When we seek inspiration, the most natural way in the world is to look up; in the words of Oscar Wilde, "We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars." But adequately capturing the full majesty and magic of the night's sky in paint is a challenge for any artist. It's why we're excited to see The Night in Bloom, the Boston exhibition debut of artist and picture book author Oliver Jeffers.
The show at Praise Shadows art gallery on Harvard Street, reflects Jeffers' new approach to a longstanding theme in his work: perspective within the universe. By pairing such objects as burning stars and a swirling cosmos with a mundane anchor to Earth, the artist powerfully juxtaposes the sublime vastness of our skies with the pedestrian.
His new body of work, including one work that's more than seven feet wide, presents a new direction for Jeffers as his visual style leans into the distinctive world of his book illustrations. His choice of medium is also significant: for the first time in his fine art practice, he's using acrylics rather than oils.
Furthermore, the works are on panel instead of on canvas. There are also two new interactive 'mechanical paintings', which expose the brilliant stars through an old-fashioned lever activated by the viewer.
According to Jeffers: "The worlds beyond our world, whose clues only reveal themselves when the light of our day grows low enough to view the dramatic and brilliantly colourful heavens after dusk, suggest a vastness we cannot possibly comprehend above our heads.
"These are the same heads that grow bored of looking for what to play on the radio, wonder when our internet purchase will arrive, or what activity we will use to pass the time this weekend. Perhaps there is more to this business of being alive than we give ourselves time, and perspective, to enjoy."
While his art may be otherworldly, Jeffers' inspirations are rooted in the realities of human society. He was born in Belfast during the Troubles (he currently lives between there and Brooklyn) and has a deep suspicion of nationalism, patriotism and isolationism.
Consequently, his art picks apart the powerful story of human-made borders, of how people treat other people. In this light, Jeffers uses the construct of star constellations to take a longer lens approach to humanity's story.
Jeffers paintings remind us how we often forget our place in a grander cosmos, that the pictures we created for arrangements of stars in a night sky only make sense from the narrow perspective of Earth. Most importantly, given the seeming inability of people to comprehend the singularity of our Earth, Jeffers aims to show, tell, and remind that this is the most urgent story humanity needs to rally around.
The paintings in The Night in Bloom are related to Jeffers' large public art initiative called Our Place in Space, a 9km-long, walkable sculpture trail exhibited in multiple locations throughout the UK this year. It features a scale model of our solar system where the Sun is three metres wide, the Earth is 500 metres away and the size of a ping pong ball, and Pluto is 8.5 km further still and the size of a match head.
Seeing the distances in our cosmos, laid out according to this scientifically accurate scale, encourages us to look back on humanity from a vast distance and question how we divide ourselves and squabble over different stories and identities.
The Night in Bloom is open to the public from 3 June 3 to 10 July at Praise Shadows art gallery, 313A Harvard Street, Brookline, MA 02446, Boston (Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-6pm).
A special public programme and artist talk, co-presented by Praise Shadows and Brookline Booksmith, will take place at the Coolidge Corner Theatre (across the street from the gallery) on Sunday, June 5 at 12noon, with private access to the gallery exhibition from 10.30-11.30am for ticket holders.