Storytelling, creativity, and inspiration with visual artist Oliver Jeffers

With the rain speckled windows of the Company amphitheater serving as his backdrop, award winning visual artist Oliver Jeffers spoke extensively on the power and the art of storytelling. For Jeffers, storytelling arises in a variety of shapes and forms. Whether it be one of his best selling picture books (which have been translated into over 40 different languages and sold over 10 million copies) or his fine art (displayed in museums from Brooklyn to Vienna), every piece begins as a “seed of an idea.”

Jeffers elaborated on how these “seeds” play into his creative process. He often toys with a variety of concepts until one jumps out and captivates his attention. For instance, the inspiration for his 2006 book The Incredible Book Eating Boy, was a doodle he drew while waiting for a plane in an airport. His 2005 book, Lost and Found, was inspired by a story from his hometown of Belfast, Ireland. In an act of unwavering confidence and gusto, a child on a school field trip to the Belfast Zoo managed to break into the penguin pen, capture and bring a penguin home before anyone noticed. 

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Jeffer’s art pieces and knack for storytelling expands beyond his beloved children’s books and can often venture into more serious ideas about humanity and politics. Even then, his sense of wonder and desire to explore the extraordinary remains. Most notably, the giant globe he created for The Highline in NYC, was inspired by the first picture of Earth taken on the Apollo 8 space mission, and the “Overview Effect” it caused. 

Jeffers believes this Overview Effect—the idea that seeing the Earth from space makes one understand that all human conflicts are trivial—has reshaped his perception of the tumultuous political climate in Belfast, Ireland and other conflicts around the world. Now aware of the “fragility of life,” he recalled that the pointlessness of the political turmoil was more obvious to other people before it was to him: upon his arrival in New York, absolutely no one knew or cared about the 100 years of conflict in his homeland. 

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As the conversation moved to his creative process, Jeffers emphasized the importance of time management. While he has only found himself in one situation where he was contractually obliged to create the art for a book, he recognized that the majority of the time he finds himself “working backwards” from agreements and due dates. He usually spends a week or a month at a time focused on an individual project. 

Taking questions from the audience, Jeffers, spoke of failure, creativity, and inspiration. 

“If you think everything goes my way all the time, you couldn’t be further from the truth,” he jokingly answered when asked about how he reacts to failures or setbacks. “I just keep going at something until there is no path available.”

While crafting and developing his artistic style, Jeffers said he was often influenced by other people’s work, absorbing material, allowing it to churn up inside him, and finally exit. “I got out of the way and let my style find me.” 

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Jeffers closed the evening by encouraging the audience to embrace their own style of art.

“Everyone says ‘I can’t draw; I can’t even draw a straight line’ but no one can. It’s anatomically impossible. But how your line wobbles when you try⁠—that’s your personal style. Lean into the wobbles.”