Creatives in profile: Interview with Asher Jay

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Creativity, in all its myriad different forms, can take us to the edge of the world and look beyond. It can inspire, inform, influence. Used in the right way, it can illuminate the path ahead.

Because of this, Nothing in the Rulebook has been founded to emphasise such creativity. Yet we’re also here to highlight not just works of creativity; but the creative individuals who write our stories; take our photographs; create our artworks.

Our ‘Creatives in profile’ interview series offers creatives the opportunity to discuss their life and art at length. And it is an honour to introduce our latest detailed interview – with artist, writer, National Geographic Explorer and creative conservationist, Asher Jay.

Asher Jay

In the last 40 years, the world has lost over 50% of its vertebrate wildlife. Of course, hearing such figures one often echoes the sentiment ‘something must be done’. But what is that something? And who must do it?

Asher Jay believes that something is creativity – and is using her artistic inclinations to save the world’s threatened wildlife. Her cause-driven art, sculpture, design installations, films, writing, and advocacy advertising campaigns bring attention to everything from oil spills and dolphin slaughters to shrinking lion populations. “The unique power of art is that it can transcend differences, connect with people on a visceral level, and compel action,” she says.

'Blood Ivory'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Blood Ivory’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

Much of her best-known work spotlights the illegal ivory trade. In 2013 the grassroots group, March for Elephants, asked Jay to visualize the blood ivory story on a huge animated billboard in New York’s Times Square. Viewed by 1.5 million people, the internationally crowd-funded initiative aimed to provoke public pressure for revising laws that permit ivory to be imported, traded, and sold. “Conservation can no longer afford to be marginalized,” she asserts. “Today, we need everyone’s involvement, not just core conservationists.

She participated in the Faberge Big Egg Hunt in New York, where her oval oeuvre went on to raise money for anti-poaching efforts in Amboseli. Her upcoming projects will tackle biodiversity loss during the Anthropocene and expose threats to the world’s most traded and endangered mega fauna.

Nothing in the Rulebook is privileged to bring you this detailed interview.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle.

JAY

It’s weird to admit, you don’t belong to a place, that you feel connected to all life on earth all the time, that you can be born somewhere and not have it define you in anyway, that you can be raised by the world at large, where every place, person, action and thought has come to undo you from the boxes that society tries to bind you within… but that is my story. My dad used to say, it wasn’t hard to parent me, because all it took to raise me was sunshine, water and dirt, but my mom maintains I was raised by wolves… perhaps that had something to do with my walking on all fours with my first sibling, a fluffy white Spitz by the name of Leander. I ascended the evolutionary tree over the course of my childhood, from T-Rex, to bat, to chimp. My family never told me otherwise, so I had the freedom to be, to breathe, without boundaries. It wasn’t until my Kindergarten teacher told me that I couldn’t bond with my classmates by grooming them, that I first realized I was human. That was incredibly disappointing to learn, but my mom was quick to assure me, that I could be chimp or bat whenever I felt like it, that the wild was where I came from, much like everyone else, but that most others had lost this ability to recall and relive their animal ancestry. I was encouraged to let the wild within extend into the wild beyond. However, for those who care about geographical locations, I was born in India, and I owe who I am, to several countries in Europe, to family, friends, and a horse named Chester in the UK, to Africa’s unbridled wilderness and an aggressive love affair with the filthy yet fabulous New York City.

INTERVIEWER

You once said, “Channel your inner mosquito.” Can you explain to our readers what exactly this means? What is special about a mosquito? What can we learn from mosquitos?

JAY

A mosquito has impact with every bite, just as we have impact with every breath.

INTERVIEWER

Is creativity – art and writing – your first love, or do you have another passion?

JAY

My first love is life. I love everything that life brings into focus, its dynamic range, vibrant spectrum of colors, light, shadow, balance, and depth… It sounds like I am speaking about my Canon equipment doesn’t it? Well, we hear often enough that life is what you make it, but I will qualify that by saying, life is what you bring your attention toward during the moment at hand. So I suppose life and cameras have something in common, they both require us to peer through a viewfinder and make the most of what the world has to offer in a given sliver of time and space. Look around you though, everything is life, there is nothing on this planet untouched by it. So I love life; I love all life on earth, I love my life! I get to be up in the air in a refurbished Gypsy Moth doing a loop-the-loop in Bedford one day, and swimming with Whale Sharks off the coast of Cabos the next, so my passion for life is as unbound as life itself. I also love life no matter the form it has found expression in, because we are all the same when we breathe, when we allow ourselves to just be.

