A WHOLE PLANET OF LOVE
© Dorian Anderson Photography 2016
Asher Jay is a designer, artist, writer, National Geographic emerging explorer, creative conservationist, and a force of nature incarnate. She is a leading figure in the new global trend that brings art to the forefront of activist efforts to protect captive and wild animals, the natural environment, and eventually our common future.
We caught up with Asher in New York recently to talk about what gets her motivated and inspired.
You went into art education and then went back to conservation, which you say is your natural calling. Did you feel empowered by art? Did it give you a sense that you now had a language to speak about what really mattered to you?
Yes, absolutely. I think visual communication transcends cultural boundaries and language barriers; it also brings together disparate ideas that people fail to correlate otherwise.
Even if I don’t know what language different people speak, I do know how they perceive visual content. When I look to particular markets, the first step I take into consideration is what colors will translate well when one is trying to visually communicate the issues. I examine the building blocks, the grammar of a pictorial language that has been an integral part of human history, since we were painting in caves to pass on stories to the next generation. I am looking at it in the same way people look at constructing sentences: do I punctuate the piece with a period, or leave them with an exclamation point, or hanging on a question? Am I feeding them a conclusion, a choice or sparking off an epiphany?
Looking at the problem and then looking for a solution – that’s essentially what creativity whittles down to. Especially with my background: I didn’t study art, which means that I am not engaging with the medium in a philosophical or existential manner. I don’t think about art for its own sake. I approach creativity more with a design mentality, which is about problem resolution. You are looking at form, function, how those two come together to effectively address an issue. It’s really about plugging in the story as a solution, so that it becomes a product, a consumer choice people cannot live without.
Who do you see as your audience? Obviously everyone, but who would you put in the front row?
It depends on the campaign. When I am working with WildAid on installing a campaign in China about blood ivory and rhino horn, that campaign goes out to specific people. People who are wealthy enough to own ivory, who are also in a position to own yachts, Rolex watches – they are the ones perpetuating the mentality that this blood stained commodity has value. Thus, they are the minds we are targeting and hoping to change, so we place our ads on high end consumer magazines and on billboards in places where we can expect such foot traffic. But if I am looking at empowering communities in Africa, that’s a completely different audience to reach. Oftentimes I just speak to the locals and ask how they receive information. The feedback helps me build out a narrative that will be effectively received by the key audience.
Looking at the problem and then looking for a solution – that’s essentially what creativity whittles down to.
I am looking for the best way to get each story out to the largest audience possible.
You’ve partly just explained it, but I still want to ask: how do you make a choice, do you go for something you feel more skilled in, and then apply it to a particular subject, or does the nature of the project prompt it? To what extend do you rely on what you like doing?
My real passion is wildlife, It has absolutely no consequence for me whether I get to do a specific art form to enable my end goal, what matters is the end goal which is to protect wildlife for future generations and ensure a wild future for us all. I am looking for the best way to get each story out to the largest audience possible.
What we often do in conservation is preach to the choir, to those already in the know, which at times is necessary, but I really think it is important for these messages to reach mainstream consciousness. With each story that I am breaking, I’m trying to affect a new audience. Each art form can reach a different demographic, so whether it is Stand Up comedy, running a business or contemporary dance, I do what I am able to, creatively, to enable the conservation of our wild planet. At the end of the day, everything is a moment of creative expression.
You have said a couple of times that in developing a campaign you almost have to get into the mind of the animals whom the campaign is dealing with. Is that a painful process?
It depends on the animal and how it has been exploited or compromised by anthropogenic impact, but yes, I try to put myself in the paws, hooves and fins of my true clients, the reason I got into this line of work. When I am looking at trapping, finning, trophy hunting or poaching, those particular human failures weigh on me heavily as a human. My work has to come from an authentic space, otherwise it would not ring true with others, it would not change any one, because it was not inspired by an honest moment of change in me. So the pieces that were genuinely imbued by this feeling of “this is not okay, I cannot live in a world where this is happening. I have to be an instrument of change that will prevent this today from being a part of the reality I embrace tomorrow.” The part that is the most difficult to process in the conservation world and which I tried to avoid for the longest while, is the part that has made me the strongest communicator: people who can endure such emotionally crippling pain and still bear hope, are the ones who help shape this world in to a better place. I rise above pain, hate, anger and loss, and choose to love, trust, nurture, and create.
