Artists and writers are a lucky bunch, they get to choose how the world views them. Unlike the rest of us, who get a measly 7 seconds to make a worthwhile first impression, these creative types can scribble their souls onto paper, into books, or with a giant swish of a paintbrush, can tell us about their childhood, their adolescents, or the night they lost their virginity and the world either swoons, cries, loves or loathes! It doesn’t matter what they look like, how blue their eye are, or how expensive their handbag is, they are judged on their inner creative beauty. So it was with writer, illustrator and artist Oliver Jeffers, whose work I first stumbled upon a few months ago, when a dear friend insisted I start reading his books to my daughter. In fact, just to give you an idea as to how much she wanted me to read his books, I will copy and paste her exact words from the email she sent me….. “I found a children’s book about 6 months ago that was just the best thing that ever happened to me and Eva (her daughter). It was by a guy called Oliver Jeffers and now I have all his books. The stories he tells are magical, I think I want to marry this guy! His imagination is just totally out of this world.” !!! A review that is hard to ignore and a sentiment that is clearly shared by thousands of people as Jeffers latest book is entering its 32nd week of being #1 on the NY Times best seller list. It is not his first time on it either, having already graced its upper echelons with a slew of other books, including the best selling “Lost and Found”, which later went on to be made into an award winning animated movie that has won no less than 60 awards worldwide!!! Who is this man with an imagination so large and colorful that not only does he reign king for centuries on the coveted NY Times best seller list but also has my friend declaring she is ready for husband #2!? So on a cold winter’s day in New York, I made my way over to his studio to find out. Now, I know I said that
it didn’t matter what these creative types looked like because their beauty shone from within etc etc blah blah blah, well um! I had clearly not yet met Mr Jeffers!! Jesus, Mary and Joseph if he wasn’t the most handsome Belfast beauty I had ever laid eyes on! All dark hair, twinkly blue eyes with a melodic Irish accent that excitedly made its way thru the stories of his life. Growing up his mother had a profound influence on him. To her every day was a blessing and it is an attitude that Jeffers still fully embraces. He spent his early twenties trying to figure out his artistic style, finally realizing that the best thing you can do is just be yourself and so began to embrace the style of painting and writing he is now so famous for. Around the same time he decided to move to New York from Ireland, for the same reason most all of us do, to surf the wave of “anything is possible here” and like most of us, who make that journey, he is here to stay. Whilst chatting about the pros and cons of life over there versus life over here, we discovered that we use to frequent the same small little dive bar on the Lower Eastside. Alas, a diet of Jägermeister and skateboarders has rendered my memory a wasteland of spotted moments and as far as I remember, I don’t believe we ever met there!! It is clear though that he loves the life he has carved out for himself here in NY and has filled it with an eclectic range of projects, people and ideas. Having just finished his 13th book the week before I went around to his studio, he was busy working on his collaboration with
Fabergé, which involves the painting of constellations onto the very large egg sitting in the middle of his studio! Up on the walls there are paintings from past projects, such as the one he painted of Mandela that appeared in U2’s video “Ordinary Love”, which Jeffers also ended up co-directing with pal Mac Premo. On the wall opposite hangs a painting from a solo show he is doing later this year called “Dipped Paintings” and if that wasn’t enough, he is also working on a charity project with Bono which is slated to be released at the end of this year. Jeffers never stops! Well, maybe for a few hours after a long day he will go have a pint or two with buddies down at the local bar, but then it is often back up to his studio afterwards where, in amongst his paints, sketchbooks and imagination, he will once again lose himself into the wee hours. Which leads me onto my final point and where, at this moment, I should ask my friend who first told me about Jeffers to sit down…..Dolls, let me put this gently…. Jeffers is married and very happily so, to a lady from Hollywood….Hollywood, Belfast!! She lived on one side of the bridge, he the other and one day they jumped on a boat bound for this brave new world and together they make it possible for the rest of us to experience the colorful, magical mind of Oliver Jeffers….
Who is Oliver Jeffers?!
I’m not really sure how to describe myself. I suppose I’m Bel Fierstian (someone from Belfast). People from the Statelet that is Northern Ireland tend to suffer complex identity issues when asked where they are from. It’s often easiest to say I’m Irish when I’m not near there, though that isn’t strictly true as Belfast has been under British rule for almost a hundred years and has developed culturally differently than The Republic of Ireland. From Britain too, ironically, as most of the aggression that occurs in said Statelet, both politically and physically, tends to be people claiming that corner of north west Europe belongs to one or the other. The sad reality is that neither Ireland nor Britain really wants us. Belfast is actually a wonderful place, full of the best sort of people, humor, culture, natural beauty, and a healthy cynicism thats had a fascinating history through the centuries.