'Global Conversations'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Global Conversations’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Who or what inspires you?

JAY

Art inspires me, I often head to museums to look at creative expression from past to present, before I commit to a canvas of my own. I have a very visceral connection to visual media, in fact I have never met a painting I have liked that I have not wanted to lick… but the colors seldom taste as delicious as they look, which is unfortunate. This is why I enjoy cooking, food is rich in color and texture, and unlike most paint, and when organically produced, it is not toxic. Since I use my creativity to communicate urgent ecological concerns of our time, I am also inspired by the bold and borderless from the field, people who display extraordinary courage of conviction, and passion for life. Luckily, I encounter most of these individuals in person at our Mothership – the National Geographic Society- role models like Emmanuel De Merode, the former director of Virunga National Park, or Explorer in Residence, Lee Berger, a highly intuitive, yoda-esque, paleoanthropologist who has been an extraordinary source of wisdom and guidance for me. I am grateful for all the input I receive, without which I would have no output.

INTEVIEWER

Who outside of your field inspires you and why?

JAY

Every one I encounter inspires me in different ways, and it’s hard to discern where my field ends and someone doing something else begins, but I suppose I could stop being abstruse and arduous and admit to being inspired by every single contestant on Cupcake Wars. It combines my need for sugar with spontaneous ingenuity. On a side note – Nacho Duato (Ballet Choreographer), Paul Klee (artist), Alexander McQueen and Cristobal Balenciaga (Couturiers).

INTERVIEWER

Who has been the biggest source of inspiration throughout your career?

JAY

 Wildlife, they don’t let me down like many of my role models have. (#TheDarkerSideofAsherJay haha)

INTERVIEWER

The work you do inspiring conservation tackles everything from the illegal ivory trade to overfishing in the Mediterranean. What drives you? And how do you manage multiple, different creative projects?

JAY

I am driven by caffeine each morning, but I guess the secret ingredients to my lifestyle are passion, love and happiness. It’s like, with the wild, I found my soul mate, the love of my life, now wouldn’t you do everything in your power to protect, nurture and give to the “one?” All my emotional states orbit wild, and I have fallen hard for its beauty, complexity and diversity. Wild keeps me tethered to the present tense; it’s Deepak Chopra unabridged. With the wild, all the human white noise of projecting for a future that hasn’t happened yet, and worrying about a past that is by gone fades away. It’s refreshing to just be, it is incredibly liberating. I love wild, because it has helped me understand the value of now, for now is all I need to contribute. I stay present, informed and open, and I say yes to life and flow with the go. All of it rather effortless, like my mom always says, “If you feel like you are working hard, then you are doing something wrong.” Managing multiple projects is easy when you are bursting with ideas, love what you do, and are caffeinated or on a sugar high in regular intervals.

It’s a privilege to be able to do what I do. I get to dive, I get to hangout with lions, travel extensively, innovate and collaborate with some of the most brilliant minds of the 21st century and fight for a collective wild future… so I am grateful every day, for all of it. It is really hard walking this path, I have immersive emotional meltdowns, eat my feelings on blue days, and I seem to have missed the memo on adulting, but as my generation says, Beyonce wasn’t made in a day. It’s just a lot of hard work, consistent action, self-integrity and self-belief.

INTERVIEWER

Both your artwork and your writing seems inherently tied in with your work as an activist. What do you make of creativity as protest? And where do you think it fits within some of the broader activist and protest movements currently at play throughout the world?

