My partner bought this book for me in Northern Ireland. I used to read Oliver Jeffers books to my children and always liked them, especially The Incredible Book Eating Boy. When they got too old for Jeffers I found myself buying a copy of ‘Here We Are’, a book Jeffers wrote for his child, and desperately looking for an excuse as to why! Actually, I did have one; I was trying out some illustration at the time, and I wanted to see how Jeffers had used his typical design and illustration ideas on a planetary scale as I was exploring the idea of using my knowledge of astrophysics to write and illustrate a book for children about the solar system. So it was research really, but also an element of just wanting to have an excuse to continue to buy picture books.
Anyway, back to The Working Mind and Drawing Hand. There were parts of Jeffers work that I’d not appreciated, I’d never seen them and I really liked them and that became very clear reading through this. I love his dipped portraits, they had echoes of ideas I was beginning to work on. I’d taken some colour film photographs I’d had processed commercially and had obscured parts of them with leaf metal like gold or silver. These were ‘failed’ photographs. Ones that I hadn’t focused carefully enough or that had not worked for various reasons, or images that had me in them.
It also tied in with my use of Polaroids. I like the materiality of Polaroids along with their uniqueness, so my ideas had been around making Polaroids, which can’t be reproduced (not with the same sense of materiality anyway) and destroying or partially destroying them. I’d burnt them, but the use of paint became a good option after seeing Jeffers work.
For me, the themes around this are privacy and control of personal information and image in a digital age. There’s this idea of destroying something to create something new. An idea of growth, both personal and societal which loosely borrows from Hegel’s ideas of determinate negation.
Jeffers spends weeks painting a portrait of a subject who has experienced death close hand, then, in front of a crowd of people, lowers the portrait into a vat of coloured paint, partially obscuring it. His reason is an exploration of memory; the crowd are there to witness the event as they are the only people to see the completed unobscured portrait – there are no photographs of the portrait as it was painted, and no photographs of the process. The subjects of the portraits are interviewed about their experiences and that is written down by hand on the sheet of paper that collects the paint drips when the portrait is removed from the paint. I suppose then that each piece consists of two elements; the dipped painting and the drip sheets. Then there is the shared memory of the portrait by the crowd who witnessed the dipping. Jeffers says that that the shared memory of what is underneath the paint layer starts to differ quickly.
I saw a short piece of film about this work on BBC iPlayer. There was a documentary about Jeffers entitled “Oliver Jeffers Here We Are'” by BBC Arts Northern Ireland and that revealed a lot about how Jeffers works.
Jeffers obviously likes working with maps and data to make political or other points so that’s another aspect of his work that I like and would like to explore. I think it’s important that we think about how the ideologies we assume are ours are actually a product of where we happen to be born. For a migratory species, at the moment we seem very keen to differentiate people around us into natives – the people that belong here, and immigrants – the people that don’t. I am very aware of the immigrant history of parts of my family, and the instinct I have to travel and to move and experience life elsewhere is very strong. With the removal of my right to live and work in Europe about to be removed from me, I feel the loss of it strongly, and so Jeffers maps make important points for me.