Oliver Jeffers: ‘I keep coming back to this idea of the stoic man’

The artist's latest picture book is about the way the fantasy worlds of children’s books create the fabric of the grown-up mind. He talks masculinity, maths and making art

 

How to Be a Man is a series exploring masculinity and the challenges facing men in Ireland today

Oliver Jeffers was recently invited to the UN Global Summit in New York to speak alongside business leaders and UN ambassadors, as well as creative thinkers. One of the big themes that struck him was “the idea of masculinity as a gender identity”.

“I was particularly struck by a talk given by a photojournalist, who started out looking at women who were victims of horrific atrocities in Africa but ended up taking pictures of the men who had committed the crimes, asking what kind of society provides the circumstances for men to treat women this way? It really changed my thinking about what it is to be a man.

“And I kept coming back to this idea of the stoic man; generations being indoctrinated into the idea that not communicating is a good thing. And then you stand back and look at the implications of that. How can it be a good thing?”

Jeffers is best known for his picture books, but he also has a keen interest in science and maths. He has a tattoo of an equation on the inside of his right biceps. It is the mathematical formula for the Theory of Duality, which he defines – without mentioning Plato or Descartes – as “the idea that you can have two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world, and they would both be valid”.

Maths and science, Jeffers says, have made an enormous impact on his approach to making art, where he tries “to fuse two different forms, two different ways of understanding the world, together; trying to make art out of science or a science out of art”.

The influence is most evident in his paintings: his seascapes and landscapes juxtapose classical representations in oil with scientific measurements of distance and depth, while the emotional impact of his portraits is often cut with the jarring details of anthropometry.

The fundamentals of logic appear in the whimsical childhood worlds he imagines in his picture books. In The Incredible Book Eating Boy, for example, illustrations are set on graph paper and the library-hungry protagonist’s intellectual progress is represented in mathematical form.

Different world views

His interest in science was sparked when he met his girlfriend (now wife) while attending the University of Ulster. She was studying engineering, he art. The disciplines were housed on two separate campuses and, he soon discovered, espoused two separate world views.

“The fundamentals of engineering were dictated by principles of right and wrong,” he says, “but there was no such thing when you were talking about art. And that got me thinking: about fluidity and rigidity, and how it was possible that two disparate ways of understanding could coexist.”

 Before that, Jeffers was never interested in science. As a child growing up in Belfast in the 1980s, he says he was more into climbing trees and digging holes. By the time he was a teenager he was drawing a lot, “copying drawings from Asterix and Obelisk. But I suppose I was trying to visually problem-solve: how do you make something look like that?”

It wasn’t until he was at secondary school, however, that he discovered he was actually good at drawing – “and that I could use that as a social commodity. I would draw on people’s bags and skateboards. Suddenly this was a cool thing I could use to impress my peers.”

Called out of class one day “to help do a set for the school play, I realised that doing something creative, being an artist, might also be a legitimate job: something you could do instead of doing something else, something you could do to make a living. I knew without batting an eyelid that I was going to be an artist.”

After graduating, Jeffers moved to New York, working as an “illustrator for hire”. But he never really enjoyed it.

“The editorial side of things was what I liked. You mostly got to do what you want, and it was conceptually rewarding. But financially it was a struggle. There was really good money in advertising, but that was conceptually deadening. Working in that way just started to become a time suck for everything I wanted to do myself.” So he quit commercial work and dedicated himself to developing his own ideas.

By this stage, Jeffers had already published his first book. How to Catch a Star (2004) is a sparely told story about a lonely boy who befriends a starfish. Its success spawned a series of books showcasing his unique, delicate, occasionally absurd illustrative style and his original use of text.

The book began as most of his do: from a single image rather than a story. “Sometimes the image is the suggestion of a beginning or the kinetic energy of a middle or the finality of an end,” he says. “And then it’s up to me to discover how the story got there or where it should go.”

Formative fantasy worlds

Jeffers says he thinks “in word and image at the same time”. Despite publishing 19 books in the past 12 years, “I don’t really think of myself as an author – someone who writes – but an artist who uses words to tell stories.”

Words are at the heart of his latest project, A Child of Books, which he created with fellow artist Sam Winston. This stunning visual poem, about the way the fantasy worlds of children’s books create the fabric of the grown-up mind, is also, as Jeffers is keen to remind me, “a story about a boy and a girl who go on an adventure”.

Like all of his works, A Child of Books is for everyone and not just kids. “I never think of an age range when I am writing. I just tell the story the best way I can. The publishers can decide how they want to market it.”

Among other projects, Jeffers has an exhibition opening in New York later this month. Recent commercial works include artwork for U2’s latest album and a brief to design a Ted conference.

His work with U2 and Ted, he says, “weren’t commissions in the way that I used to work. They were more like collaborations, and I had the same freedom I would have had if I was working on something for myself.” Both came about through conversations: “You are introduced to someone and there is a connection, and you have a conversation, and you realise you would work really well together.”

We come back to the subject of cognitive dissonance and the theory of duality. How it will manifest itself in his future projects is yet to be seen. But as Oliver Jeffers, a new father himself, is keenly aware: the idea is as important to new generations as it is to old.  

A Child of Books is published by Walker

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