JAY

I know I often get cited as an art activist, but I am not entirely comfortable with that term. I think it is important to recognize the importance of art as a medium that can empower awareness and enable action but activism is ripe in negative connotations, as is protest. I don’t think we should be against something, because the minute we are, we give rise to an “us versus them” argument. I am not protesting the current paradigm, how can I when I live in it? I am a part of the problem, as much as I am a part of the solution. I have really begun to see that off late, what with my constant globe trotting to give talks and participate in field efforts; my carbon footprint is up the wazoo. I also occasionally do drink out of a plastic water bottles, life on the go encourages that sort of convenient consumerism, and I even catch myself eating things I have never eaten before, or feel morally against. Circumstances have a way of challenging what we hold to be true, but because I hold my self accountable, I don’t let myself off the hook when I misbehave. I am aware when I do something that isn’t congruous with what I say, and when I say something that isn’t in alignment with what I do. I really am striving to lead a life of reduced internal conflict, so I can enrich other’s lives holistically. I get it right sometimes and I fail on other occasions. I am still learning, but I think the greater solution lies in being inclusive.  So I think we need to evolve past using words that denote violence and separation, like “activism” and “protest” and embrace resolved states that embody peace and coexistence, and enter an era of higher consciousness that promotes “inclusivity” and “unity” so we can do right by the largest number of living beings on this planet. It is time we recognized that we are all on a Noah’s Ark, and we should inhabit the earth cooperatively and consciously.

'Every Soup Slays A Shark'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Every Soup Slays A Shark’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Since you’re involved with so many different causes, could you tell us a bit about how you choose the cause / the campaign? What are elements that you look for?

JAY

I don’t really choose causes, causes choose me. Caring about extinction, caring about pollution, caring about human trafficking, caring about women’s empowerment, is not a choice. For any compassionate, connected person, it is impossible not to feel compelled to contribute and be an instrument of change.

INTERVIEWER

Describe your process during the development of a campaign. Are you given a topic to focus on or do you choose what speaks to you? Do you travel to remote areas for research?

JAY

I have done all of the above to realize a campaign, however I try to put myself in the paws, hooves and fins of my true clients, the reason I got into this line of work.

INTERVIEWER

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose” – Mario Cuomo. It’s interesting to see how you move between literary forms in your writing – using a combination of poetry and prose. What does poetry mean to you?

JAY

Poetry, to me, is thought expressed in its raw and vulnerable form. It is sensual, sensory, and subjective, a medium you just dive in to and experience for yourself, rather like a work of art. A poem does not need to be figured out, it just needs to be consumed in its entirety, so it can reach you as only a poem can. Let your cerebral palate be tickled by the myriad flavors it sprinkles across your mind, heart and soul. I find poetry offers the unworked fragments of my subconscious freedom of articulation and like a decanter it helps my innermost workings find the space to breathe and be.

INTERVIEWER

Can writing right wrongs?

JAY

Any form of creativity can right wrongs and wrong rights, particularly when it deprives a being of the right to freedom, as is the case with some laws that deprive animals of their personhood based on humanity’s ability to calibrate intelligence. Writing is but a weapon, and it can be wielded just as easily to hurt, hinder and hold hostage, as it can be used to protect, permit and promote process.

INTERVIEWER

How would you define creativity?

JAY

Defining the word, creativity, would limit its dimensions and scope.

Asher Jay Covered in Paint

Asher Jay Covered in Paint

INTERVIEWER

Could you talk us through your creative process? How long does it take you to finish a piece?

JAY

It varies as much as public opinion on climate change, but always seems to involve hard science, baggy sweatpants, middle of the night epiphanies, gallons of coffee, academic research polls conducted in my apartment on my roommate and her boyfriend, and random paint stained body parts and occasionally my floor but don’t tell my super.

INTERVIEWER

In an internationalist, interconnected world, ideas and creativity are constantly being flung across community threads, internet chatrooms and forums, and social media sites (among many others). With so many different voices speaking at once, how do you cut through the incessant digital background babble? How do you make your creativity – your voice – stand out and be heard?

JAY

I think it’s important to listen to all the babble, to be tolerant, and give every expressed perspective an unbiased moment of your time. Then I mull it over, to see if the ideas or arguments presented make sense to me, if they feel ethically congruous and in the best interest of the marginalized, then I assimilate it, if not I bear it in mind and work on crafting a counter position based on scientific findings and hard numbers. I don’t make the mistake of assuming I know everything there is to know about anything, I remain receptive and willing to change my stance based on open, and rational dialogue.  I maintain my voice and unique creative stand on issues by being malleable and forthcoming about my confusions and concerns.

INTERVIEWER

Great pieces of art often inspire great pieces of writing and literature – and great pieces of writing often inspire the finest pieces of art. Do you think the two naturally complement one another? How do you find balancing your work as an artist, with your work as a writer?

