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Interview: Oliver Jeffers, Measuring Land and Sea

‘Measuring Land and Sea’: Oliver Jeffers talks with Editor Michelle Elvy

Michelle Elvy: How good to come to this conversation, Oliver. Let’s start with the project ‘Making Land and Sea’ – which I first became acquainted with in 2015, when we began a conversation about trying to ‘capture’ the ocean visually. On your website, you state this project is ‘an investigation of the philosophical impasse at which art and science often find themselves.’ What drew you to this place as an artist in the first place?

Oliver Jeffers: What I realize now, with several years’ hindsight from stating the above quote, and having buried deeper in that direction, is that science and art are not at an impasse at all, but rather, at an overlap. Perhaps a significant one. In the words of Jacob Bronowski: “Man is unique not because he does science, and is unique not because he does art, but because science and art, equally, are expressions of his marvelous plasticity of mind.” In many ways I used to believe that science answers the questions, whereas art tries to ask them. It does often seem that science provides solutions, and art provides solace, but I no longer think it is that clear cut. Art provides the answers too (in the forms of stories to which we can anchor our identities, to give one example), and science asks plenty of questions (What happens if…? How do we do…? Etc.).

To use another quote, Steinbeck speaks of how “Man, unlike any other thing in the universe, walks up the stairs of his concepts, emerges ahead of his accomplishments.” Humanity would not be capable of envisaging, nor building, a beautiful staircase without both science and art.

What led me to this particular body of work was the realization that people can think very differently about the same things. As a starting point I used an early conversation with my wife (an engineer) about the wildly differing experiences we had at University – me in art school with no set tasks, no right and wrong answers; and her, with very specific projects and strict rules about right and wrong answers. I began to think of how the world can be viewed either emotionally or logically. Both equally valid filters, but not entirely complimentary. I made my first ‘Protracted Landscape’ (a landscape where multiple different angles in the painting have their degrees from the horizon added in – completely superfluous information which served only to block the view) after a conversation with a quantum physicist and wondered, in sincerity, whether he was blinding himself with detail to a larger (perhaps more emotional) picture. He laughingly agreed and said that it could sometimes be a problem. I made my first ‘Fathom Painting’ after a conversation with a marine biologist, who explained to me that Planet Earth was only the fifth best mapped object in our solar system (after Mars, Mercury, the Moon and Venus) simply because we hadn’t spent very long mapping, or even trying to understand our own oceans, compared with the efforts that had been made looking out into the night sky.

So I painted the ocean based on a photo I’d taken of the North Irish Sea off the coast of Antrim, then pairing it with an old nautical chart of the same area, and added in the depths at roughly the correct points. The juxtaposition to the Protracted Landscape Paintings is that fathoms are an outdated, and slightly vague system of measurement, and also for their double meaning of ‘to understand’ (which, incidentally came from the same thing – a unit of approximately 6 feet, the average arm span of an embrace, used as a unit of rope meant to measure depth, which means, in today’s terms, ‘to get to the bottom of things’). The irony, I hope is obvious: trying to measure something we don’t fully understand, and which is in constant flux.

I realized I was looking at a spectrum of the obstacles to human cognition, to understand everything. On the one hand, we often muddy our ability to think and see clearly with a plethora of useless detail. And, on the other hand, we must acknowledge the puniness of the human mind when compared with the vastness of it all.

ME: You contemplate ‘the boundaries of perceived knowledge’ with your work – not only this series of paintings, but other creative works as well. Could you talk a bit more about these fluid boundaries, and how that inspires you?

OJ: As soon as I read about the history of the Earthrise photograph, the Apollo 8 mission that led to it, and the birth of the Overview Effect – a shift in perspective that happens to those who see our planet as a single object in space with their own eyes, leading to an innate understanding that Earth is just one single system – it grabbed me very powerfully.