Ok, so I’m from Belfast. And I like making art. I moved to New York about 6 years ago for much the same reason anyone moves here. It’s New York City! I love the speed at which things happen here, the shared will to create and see whats possible. Could use a bit more space though.
The reason I make art and tell stories is because I feel a compulsion to. Both for the sense of pleasure in making what I consider to be beautiful things and as a way to share the joy I have in doing that with others. I also use art as a way to try and understand my world, out of a pure sense of curiosity.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A race car driver. Then a lumberjack. A deep sea diver for a while. When I was really young I wanted to be a teacher and would arrange my toys in a classroom like setting. But I realize now thats only because I wanted to be the centre of attention and for everyone to listen to me. I’ve known for a very long time that I wanted to draw pictures for a living. The thought of having a proper job never even really crossed my mind and I was never pressured into thinking about getting one by my parents. I suppose they saw that I was fully engaged in some sort of mental activity and applying myself to something although I wasn’t really sure what that thing was… maybe they were just happy I was keeping myself out of trouble.
How did you get to be where you are?
I kept going, I suppose and didn’t really take no for an answer.
If you could go back in time and give your 16 year old self some advice what would it be ?
I’d show me how to unsnap a bra with one hand. At 16, that’s invaluable information.
If the wardrobe in your bedroom would lead you to another world what would your Narnia look like?
C.S. Lewis was from Belfast, so we were very exposed to that book growing up. My parents had a really huge wardrobe and I would go into it, thinking that if the conditions were just right one day, and I was concentrating hard enough and I really, really wanted it… I actually would end up in Narnia. But I always hit the wall at the back. Though, when I think about it, Narnia was a kind of frozen hell for all the inhabitants. I’m not sure my frozen hell would look like… maybe living in a cardboard box in communist East Germany.
By day you are a visual artist……by night you are a visual artist recovering from insomnia!
Everything I do is just a continuation of everything else I do. I don’t separate. I’m never really not working. Though its not really working. Kinda more like playing. Like the times when you were building a fort as a kid, and you got really into it, and at times it was frustrating because the west wing wouldn’t stay up, but you kept doing it even though no one was telling you to, or probably even paying attention. Thats the way it is. I’m fortunate enough that for the last few years I’ve managed to put myself in a position where I’m not a gun for hire anymore. I don’t take commissions, but rather work on my own projects and occasionally collaborate on something that really excites me. I spend my life now building my forts. And occasionally helping friends with theirs…
What was one of your favorite past projects?
Hard one to answer, I’ve had lots of enjoyable projects- working with Studio AKA on a film of my book… turning an abandoned building Belfast into a living art project with three friends… getting my first book published… having a solo show at Lazarides and painting a huge mural only for JR to paste over it a month later…
Maybe because its fresh in my mind… I’ll pick making a video for u2. That was pretty cool, and I got to work with one of my best pals Mac Premo.
I try not to do anything I don’t want to do. Life is too short to work with assholes.
What are you working on now and what do you dream of happening in the future?
A few projects. I’m putting the final touches on a new picture book. A whopper of a 112 page beast- it’s a collection of short stories. And I’m working on my next show of paintings which I’m really excited about- Dipped Paintings, where I make a fully executed portrait of a person, then pair it with an antique frame, then dip the whole thing in a vat of enamel paint most of the way. It’s terrifying and exciting at the same time.
What song do you love that you keep secret cause its too embarrassing to say publicly you like it?
The theme tune to “Littlest Hobo”. I’m fairly sure this is the equivalent of saying publicly. With the volume turned up.
Which version of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” do you prefer….The American orchestra & choir’s rendition or Nas featuring Puff Daddy remix “Hate me now”?
Definitely the The American Orchestra version.
Are you a morning person or night person?
Neither. I peak between 2pm and 3pm. On a wednesday.
In all seriousness, I had insomnia really bad for years. It started by having four life defining moments collide within three months of each other and it knocked my system for six. I’d often go three or four night in a row with only getting 2 hours sleep. I wasn’t using my nights productively either, and mornings were terrible. I think what got rid of it was figuring out after a few years that I can actually function fairly well, not at full capacity, but not far off it, with only 2 hours sleep. Weirdly thats what started fixing it. I stopped panicking about not being able to sleep, and that took the pressure away. Without realizing it, I haven’t had insomnia for about 8 months.
Any advice for peeps just starting out?
Work hard and be ok with hearing no as an answer. Be honest with yourself about your ability. If you really believe you are good enough, then you shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks about your work. If it really is good enough, it will be seen for what it is.
Is there a quote or mantra you live by?
At the top of my blackboard, where I write my list of things to do, I have written ‘Life is short and the world is large’.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I don’t plan on growing up. I’ve been told its a trap. I suppose my plans are to keep going.