It’s been a long old while since we’ve checked in with Northern Irish Brooklynite Oliver Jeffers, but in the four years since we last spoke it’s safe to say he’s been exceptionally busy. Those of you familiar with Oliver’s work undoubtedly know him for his charming children’s illustration; some of the most detailed and engaging stuff out there for kids today.
But there’s more to Oliver’s work than just entertaining youngsters. Alongside his picture books he’s been slaving away at an impressive fine art practice, the fruits of which have been compiled into a monograph by Gestalten. Neither Here Nor There shows off a different side to Oliver’s character and deals with his interests and concerns in a very direct way. Keen to find out his motivations for producing this kind of volume, we stopped by for a long overdue catch-up.
You’re mostly famed for your children’s illustration, how does it feel to get your other work out into the world?
It feels good. I suppose the release of Neither Here nor There will be the biggest splash my non-commercial work will have made to date. I’ve been consistently working on my fine art practice the entire time my picture book career has existed, actually from before. Picturebooks began as an offshoot from what was going to be a series of straight paintings. I’d been exhibiting my paintings fairly regularly up until my move to New York, and then sensing a need to regroup, began working more quietly and determinedly behind the scenes working up a momentum in order to put something out with more impact. I hope this accomplishes that.
Neither Here Nor There talks about how you’re interested in everything around you. Do these interests spur both your children’s work and personal work?
Yes. They both come from the same place in a way. I’m intrigued by the world around me and feel compelled to both capture it and ask questions of it through my work. Sometimes this is in the form of questions, sometimes in the form of stories. Sometimes my picture books are stories, and my paintings are questions. Sometimes it’s the other way around.
How do you balance being an illustrator and an artist?
Well I consider an illustrator to be an artist, as a sculptor is an artist and a musician is an artist. Perhaps the only real meaning in the term difference is that one works to a brief and agrees a fee beforehand. How do I balance my two practices? Simply, self-discipline and judgement. My friend, when asked if it was easy being an artist, answered, “It’s as easy as quitting smoking.” I love this answer. It’s as easy or as difficult as you make it. I try to work as hard as I can – no one else is going to do it for me. So if I want to make a piece of art, I figure out a way to do it. When there is no advance, or deadline, this means finding a way to pay for it and dedicating the time to do it.
There are a lot of desirable vintage objects in your work. Do you collect these in real life?
Yes. Many of the props that appear in my work I lift from my immediate surroundings. I’ve always had an eye for vintage furniture. There is a sense of craftsmanship that seems to have dwindled over the years, and often old things are better made. I’m still a fan of contemporary design, and my aesthetic is a balance between the two. My studio is filled with furniture I found on the streets of Brooklyn. I did get one quite lucky haul, where a public school a block away from my old studio had a clear-out of old wooden desks, chairs and file cabinets. It’s amazing what people throw away!
Everything you do is underpinned by a sense of humour. Why is humour important to your work?
Something I’ve come to realise since moving away from Northern Ireland, is that there is a pretty unique sense of humour in that place. When thinking back I suppose this could possibly be derived from several decades of turmoil there where all sorts of untold horrors occurred. The reaction seems to have been if you don’t laugh, you cry, and who wants to cry?