It stirred familiar feelings, as I realized the language these astronauts were using wasn’t dissimilar to how I had often described how it felt to look back at Northern Ireland (where I grew up) from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean (Brooklyn, NY where I now live), how the political problems that defined almost all existence in that small country shrank to insignificance when viewed from such a distance when it became glaringly obvious that no one outside that tiny population knew or cared about its strifes. It felt like such a tragic waste of energy.

I’ve always had a deep suspicion of Nationalism, Patriotism and Isolation, born from growing up in Belfast, I think – which led to asking larger questions of identity, community and responsibility. I’m a socialist at heart, and it irks me that the stories of borders and flags still have so much power and attraction, when it seems so obvious that these same stories serve primarily as destructive forces, both internally and externally. These borders are boundaries that exist only in the human mind, so therefore I see them as a boundary of perceived knowledge.

Much of my work currently is focused on trying to tell a story that helps people see the singularity of our Earth, how we are one people with one shared destiny. The most significant problems of humanity need global, unified responses.

ME: How hard was it to capture the boundless nature of the ocean?

OJ: Very. In fact I don’t think I have successfully done it yet, which is why I will keep trying.

Mood is integral to the act of painting. And when painting an ocean, it is very physical – explosions of gestures and fluidity, punctuated by periods of still observation. Mix more paint and go at it again with full force.

ME: You are also an author of acclaimed children’s books – which seem to open up questions and invite exploration. How does the feeling of ‘uncertainty’ or ‘unknowing’ influence your children’s books, too?

OJ: I don’t know if there is a clear answer for this, other than to say that I have never tried to speak down to my audience. I have never sat down and thought “What kind of story do today’s kids want to hear?” – and then sat down and tried to write that story. In fact I don’t try to write for kids at all. I try to write for people (well, one person – myself), but in a way that doesn’t exclude children. Ironically, because I don’t exclude children, many adults think they are excluded from my audience. This is changing though. More and more, at book events and signings I have adults admitting (less apologetically as the years go on) that they are there without children. That they love the books themselves. This I tell them is what I hope for. I don’t write children’s books. I make picture books.

ME: How has lockdown impacted your art/ your creative inspiration? Do you find yourself still exploring outside the boundaries, even as you’re confined to one space?

OJ: Technically we are still supposed to be on a year off and traveling. We got about 7 months in before the shutters came down. We came to Belfast so we could be close (but not too close) to family. So I find myself 3000 miles from my studio in a small apartment with 2 young kids. There is not a lot of time, nor space, for my own work. But my fort building skills are getting better.

ME: Where have you travelled that has brought new inspiration? Any plans to come to Aotearoa New Zealand one day?

OJ: There are too many to single out here, but one place that has really stayed with us is Japan – mostly because our time there was ripped so short. We had never been and were intending to stay for 2 months. But after 6 days it was obvious we had to leave to be somewhere we could comfortably shelter indefinitely.

I’ve been to New Zealand only once before, and only to the North Island for a week as part of a literary festival. We adored it, and I will definitely return one day, with the intention of staying much longer and seeing more.

However, the thought of extravagant tourism and non-essential travel seems a little vulgar right now, all things considered.

For more from Oliver, see his website and TED talk, An Ode to Living on Earth.

Oliver Jeffers is a visual artist and author working in painting, bookmaking, illustration, collage, performance, and sculpture. Curiosity and humour are underlying themes throughout Oliver’s practice as an artist and storyteller. While investigating the ways the human mind understands its world, his work also functions as comic relief in the face of futility. Jeffers’ engagements and practice are truly international in scope. His critically acclaimed picture books have been translated into over forty-five languages and sold over 12 million copies worldwide. His original artwork has been exhibited at such institutions as the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin, the National Portrait Gallery in London, and the Palais Auersperg in Vienna. Jeffers has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award, Bologna Rigazzi Award, An Irish Book Award and a United Kingdom Literary Association Award. His eighteenth book as author and illustrator will be released in October 2020, and he has illustrated several others. Oliver grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland; he currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.

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