“THIS project is not a scale model of the place of the Earth in the solar system”, explains Oliver Jeffers, “it is a scale model of the place of humanity in the solar system .”
The Australian-born, Belfast-raised children’s artist and author talks to me about Our place in spaceperhaps his most ambitious project to date: a 10km model of our solar system which will appear in Derry later this month as part of the Unboxed: Creativity in the UK festival.
Jeffers (45) continues, “In my picture books, I’ve always been interested in scale, scope and perspective. When my son was born, I did Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth and on the back cover of this book it shows the Earth where “everyone lives here” and the Moon where “no one lives here”.
“Even though we scientifically know that the Earth orbits the Sun and the Sun orbits the Milky Way, Earth also remains the ‘center’ of our universe because it is the only place where stories are told and where the meaning is applied.
“We’re alone in the universe, but because it’s the only place anyone lives and the only place people tell stories, it’s the least isolated place in the universe.”
Space and how it can fuel our imaginations has featured in many of Jeffers’ best-selling and award-winning picture books, since his beloved 2004 debut. How to catch a star and 2007 The way back home to the above Here We Are: Notes for Living on Planet Earth (2017). It also plays a central role in the future Meanwhile, Back to Earth: A Cosmic View of Conflictwhich was inspired by Jeffers’ work on Our place in space – more on that in a moment.
The Brooklyn-based artist has also experienced the cosmos in sculpture before: his 2019 work The Moon, the Earth and us included two large sculptures representing the Earth and the Moon and rendered to a scale that accurately depicted their actual size and distance from each other.
On his model of Earth, the names of each country have been replaced with the simple phrase “People Live Here”.
Set in New York’s High Line Park and spanning an entire city block, Jeffers described it as “a poetic exploration of the whole effect – a cognitive shift in perspective and consciousness achieved after seeing the Earth, our home, at a distance far enough to see it in its entirety”.
Produced in association with the Derry’s Nerve Center collective and under the guidance of Professor Stephen Smartt of the Center for Astrophysics Research at Queen’s University Belfast, Our place in space finds the artist further developing and exposing these themes.
‘We were halfway through a trip around the world when Covid hit,’ says Jeffers of how he, his wife and their two young children flew back to Belfast from Japan at the start of the pandemic in order to be closer from his father.
“That’s when the nerve center approached me [about participating in Unboxed]. Through meetings with Big Motive, Professor Stephen Smartt, Taunt Animation, the Nerve Center and various other people, we realized that Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to talk about the dangers of the “us and them” mentality.
“What’s happening in the world now is a tried and true dance that Northern Ireland has been doing for some time: it’s far too easy to draw trench lines and blame someone else for your frustrations.
“Through no fault of our own, humanity has become a species that prioritizes being right over being better. And the sad reality is that if you’re right, that means someone else must be wrong.
“So Our place in space It’s about trying to apply the perspective of time and distance to issues that seem all-consuming right now – but which, once you step away from them, somehow become a poignant waste of energy and of emotion.
As Jeffers explains, he actually talked to real astronauts about how breaking Earth’s boundaries changed their perspectives as part of his research.
“Nicole Stott is a retired NASA astronaut and she used an analogy that I find brilliant,” he tells me.
“She said we kind of have to change our overall mentality from thinking of ourselves as passengers on this planet to being crew members – because there’s a big difference.
“Everyone needs to know that they can contribute something valuable and that matters.”
Work will begin on the creation of the 10km long sculpture trail in the coming weeks, with Jeffers on hand to oversee the creation of each installation. Our Place In Space will debut on the banks of the Foyle in Derry before traveling to Divis and Black Mountain in Belfast, Cambridge in England, then returning north to the Ulster Transport Museum and the North Down Coastal Path.
Jeffers will also host Earth Day: In Conversation with Oliver Jeffers and Guests at Derry’s Guildhall, as part of an in-orbit satellite events program Our place in space which will also include a Guinness World Record attempt to get “the most people in one place dressed as astronauts” (“lots of tin foil – and white gloves” are Jeffers’ top two tips for anyone who has desire to participate).
“Each planet will have its own contemporary art sculpture, an arch that houses the planet with a giant illuminated planet name and an arrow above it,” he explains of the Our place in space sculpture trail, which can be explored using an interactive smartphone app.
“Each one is a strong and eye-catching visual spectacle, so you’ll always be able to see the next planet from there and take that mental leap. There will also be an app element, which will show some pretty amazing things. For example, at the scale we are working on, normal walking speed is twice the speed of light.
“But it’s not a science project: it’s an art project that has humanity at its heart, so once we pass Earth and head towards Jupiter and Neptune, we’re constantly bringing things back to Earth one way or another and try to gain that extra perspective on human happenings.
“At any time during the course, you can press this button [on the app] which says “Meanwhile back on Earth” and it will tell you things like how long it would take to get to where you are in a car going 50 mph and what was happening on Earth so ago a long time – and it’s still a territorial dispute. “
Indeed, in addition to putting the final touch to the Our place in space sculptures, Jeffers is also working hard to finalize his next picture book: to be published in October, Meanwhile, Back to Earth: A Cosmic View of Conflict finds a father taking his children on a space adventure that involves gazing down at Earth and examining various human conflicts from the dawn of time.
“I’m finishing the art for that too, so as usual I bit off more than I can chew,” he tells me.
“But I was really invigorated by these two projects and how they fit together.”
With his picture books that have captured the imaginations of countless readers young and old over the past 18 years – “I’m now approached by art school graduates who grew up on my books”, growls- he – the artist and author is determined that Our place in space should resonate with all age groups.
“I realized that if you can talk about anything simply enough, you can talk to both young children and wayward adults,” Jeffers says.
His official description of this cosmic sculpture trail reads: “Wouldn’t bickering seem silly from Saturn? Wouldn’t violence seem senseless from Venus? Forget ‘us and them’ – from Pluto’s point of view , it’s just us.”
It makes sense no matter how old you are – or what planet you’re from.
Our Place in Space will take place from April 22 to May 22 in Derry. All information on ourplaceinspace.earth. Visit Oliver Jeffers online at oliverjeffers.com and Unboxed at unboxed2022.uk