likes collaborating. He worked closely with the people who made the film version of Lost and Found. The Heart and the Bottle was created to accompany a feature film that was never made. In his fine-art practice he regularly engages in collaborations, whether in art books shuttled from artist to artist by post or on a pair of “4D glasses” he recently created with a jewellery-designer friend. “We thought it was funny,” he says.
He loves New York, “where anything’s possible and things happen fast”. Having first gone there as a child, he has lived there for five years. “My dad sent me and my older brother to this summer camp in upstate New York when I was about 11. He was working with an exchange programme for disabled kids.
“The director read about the political struggle in the North and offered a scholarship to one Catholic kid and one Protestant kid . . . It was amazing. It was 1990, and things were really bad that year in Belfast. I went back again in 1996.”