Oliver Jeffers: Principled Uncertainty
An artist falls in love with an engineer. Canvases fill with equations. Perspectives shift.
Oliver Jeffers is an admired artist, illustrator, and writer. An internationally exhibited fine artist, Jeffers is also a bestselling author of picture books for children.
Jeffers was born in Australia to Northern Irish parents and grew up in Belfast during the sectarian troubles of the 1980s and 1990s. He graduated from the University of Ulster in 2001. He is known for his figurative artwork presented with a philosophical or thought-provoking twist. His series of Disaster Paintings inserted crashed vehicles or collapsed buildings into found paintings. Portraits in his Dipped Paintings Project were partially submerged into vats of enamel paint, permanently obscuring much of the original work.
He published his first children’s book, How to Catch A Star, in 2004. His second book, Lost and Found (2005), won several international awards. Jeffers also illustrates other authors’ writing: The Day the Crayons Quit (2012), a collaboration with Drew Daywalt, reached number 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list.
Oliver Jeffers is forever striving to better understand the world around him. His musings have populated canvases, galleries and books. But in 2015, Jeffers faced his most daunting blank slate, his first child Harland, who was a stark reminder of what it means to start from scratch.
Oliver Jeffers: We brought him home from the hospital and quite comically, I started giving him a tour of our, then, One bedroom apartment, you know, like “This is the living room, this is where we keep our chairs, chairs are what you use to sit in.” “This is the kitchen, this is where we cook food. Food is what you eat.” And I was like, “You really know nothing, “you know absolutely nothing.”
On behalf of his newborn, he reevaluated everything he thought he knew about the world. Letters to his son took on a life of their own, eventually turning into a best-selling picture book, called Here We Are.
Jeffers: I try to be very, very careful about not putting anything in there that’s opinion, but only factual, so people come in all shapes, sizes. We may all look different, sound different, but don’t be fooled, we are all people. That’s a truth. There are animals too, even more shapes and sizes, that’s a truth, you know.
AJC: Some of them can talk, “I can!”
Jeffers: Yeah, yeah. Everything in there is, no matter your religious, or your political beliefs or anything, there’s nothing in there that you could really take up against.
AJC: What are the parenting dos and don’ts that you got from being a kid yourself, and how is that then reflected both in the books you create and in your own parenting style?
Jeffers: Well did you notice there’s a quote from my dad in the back of the book.
AJC: I did.
Jeffers: All the way through, growing up if you ask any of my brothers “What were dad’s three words?” It was respect, consideration, and tolerance.
These words were particularly powerful in the 1970s Belfast of Jeffer’s childhood. The so-called Troubles, the ethno-nationalist conflict that killed an injured thousands, was still decades from a truce. The circumstances weren’t ideal for raising a family. Indeed, mister and missus Jeffers had tried moving away to Australia, where Oliver was born. But they returned to Ireland when his mother began showing the first signs of what would later be diagnosed as Multiple Sclerosis.
Jeffers: Which she was afflicted with for the rest of her life and died, what year is this? 18 years ago, from that. But in a way, yeah, everybody is going, if it works the way that it’s supposed to work, everybody will lose their parents at some point or another, and in a strange way, I feel like me and my brothers were given a bit of secret weapon because of the way she decided to treat her illness and treat us and treat her own… I suppose, reason for living. We, I think, at a young age, more earlier than most people, got a sense of perspective of what is actually important and what is not, and what is worth worrying about and what is not. And in a way, we celebrated her life rather than mourned her death, whenever she passed, and it felt empowering, very, very empowering, and actually my book, The Heart and the Bottle, was about that, but not in the obvious way. It wasn’t my relationship with her, but it was more a comment on, I remember watching a couple of different friends lose people close to them, and the way in which they mourned was very aggressive and sort of inward facing and quite destructive. And I just thought… Well we were actually, we had been quite fortunate in the way in which we’ve embraced this loss, this death in a way in which it was not hidden, it was not, not a sad thing, but it was celebrated and it was out in the open and it was talked about. And I think we have a much more healthy perspective on life and death, simply because of that.
