Into the Woods with Noma Bar

Taken from the latest issue of Printed Pages, It’s Nice That catches up with graphic artist Noma Bar to discuss artistic responsibility and his idiosyncratic office

If you go down to Highgate Woods in London today, you might be in for a bit of a surprise. Among the dog walkers, the frazzled parents searching for their kids and the forestry workers making sure that the ancient woodland is being preserved, you might, if you look carefully, find one of the most prolific artists and illustrators working in the UK. Highgate Woods, all 28 hectares of it, is Noma Bar’s ‘office’. Everyday, come rain or shine, the graphic artist is there, somewhere, armed with his notebooks and pens, working through ideas that will appear in their final forms in newspapers, magazines, as part of a campaign or a gallery.

“You won’t find me drawing the flowers or the trees,” says Noma with a chuckle. “I’m not here to react to the seasonal changes or the landscape. I need the energy and the contrast to what is happening in the city.” We are sat by his current ‘desk’ that is hidden away from a footpath. It is here that he works, pen in hand, only leaving for meetings in the city or to go home and turn his ideas into the thought-provoking, inventive and sometimes controversial work he is famed for. It’s Nice That has joined for an afternoon to see the sights and learn more about Noma, his background and art. Our interview occurs soon after he has released Bittersweet, a “mid-career retrospective” with Thames and Hudson – a mammoth five volume box set that splits his portfolio thematically between: Life DeathPretty UglyLess MoreIn Out and Rough Smooth.

Noma’s work has been exhibited and published extensively responding to subjects ranging from war crimes to online porn. Over the course of his career his images that playfully tackle these far ranging topics have become known for the juxtaposition within the imagery and his mastery of negative space and block colour. “When you see my work, you wouldn’t think it was created in the woods,” says Noma thoughtfully. “I like this contrast.”

His work is adept at condensing complex subjects into simple images that belie the depth of thought and endeavour that goes into making them. His work for the GuardianNew York Times and other bastions of the old media establishment has seen him deal with the topics that informed the names of each section of his new book with apparent ease. “There isn’t one way to do it. There’s something in me that wants to strip things down. No one knows the pain and sweat that goes into making each work,” he explains. “It’s like being a musician or a dancer. You might see the sweat on the stage, but you don’t see everything that has gone into it. I’m not crazy about showing that process, I want to keep things for myself. Theres a lot of deleting and starting again.”

Whatever the brief, be it a commercial client, a publication or a commission for a charity or campaign, Noma’s belief in his responsibilities is resolute. “As designers we have power. If I can use my pen to say things, to affect and change realities, I will,” he says firmly. “It’s like a singer writing a song. If I work for someone like Cancer Research and can attract someone to donate to the cause through a poster, that is my contribution. It’s another voice. It can be a powerful thing.”

It’s not only the more overtly emotive works that embody this thinking. Noma has been called to produce portraits of countless faces over the years. It’s something that endlessly fascinates him and his sketchbooks are full of faces he has seen on his travels in the woods, around the capital and further afield. “Taking iconic faces and working into them is fun,” he says. “It’s deconstructing them to the extreme. The power lies in taking on something that is already iconic. I am taking the icon and breaking the icon. An average, normal, beautiful face is more tricky to draw.” Among the film stars, politicians and royalty he has to depict, one face returns more than others. “I get a lot of Hitlers. People don’t like that I draw Hitler. For me, drawing Hitler is provocation whatever the message is. It’s something that I am dealing with and it is a bitter pill. Hitler is fun. Challenging is fun.”

The challenges come thick and fast, and as Noma gathers his thoughts and records them in his sketchbook, sat among the foliage in the woods, he can never truly anticipate the response an image will generate. Controversy has followed his overtly political works – be it a Time Out cover that merged the image of Big Ben’s clocktower with an representation of anal sex, or a piece about George Bush and the Iraq war that saw “countless emails and letters questioning why I did it”. It’s Noma’s storytelling abilities that get him to his final ideas. “I didn’t choose this. It’s just something I can do,” he says. Noma can reduce the graphic nature of a topic without losing how profound the message it is, or place something in the mainstream media that might be too difficult to convey in another way. “I have a name now, people come to me to solve problems. I wouldn’t do what a photographer would do. I can say things about, say, sexuality and bring fun to sex. Or I have done really serious briefs covering topics like rape, war or paedophiles. There is no harm in what I am doing visually. I enjoy doing this work.”