JAY

I don’t communicate in words when I see in pictures and I don’t see in pictures when I communicate with words, on the rare occasion both come together, and that’s pretty engaging for me, it feels like all my neurons are having hot sex with one another and resulting in one cerebralgasm after another.

INTERVIEWER

It was interesting reading your recent post on Tenerife – especially the way you note how its tourist-fuelled economy is “brash, irreverent, myopic, materialistic, irresponsible [and] itinerant”! This is travel writing as protest, and it’s difficult not to ignore your call to arms when you insist on the “importance of saving marine habitats [because] we owe one out of two breaths to the world’s cerulean expanse”. How important, do you think, art and writing are in drawing attention to these issues, which, despite not getting much coverage in the media, nonetheless have the power to significantly affect us all – no matter where we live?

JAY

Art and writing can breathe new life into a hackneyed narrative arc, while keeping the grey areas alive. The human mind has a way of separating situations and individuals into good and evil, vilifying those who commit a “wrong” and pitting them against the crusaders who fight the good fight, but more often than not, issues are more complicated than that. There are more variables to address and it is seldom a ‘one off’ incident. Take Cecil the Lion, everyone got riled up about him, but in a week he will be old news. The Exxon Valdez spill is still a problem, the oil hasn’t gone away in all these years, the animals in that ecosystem have forever been impacted, and my friends tell me that you can still smell the gasoline beneath the shore side rocks. The same is true of the BP Maconda spill, and Haiti’s reconstruction efforts but we are quick to forget, because people just like being entertained by sensationalized stories, and enjoy the feel good factor of doing a quick call to action, and moving on to the next thing. The engagement seldom results in the culmination of a long haul solution.  We are all too distracted by the sheer volume of choices when it comes to causes and tragedies that we buy into them based on PR, not because they are a priority. Environmental degradation compromises our continued survival and health, it makes us vulnerable to the compounding impact of volatile externalities as a collective, but why think about that, when business as usual guarantees a pay-check that you can donate ten dollars from, toward a charity of your choice as you check out at your local health foods store? We are creatures of habit, and it is convenient to think, “we have been okay thus far, we’ll be okay going forward, technology will take care of the rest.”

INTERVIEWER

You mention the BP oil spill there, and have previously noted that it was absolutely pivotal in your career. Could you please explain why that’s the case?

JAY

It was the moment I realized, I had to participate more substantially, that signing petitions and recycling was simply not enough for me. It became apparent to me that this work is my calling.

'Hydrocarbon Hospice'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Hydrocarbon Hospice’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific ‘reader’ in mind when you write? Or a specific audience/viewer in mind for your artwork?

JAY

I write what insights I have, I create what comes to me, and it reaches those it is meant to mobilize. I do strategize the channels of dissemination, discern the target demographic and determine the benchmarks of a campaign or op-ed before launching it, but creative expression has a larger impact on shaping cultural consciousness than we have ways to measure it.

INTERVIEWER

For all writing, the importance of finding the right ‘voice’ is of course crucial. Often, writers’ speak of developing an ‘other’ – who provides that voice when they write. How have you created and refined your voice and tone for your writing – and do you have a separate, ‘other’ persona who helps you write?

JAY

No. Gosh, it is hard enough being me; I doubt I have the time to manage an alter ego, besides I strive hard to resolve duality, reduce conflict within the self and live a more unified life. Encouraging oneness would get infinitely harder if I fracture myself, and by extension my voice. It all comes from the same place within me.

INTERVIEWER

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language // and next year’s words await another voice” – T.S. Eliot. There’s always a danger, when it comes to protest, activism and writing, that what we do becomes outdated – addressing last year’s problems using last year’s language. How do you keep your writing and artwork fresh? And what voice, do you think, we need for next year (and all the years afterwards)?

JAY

Trying to unite a modern world of ever-changing technological advances, social movements, fashion trends and a constantly distracting digital landscape with an irreplaceable and finite wild world keeps my art as fresh as the changing culture of society. Because people, communication and ideologies change, I must adapt my methods of reaching the masses in a way that will have an emotional impact on them and recruit them to a consciousness of compassion and concern for the larger picture, i.e., the wild world upon which our very existence depends. The voice of tomorrow will find expression when tomorrow becomes today. We need only take it a day at a time, and give it everything we have got. This day, this moment it includes everything that is, and everything that has ever existed, why isn’t that enough? Why can’t we do justice to all that exists now? Why can’t we make ‘now’ count?

