Oliver Jeffers: It’s All a Story

The Irish artist Oliver Jeffers can talk to any audience, of any age, with his charming and funny but also deeply serious artworks. Taking on subjects like social media, social division, and the ever-faster pace of modern life, his artworks, whether in standalone prints or illustrated books, find ways to engage in visual and verbal play even as they engage with profoundly serious issues.

Besides illustrating and making books, Jeffers paints and creates collages, performances and sculptures. His critically acclaimed picture books have been translated into over forty languages, selling over ten million copies worldwide. His original artwork has been exhibited at New York’s Brooklyn Museum, Dublin’s Irish Museum of Modern Art, London’s National Portrait Gallery and Vienna’s Palais Auersperg. He’s also won numerous awards, including a New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award and an Irish Book Award.

Your artwork Deep Thoughts is about Twitter, and your statement about it expresses some real skepticism about social media. But you’ve definitely got quite a following yourself! What’s your relationship with social media like right now?

I have a lot of thoughts about the accelerated nature and the growth industry of capitalism and how they affect society in myriad ways, including the echo chamber that social media has become. You follow people who support whatever belief systems you have created for yourself. At the time I made that work I was reading about how false information seems to travel even faster than true information, perhaps because it seems more taboo or sensational. At Twitter, what they’re now trying is a new feature where, when you go to retweet something you haven’t clicked on, Twitter will prompt you instead to do a quote tweet and ask if you’ve read the article. Even the US President admitted to not reading the things he retweeted! It’s so dangerous!

The print Mental Walls shows a person imagining a wall that will separate “us” and “them,” but, in a humorous way, the person looks pretty miserable. How do you think about balancing direct critique of very serious social issues with finding a funny way to comment on them?

I suppose I do try to find the poignancy or humor or beauty in something rather than just adding to the anger or the white noise. Walls have been very interesting and relevant partly because of issues of immigration. I’m from Northern Island, which is part of Britain, and so we’ve been dealing with that as part of Brexit. In that whole process, the wall between the two parts of Ireland was never really considered. But this print is mostly talking about the Mexican border with the US, and who was going to pay for it, etc. It was clear that President Trump would say anything at all to get support.

As for the humor, I’m from Belfast, and we know all about walls, since walls were built in the 1970s and ’80s to keep communities away from each other during violent conflicts here. There’s a very particular Northern Irish sense of humor that comes from decades of turbulence, when things are so traumatic that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. And no one wants to cry.

Your print I’m Leaving shows a man climbing to the moon because he’s sick of the Earth. I notice it was done in 2019. Don’t you think that, tough as it was, that seems like a great year compared to 2020?

This was speaking particularly to the idea of Brexit and the “stiff upper lip” British mentality, that said that the Empire still existed, and we wanted to go back to that. But in reality, Empire was only glorious if you closed your eyes to most of the world’s problems. The biggest issues we face now are germs and climate change. Those are things that have to be addressed from a global perspective, and so to isolate yourself is just to kick the can down the road. That work is about the sheer lunacy, pun intended, of trying to simply leave.

You also do children’s books. Do you approach artwork for grown-ups in a fundamentally different way from the artworks for children?

Less and less. I refrain from calling the picture books I make children’s books, because that alienates non-children from them. The early picture books were about entertainment for sake of entertainment. Anything of value was a bonus. But more and more they become about real life and the issues humanity faces, so all of it is just work to me now.

In This Way Up, you drew the Earth upside down, which is one way you try to think about the big picture. How do you connect the big picture to the little one, inside our own minds?

All of the work can be summed up by that piece, which is about a shift in perspective, really. How important are stories to you, and to everybody? They’re at the center of everything we think we know about ourselves. It’s all a story, and when we see that, we see how important art is. When we went into quarantine, what did we do but look at books and movies and listen to music? The idea is that everything that we believe we are comes from the perspective of shared experience that we are being taught. But how easy is it to to flip that on its head, so that something so familiar looks so foreign? It’s absolutely artificial that north is at the top of all our maps. It took a long time for the astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission to figure out what they were looking at because of that. They were looking at Africa and didn’t recognize it because the Horn of Africa was at the top!