Picturebook legend Oliver Jeffers: ‘I’ve acquired my spouse’s chunk marks tattooed on my finger’ | Books
THELeber Jeffers talks about his many, many tattoos. He’s sold millions of picture books around the world – beautifully drawn creations about, for example, friendly aliens in broken spaceships – but his most personal illustrations by far are those engraved on his own skin. The crosses on his wrist? To mark the area where he was operated on for a ruptured ligament, “to remind me that my body is fragile and to be careful”.
The lines on his left index finger? Jeffers’ wife Suzanne bit him so hard while giving birth to their daughter Mari that he thought she was breaking her skin (although he was briefly shrunk by the doctors when he paused to say he Had pain). “The next day,” he says, “I still had these big depressions and thought,“ There’s something nice about that. “So I got your tooth marks tattooed at this point.”
These tattoos – two of too many to count, he says – are featured in his 19th solo title What We’ll Build. It’s the latest project in a career that has moved Jeffers from children’s books to conceptual art (portraits half-dipped in color to become meditations on memory and loss) to a collaboration with Starbucks (making their nationwide in-store displays ) as well as work led by Jeffers for U2 (including video and cover for Ordinary Love). Apple + made Here We Are 2017 a film narrated by Meryl Streep. The book dedicated to Jeffer’s first child, Harland, was a joyful guide to living on planet earth. This new work was created with his Mari in mind. Father and daughter collect their tools (from a drill to a miniature pig) in order to create their “future together” – from a table to drink tea to a “road to the moon”.
No more man’s world … What we’re going to build. Photo: © 2020 Oliver Jeffers
What we’re going to build is full of the usual bizarre drawings and verse, but it was inspired by a realization, Jeffers explains, or perhaps a hope: “I’m going to raise a daughter in what will hopefully no longer be a man’s world . “The 43-year-old is on the phone from his Belfast home.” If Here We Are was about understanding the world, perhaps What We’ll Build is about changing it. It was about this internal dialogue: I tried to lull Mari back to sleep in the middle of the night, and I always put my intentions out orally. My wife will ask, “Do you need to explain this out loud?” And the answer is often, “Yes, I do.”
Jeffers’ first book, How to Catch a Star, was about a boy on a mission to capture his own celestial object. It was conceived during a year abroad at the Ulster University Art School. Within a week of sending it to the publishers, he had book deals on both sides of the Atlantic. Since then, he has made a name for himself through stories full of playfulness and intellectual curiosity. There’s the boy who found a penguin on his door, the one who ate “three or four at a time” books, and the girl who tried to deal with grief by putting her heart in a bottle.
Jeffers had been based in New York for more than a decade but took a year off to travel the world with his family. In Tokyo in February, “the writing was clearly on the wall” and they decided to return to Northern Ireland to be close to family, including Jeffers’ father, who was diagnosed with cancer the week the lockdown began .
A joyful instruction manual for the earth … Here We Are.
Jeffers speaks to me during a fortnightly quarantine in the house he ran in his hometown. His children are living with grandparents after he and his wife make a short trip back to Brooklyn. (He tweeted his frustration when the six bottles of red wine he ordered from Tesco to get them through arrived with security tags still on.)
With offspring prone to crashing his Zoom meetings and studio across the Atlantic, he has found it challenging to get something done in Belfast. The couple had set up a quiet area for work meetings in their bedroom: “But it was like a red rag to a bull to the children, knowing that one of us was trying to avoid them. They would just bomb. “
As a boy, Jeffers remembers painting the family’s cocker spaniel blue to match their new trash can. Every time he is asked by adults when he started drawing, he has a standard answer: “Well, when did you stop?” He finds inspiration everywhere, from Cy Twombly and Jean-Michel Basquiat to Polish literature, marine biology, cartography and quantum physics. “Often,” he says, “I get good ideas when I’m sitting in an airport or in a bathroom.”
Even when I point out dark things, I still think there is a light touch
Its output has become increasingly political. What we are going to build contains a reference to a Trumpian construction: “[We’ll build] a fortress to keep our enemies away, and higher walls when they scream. But you don’t always lose and you don’t always win. So we’re building a gate to let them in. “
His 2018 work, My Northern Irish Passport, featured a travel document that read, “United Kingdom of Great Britain and … eh … should there be anything else?” He says: “That was part of a show I had in London after the Brexit vote. It didn’t even get a review in an art magazine at the time. I thought this only proves the point. “
Last year, the artist created a globe 10 feet in diameter for New York’s High Line, the public park built on a disused elevated railway line. “Every single border that people now know was drawn in, but instead of country names it always says ‘People Live Here’.”
Even so, Jeffers remains hopeful despite his desperation over the “tribal thinking” of the Brexit negotiations. “I’ve described myself as a grim optimist in the past,” he says. “And even when I point out dark things, I still think there’s a slight touch there because otherwise I’d just be a nihilist. And what does hopelessness bring? “
His latest book is dedicated not only to his daughter, but also to his late mother, Marie, who died at the age of 20 after suffering from multiple sclerosis for most of his life. He believes the experience has given him a kind of “superpower”. “It underlined what was important. I compare it to getting a stepladder and being able to look over the parapet of everyday life. You can leave a lot of the pettiness, a lot of the shit, a lot of the little things behind. You can see exactly what is worth living for, what is worth fighting for. “
• What we will build by Oliver Jeffers will be published by HarperCollins (£ 14.99).