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

JAY

Launching a “Your Shot” assignment with National Geographic on September 7th, to build on the premise of my iStorm Faberge Egg from last year’s Big Egg Hunt. I will serve as editor and curate the content, picking out the best images from the submissions, but I will also be using the raw data/images to composite a larger story that will then be disseminated back to the public through an open source application. I have several other projects in the pipeline including an issue-artwork I created for Joel Harper’s All the Way to the Ocean children’s film and book, which will tour and sell in conjunction to Joel’s inspired efforts to raise youth awareness. Also finishing up a project called Beyond the Frame in Focus, which relies on multimedia to tell stories that are multidimensional. I shot a series of photographs while I was in the Serengeti last year, and while each image I clicked is a complete composition of a single moment, it is also incomplete as it excludes everything the lens isn’t able to bring into focus in that moment — the larger story. Through my ability to conceptually integrate various ideas into a single layout through paint, graphics, collage and collating scientific data/field information, I have seen begun creating works that go beyond the frame in focus. The questions I am looking to answer: What is not being told by the image captured? What else can I be bringing to light in that moment? I have also been incorporating notes from the field, and coining innovative ways to fold data into the layouts. The final works are highly textural, rich and uniquely different from any other project done thus far on African wildlife.  I presented two pieces from this series at the National Geographic Explorer Symposium this year.

'Up In Smoke'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘Up In Smoke’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

And what about the future in general? Where are global trends and issues taking the world (and humanity along with it)?

JAY

The future isn’t here yet, lets do right by the present first. We don’t have the bandwidth to assess what our future will be like, bleak or bright, what we can do is take responsibility for the moment at hand, and do better than we have in moments past.

We are living in a world that no one wants to be a part of; everyone is desperate to escape it, one way or another, through emotional opiates, indulging experiences or by constantly awaiting what comes next. No one wants to be present, it’s far too boring in the digital age to be contained by the reality of your present tense, so everyone finds ways to leave or lose “now.”

INTERVIEWER

Creative types and writers have always been imagining the future – Brave New World and 1984 immediately spring to mind. What role do you think writing and art play in the way we think about ‘the world of tomorrow’?

JAY

It can imbue us with hope and fuel our imagination, as such oracular writing and art often does, but we should not confuse fiction with reality. Yes we are capable of modelling for a future based on hard facts and figures, especially when we have certain controls in place. We make specific assumptions as our foundation, upon which we build the model, but time and again we have failed to be cognizant of the fact that we are limited, and as such incapable of comprehending the complexity of compounding consequences. It doesn’t stop us from trying, but life and nature has a rewarding way of putting us back in our place, and giving us the freedom of acceptance that comes from surrender.

INTERVIEWER

Would you say you’re in the utopian or dystopian school of thought?

JAY

Neither. I don’t think projecting for a future that hasn’t happened yet has ever prepared us for how things have actually unfolded at any given point in our collective history. I try to anchor myself in the realities of our world without impressing my interpretations upon them, which at times is extremely hard, but deep down I recognize that things are the way they are and choosing to reject, accept, hope for a better tomorrow or surrender to a post-apocalyptic future, will not make this instant any different than it is. You see, how I perceive any aspect of reality only changes that aspect for me, not for others, so in truth, all that my perceptions, ideologies, aspirations and beliefs do, is isolate me from the rest of humanity and life, which honestly accomplishes nothing. It’s hard to be in an objective, unified place continually though, but I guess that is at the crux of the human condition.

INTERVIEWER

Say you met your future self (say from the year 2030) – what one question would you ask?

JAY

Are you present?

INTERVIEWER

If everything that was wrong with the world was righted, what would you write about? What art would you make?

JAY

If the things I write about and create art about get resolved, I will probably stop doing what I do now. I will adapt and find new purpose, because life will show me what the world needs from me at that juncture, or better yet I’d move to Africa and live in the bush wild with the elephants, lions and rock hyraxes I care so deeply for. I can’t imagine a more fulfilling way to spend my time if all this conflict gets effectively addressed by tomorrow.

'When The Blind See'. Original artwork by Asher Jay

‘When The Blind See’. Original artwork by Asher Jay

INTERVIEWER

And finally, could you write us a story in 6 words?

JAY

Lion slumber party? Lived through it!

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