The dualities within Noma’s work mirror his life. This fascination with the essence of the story and a translation of this into a beautiful and profound image is a struggle on which he thrives. In the spirit of Bittersweet I ask him to try and sum himself up in two words. He pauses, furrows his brow beneath his ever present hat, then smiles: “Always More!”

Photography Jack Johnstone

This is an excerpt from an article published by It’s Nice That in August 2017, and features in the latest issue of Printed Pages

Stories of Success: Oliver Jeffers

In the new issue of Printed Pages, It’s Nice That speaks to the illustrator and artist about his projects, paintings and picture books

Photography by Matthew Tammaro

“I grew up in Belfast, everyone is a storyteller there,” says Oliver Jeffers sat in the offices of Harper Collins, a corporate lump of a building sat next to the Shard in London. He’s visiting the UK from his home in Brooklyn to promote his storybook called Imaginary Fred, written in collaboration with author Eoin Colfer. There’s a common misconception that Jeffers is just a storybook maker. It’s easy to see why, when his books, that include Lost and Found, How To Catch A Star, The Moose Belongs to Me and The Day the Crayons Quit, have been translated into over 30 languages worldwide and have won countless awards. He is, first and foremost an artist. An artist with an acute sense of what makes a story, and an insatiable curiosity about the world.

 As he describes his career to date, Oliver explains how he began to understand his own art, and began to use painting and drawing as a way of exploring the world around him. “When I was looking back at early paintings of mine, they were suggesting a story. Maybe they were a beginning, middle or end,” he says. “You might be looking at something that is full of energy and about to happen, or the aftermath of an event. You are connecting the dots in your head. You can paint kinetic energy on a 2D surface that has momentum or movement. I thought that was really interesting because the viewer can decide where it goes in their head.”

It’s these fragments of stories that have helped Oliver develop his career along two parallel paths. He firmly believes that a successful story lies in its structure – there must be a beginning, a middle and an end, but the extent to which you supply all the ingredients depends on what you are trying to achieve. “It started when I was making these individual images of a physical impossibility. Which was trying to capture something as intangible as a star. I thought these are series of really interesting images that hint at bits of a story. At one point it occurred to me the images sit better together than alone, and that I was making a book,” he explains.

That book was How to Catch A Star and the pursuit of the impossible, the drive to try and make sense of this sometimes nonsensical world, is apparent in his artwork. “There was a paradigm shift for me. My wife went to university to study engineering. When we first met and were discussing our university experiences she was just really bemused by the fact there is no right or wrong answer at art school. ‘Who says your work is right?’ she asked. ‘It’s all subjective, it’s all about the bullshit you come up with to back it up. There is no right or wrong answer.’ It just didn’t make sense to her,” he says, chuckling. “I realised there are two equally valid, but entirely opposing ways of viewing the world. Logic or emotion. Science or art. I started going off on a tangent to see if you could look at one aspect of life using both filters at the same time.”
Inspired by the perceived tension between unbridled creativity and art, Oliver started to place mathematical equations into his paintings, effectively telling a story or conveying an idea using emotion and logic on the same canvas. “I decided to make a still life painting of something that is very typical of Renaissance-style figurative painting. A picture that people would say effectively communicates emotion. Then, for logic, I thought let’s use a mathematical equation – because gestural brush strokes on a painting mixed with cold, clinical, precise numbers and mathematical symbols are the absolute opposite of each other,” he explains. “Rather than choosing something random, I decided to use an equation that would fit somewhat. Except, I don’t know anything about maths, I failed maths at school, I was an illogical thinker. So I went through an old set of encyclopedias that I had. I looked under light, and found an equation that represents light then chose an equation about the refraction of light going through glass.”
The painting was subsequently bought by a quantum physicist who assumed the painting was about Bell’s string theory. Oliver met with the buyer and his foray into philosophy and mathematics stepped up a notch. “The process of creating is helping me to understand. Otherwise the artworks wouldn’t be about questions, they would be about answers. I enjoy making objects that aesthetically pleasing – it’s not exactly the most efficient way of finding out things, but it’s enjoyable.” Ultimately, this understanding led to Oliver’s most ambitious and intriguing works to date: his dipped paintings.
Read the full article in Printed Pages SS17, out now.