Features / Illustration

Between creation and destruction: the art of storytelling by Oliver Jeffers


Matthew Tammaro

“I grew up in Belfast, everyone is storyteller there," says Oliver Jeffers sat in the offices of Harper Collins, a corporate lump of a building sat next to the Shard in London. He’s visiting the UK from his home in Brooklyn to promote his storybook called Imaginary Fred, written in collaboration with author Eoin Colfer. There’s a common misconception that Jeffers is just a storybook maker. It’s easy to see why, when his books, that include Lost and Found, How To Catch A Star, The Moose Belongs to Me and The Day the Crayons Quit, have been translated into over 30 languages worldwide and have won countless awards. He is, first and foremost an artist. An artist with an acute sense of what makes a story, and an insatiable curiosity about the world.

As he describes his career to date, Oliver explains how he began to understand his own art, and began to use painting and drawing as a way of exploring the world around him. “When I was looking back at early paintings of mine, they were suggesting a story. Maybe they were a beginning, middle or end,” he says. “You might be looking at something that is full of energy and about to happen, or the aftermath of an event. You are connecting the dots in your head. You can paint kinetic energy on a 2D surface that has momentum or movement. I thought that was really interesting because the viewer can decide where it goes in their head.”


It’s these fragments of stories that have helped Oliver develop his career along two parallel paths. He firmly believes that a successful story lies in its structure – there must be a beginning, a middle and an end, but the extent to which you supply all the ingredients depends on what you are trying to achieve. “It started when I was making these individual images of a physical impossibility. Which was trying to capture something as intangible as a star. I thought these are series of really interesting images that hint at bits of a story. At one point it occurred to me the images sit better together than alone, and that I was making a book,” he explains.


That book was How to Catch A Star and the pursuit of the impossible, the drive to try and make sense of this sometimes nonsensical world, is apparent in his artwork. “There was a paradigm shift for me. My wife went to university to study engineering. When we first met and were discussing our university experiences she was just really bemused by the fact there is no right or wrong answer at art school. ‘Who says your work is right?’ she asked. ‘It’s all subjective, it’s all about the bullshit you come up with to back it up. There is no right or wrong answer.’ It just didn’t make sense to her.” he says, chuckling. “I realised there are two equally valid, but entirely opposing ways of viewing the world. Logic or emotion. Science or art. I started going off on a tangent to see if you could look at one aspect of life using both filters at the same time.”

“There are two equally valid, but entirely opposing ways of viewing the world. Logic or emotion. Science or art.”

Oliver Jeffers

Inspired by the perceived tension between unbridled creativity and art, Oliver started to place mathematical equations into his paintings, effectively telling a story or conveying an idea using emotion and logic on the same canvas. “I decided to make a still life painting of something that is very typical of renaissance-style figurative painting. A picture that people would say effectively communicates emotion. Then, for logic, I thought let’s use a mathematical equation – because gestural brush strokes on a painting mixed with cold, clinical, precise numbers and mathematical symbols are the absolute opposite of each other,” he explains. “Rather than choosing something random, I decided to use an equation that would fit somewhat. Except, I don’t know anything about maths, I failed maths at school, I was an illogical thinker. So I went through an old set of encyclopedias that I had. I looked under light, and found an equation that represents light then chose an equation about the refraction of light going through glass.”

The painting was subsequently bought by a quantum physicist who assumed the painting was about Bell’s string theory. Oliver met with the buyer and his foray into philosophy and mathematics stepped up a notch. “The process of creating is helping me to understand. Otherwise the artworks wouldn’t be about questions, they would be about answers. I enjoy making objects that aesthetically pleasing – it’s not exactly the most efficient way of finding out things, but it’s enjoyable.” Ultimately, this understanding led to Oliver’s most ambitious and intriguing works to date: his dipped paintings.


“Another tangent I followed was the theory of hidden variables. All of the things that people don’t understand when working things out. Things can exist, they can have an impact on us, but we don’t fully understand them, but they are there. So the only thing that has really changed is perspective. I wanted to explore that. What happens if I make art, then hide it some way. One of the ways I did that was to partly submerge a painting in paint. Then I was left with the Turquoise Without a Doubt painting, which went on to have a life of its own online and went in a museum. I wanted to do more of them, but it seemed weird to be arbitrarily making them. I didn’t fully understand at this point what it was about. I had accidentally forgotten to take a photograph of the first one, because I was so worked up about how to make the box, and what quality of paint it would take to actually cover the image.”

It took time for Oliver to understand just what he had created, which, inevitably, is best explained with a story in which two tangents converge. “The project really came to fruition when two things happened on the same day a year later. It turns out there was a photo that existed of the work that someone had taken. It was a portrait of me in my studio that someone had taken, the day before the paining was dipped, and it was on an easel over my right hand shoulder. When I saw that it was bizarre. like ‘Holy fuck, I remember that differently.’ It was bizarre. In the course of a year my memory of the image had completely changed, and I painted the thing. Later that day my younger brother was telling a story about my mother, who is no longer with us, to a group of friends. I had the same emotional reaction, because he was telling a story that I always told. But I thought he was telling it wrong, I thought, do you misremember that or do I? I was suddenly questioning my own memory.”


It was at this point the meaning behind the dip paintings became clear. Oliver planned a series of dip paintings linked by loss. Everyone who was painted for the series was going to have experienced death at close hand, and Oliver would interview each sitter about their experience, and then interview again some time after the painting has been dipped. “Then I decided the last part of the puzzle. I would try and recreate the conditions where it happened for me. So, I don’t let anyone take any photographs of the finished painting, I show it to the audience. Then it will be gone. And I’ll ask them what they remember in a year. That’s what happened. There was something very powerful about it. Everyone is trapped in the moment of now, between oblivion and eternity. These rituals around birth and death are tailored into a performance,” says Oliver. “There is a death of sorts, of the paintings. But I didn’t destroy the painting, I completed it. It was always my intention to dip it. Then, it’s incomplete until I have done that. There is a very fine line between creation and destruction.”


There will be around 30 dipped paintings in total. Oliver is creating a film that will pull together the stories of the sitters, identifying the themes that unite those that feature in pictures he creates and then hides. At the end of our conversation, it is clear that Oliver, despite his long career and many successes to date, is only at the start of a new story. Throughout our conversation, it’s clear that Oliver isn’t only fascinated with the world and its idiosyncrasies, but the way in which people inhabit and understand it. He doesn’t pretend to have any answers, but in his artworks, and stories, he points to possibilities and ideas that might help us make a little more sense of just what life is all about, no matter how you view it.