Visual Culture

In Picture Books and Paintings, Oliver Jeffers Explores Our Place in the Cosmos

Artist and illustrator has been authoring picture books since 2004, but he was struck by the power of storytelling when his son was born in 2015. He realized that reality is just a series of stories told to us, or that we tell, and it was his responsibility to guide that narrative for his newborn son. “It was up to me to instruct this brand-new human who was a completely fresh ball of clay,” he explained. It was, he added, a chance to “fundamentally make a better story.”
Jeffers, who hails from Belfast and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, would go on to publish the New York Times bestselling picture book Here We Are: Notes For Living on Planet Earth in the fall of 2017, which he has called “a guidebook of sorts about our planet” and “the basic principles of humanity.” Around the same time, he began translating some of the same ideas into a series of oil paintings, “For All We Know” (2018), and later, a public installation, The Moon, the Earth, and Us (2019), both of which are now on view in New York.
Jeffers was schooled formally as a painter and believed that painting would be his path, before discovering his talent for making picture books. He’s since authored and illustrated more than a dozen books, which celebrate curiosity, adventure, and empathy, and have been avidly read by children and adults alike.
“Rather than separating or taking a tangent [in my] career, I just decided to do both things until someone told me otherwise—and nobody ever did,” Jeffers said.
The varying facets of Jeffers’s practice often mirror one another. He becomes fixated on a concept, and may interpret it through different projects at the same time. For example, while writing and illustrating The Incredible BookEating Boy (2006), a tale about a boy who quite literally consumed what he read to become the smartest person in the world, Jeffers was also producing a series of paintings, “Additional Information,” inspired by the conversations he’d had with a quantum physicist about the search for “ultimate intelligence.”
In Jeffers’s latest book, exhibition, and installation, the commonalities have never been more direct, each exploring one’s place in the universe and our responsibility to the world we inhabit. In the nocturnal, cosmic scenes of “For All We Know,” on view at Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery until February 16th, astronauts explore the dark skies and deep seas—two expanses of unimaginable depth and mystery. Symbolism abounds in the form of matchsticks, pianos, and ships set aflame, against the backdrop of glimmering constellations and ebbing tides.
The series began with Jeffers’s fascination with star patterns, and the idea that the tradition of naming constellations—which has been handed down since ancient Greece—was ultimately a form of storytelling. “It was a very early attempt to make sense out of chaos,” he offered. “[It was] a way to understand their place in the world.” Then, in August 2017, when Jeffers drove to Tennessee to experience the totality of the Great American Eclipse, his own understanding of Earth’s place in the solar system shifted. “Seeing two objects line up against each other with your own eyes…is very different from understanding the numbers and being told what the distances are,” he recalled.
That sense of perspective is an undercurrent through both Here We Are and “For All We Know.” The constellations that serve as a guide for Jeffers’s younger readers in his book appear in his paintings, too, entreating older viewers to consider the mysteries of the ever-expanding cosmos and their role within it.
Perspective also inspired Jeffers’s current installation on New York City’s High Line (between West 15th and 16th Streets), The Moon, the Earth, and Us, which considers the relationship between Earth and its lunar companion.
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The piece was inspired by the accounts of astronauts on their first voyage to space, which Jeffers found while working on Here We Are. “Astronauts orbiting planet Earth have been known to point out their home cities and countries in the first days,” he wrote in his self-titled monograph, published in 2018. But eventually, they only point out their continents. Finally, they realize “that the whole planet, the tiny blue marble in a sea of impossibly immense blackness, is home. Upon returning to Earth, it’s impossible to see anything the same way again.”
Jeffers sought to capture this phenomenon, called the overview effect, in the installation, which features to-scale models of Earth and the moon. Passersby can walk from one globe to the other, and as they approach the moon, they will see hand-painted text reading “No one lives here”; as they walk toward Earth, “People live here” will come into view. Through the project, Jeffers asks viewers to consider the artificiality of borders: The further away that one gets from their home city or country, the less it matters where one comes from. When in space, nationalism means nothing.
Oliver Jeffers, The Moon, The Earth and Us, 2019. Photo by Dan Bradica. Courtesy of Oliver Jeffers Studio.

Oliver Jeffers, The Moon, The Earth and Us, 2019. Photo by Dan Bradica. Courtesy of Oliver Jeffers Studio.

Despite making work for different audiences, Jeffers doesn’t tailor his projects to children or adults. “It’s all coming from the same place,” he noted. In Here We Are, he had to follow a more traditional narrative structure; in his paintings, he could address the idea of belonging in the universe in “a bit more abstract and meandering” way, he explained; and in his installation, he focused on one particular aspect of his larger message.
While Jeffers wants viewers to enjoy his work and to “get the sense of playfulness” he imbues in each project, he said, he also wishes to use his work to catalyze a paradigm shift in how they look at the world and their own lives.
“I guess there’s a quite obvious tone to the work about the extreme fragility of it all, like of existence in the first place,” Jeffers explained. “And rather than that being a dire, morose, morbid thing, it’s…this appreciation that we’re here at all to begin with.”
Jacqui Palumbo is Artsy’s Visual Culture Editor.