From a young age, Jeffers knew that given his druthers, he would grow up to become and artist. He tended to spend his time with creative people, pursuing philosophical conversations. But when he met the woman who would become his wife, Suzanne, an engineer by training, they both discovered new ways to think about the world.
Jeffers: The reality dawning on both of us that art and science or logic and emotion were two totally different but equally valid ways of interpreting the world around us, and the mathematics and science at a very high level is not that different from philosophy in art, it’s just asking questions and not necessarily thinking you’re gonna get the answers. Like many things, immediately I was struck with a visual, I wonder if I can try to explore, if it’s possible, to look at one thing from two totally different perspectives at the same time. And that’s when I started making these figurative paintings and putting mathematical equations over them. And so the very first one was this glass of orange, and then I picked an equation that showed how light refracts when it hits curved glass, and then created that as the light source. So that was that. Then I was like “Okay, that’s an interesting thing.” And I may well have just left it at that one painting, but then, it was exhibited and bought by this, a doctor of quantum physics, Hugh Morrison. And he got in touch with me and said “I am fascinated by what you did,” “clearly you’re making work about Bell’s string theory,” can we meet for a cup of coffee?” And so I met him for a cup of coffee and was like “I have never heard of Bell’s string theory.” “What is that?” And we started having these conversations, and he was interested in talking to me because I was coming at these scientific problems from a completely different perspective than any of the students that he would be teaching.
AJC: And a far more, probably, naive post?
Jeffers: Much more naive. But he said that naivety was actually an advantage in a lot of ways, cause I wouldn’t get tripped up in the same reasoning that other people would take for granted.
Those conversations resulted in a series of paintings about equations as explained to him by Morrison, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Of the many theories they discussed, Jeffers became particularly interested in something called the uncertainty principle.
Jeffers: Which as he put it, proves mathematically that you can’t prove anything mathematically.
Also known as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, it states that both the position and the velocity of an object cannot be measured simultaneously, even in theory. This, despite the fact that an object must, of course, exist before it can move.
Jeffers: So, sort of making art, and then hiding it in as a way to explore. Even though the art is underneath there if you can’t see it, does it still have these properties that you would attribute to it, like beautiful or ugly or whatever it might be. When I saw the end result, there’s something really intriguing about this, just how crisp that line is at the top that’s made by gravity. But I didn’t quite understand what it was about yet, and I left it there at that point. And then, it was, I suppose, months later the painting was exhibited, and caught a little bit of a life online on its own, and people would ask “Did you really paint the whole thing? “Or did you just paint the top half?” I was like “No, I really painted the whole thing.”
But Jeffers didn’t have any proof until a year later, when a picture of the original finally surfaced.
Jeffers: When I saw this photograph of this painting I made over a year prior, it looked completely different from how I remembered it. I find that really jarring. And then, the same day, my younger brother was over visiting, and he started telling the story, to a group of my friends, about my mother. And he started telling the story wrong. And normally as a big brother, I would feel a moral obligation to publicly correct him, but I didn’t this time, because it happened the same day that I had seen this photograph. I was like “Wait a minute, maybe he’s not wrong. “Maybe I’m wrong.” At that point, the whole project clicked into place, and I wanted to try and recreate the circumstances around the first performance, and look at what is this idea of… an objective truth, and is it really there? So I started making these paintings, not photographing them, then recreating the ceremony, inviting people, getting them to leave their phones, cameras at the door, so the only way in which they could be at the performance was to just look at it with their eyes. Then, dip it in sort of this quite ceremonious way, then afterwards, ask them to speak on camera about what they remember seeing, and then follow it up a year later with “What do you remember seeing now?” and I, without realizing it, I was tapping into this whole thing about the way in which people basically create their own identities, and the more I was doing this, the more this sort of vast truth was sinking on me which is that any person is no more than the stories they tell, the stories they are told and the stories that are told about them, and that’s it.
Oliver Jeffers has once again woven stories from his own life into a pair of books. The Working Mind and Drawing Hand of Oliver Jeffers, and The Boy, His Stories and How They Came to Be. They collect some of his best-loved tales, along with behind the scenes sketches and anecdotes.