So, does indignation comes first, and then finds an artistic expression, or do you feel an impulse to create art and then go for the subject.
It varies. Usually what helps is to see the language in which the organization I want to work with is communicating. I am always looking at how I can impart something as a grassroots, native narrative. And then I look at what issue I want to advocate for. See, 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 conduit of change. I prefer stories about community led efforts, where individuals see the benefit of their reliance on wild ecosystems for economic revenue. If they don’t protect the source, the revenue will not be sustained. Those are the kind of models I want to encourage in the world, I do so by using visual cues. It goes back and forth, as I uncover what is already working in certain parts of the world and why those strategies have not been adopted in another place yet. What is replicable, what is failing? These are the questions I consider, and try to get answered by experts in each country. Unless I know what is really happening, it’s very hard to create something that will make sense to the demographics we are trying to empower and educate.
Art can influence millions of people but not necessarily those who kill animals and destroy the environment. Can art be more effective if it directly targets them? Do you believe in any kind of militant art?
I think art came about because we are trying to communicate and reflect on the truths of our time, which includes a lot of waste, violence and ecological degradation in this day and age. I believe that art needs to be uplifting and help people feel like they can be proactive proponents of change, capable of holding themselves accountable toward realizing a new paradigm as opposed to feeling like disenfranchised, passive victims of a failing system. Ultimately, it shouldn’t be offensive or derisive. The artworks ought not to end up rousing negative associations or feelings of revulsion and failure in the viewer. I veer away from doing anything so aggressively confrontational that it results in negative consequences, instead of positive ones.
For any compassionate, connected person, it is impossible not to feel compelled to contribute and be a conduit of change.
If I can do it, so can others. So what if they haven’t helped yet, there’s no reason for them not to be able to help in the near future.
What about the fashionable crowd, who like to talk about conservation and wear it as a badge of pride, but with little consequence for the cause. What are the most effective tools to deal with this larger audience – is it beauty, scandal, interactivity?
Sense of humor definitely helps. You need to be patient and tolerant of ignorance, and that patience stems from remembering you were part of that demographic not too long ago. It goes a long way in encouraging another to change their gears, to own your failings and personal evolution. In my case it’s explicitly true, because I was in fashion, advocating for blatant consumerism only a couple of years back and I certainly had a less informed consumer footprint on this planet. I know what it means to be in an industry that has very little to do with preserving things, and everything to do with obsolescence and squandering resources. This particular industry is also beginning to evolve its discourse, with numerous fashion designers and brands taking a stand on upcycling and repurposing used clothes, reducing waste, using sustainably procured raw materials, and saying no to the use of fur in their merchandise. I now know what I didn’t know then, and I recognize how “knowing” has made all the difference. It has influenced my behavior, reduced many of my negative impacts on this irreplaceable, finite planet, and enhanced my awareness of how I participate in the global dialogue to preserve it’s wild wealth. If I can do it, so can others. So what if they haven’t helped yet, there’s no reason for them not to be able to help in the near future. I don’t dole out judgments like a permanent record, I believe in giving people second, or third chances, I maintain that people (unless they are in fact sociopaths or psychopaths) should be shown the compassion to evolve past the mistakes or ill informed choices they have made.
You mentioned humor. We are dealing with very serious issues, sometimes horrendous cruelty. How does humor come into play?
I just have to find humor in things, and I do, simply because, like you said, it’s so devastating to see this constant state of destruction, and if you can’t alleviate the pain with a reprieve once in a while, you can’t help others cope. People need to come from a space of love, hope, wonder, and happiness to keep something alive.
Also humor is a catharsis. When you laugh at something…
… it just diffuses and releases the pressure build up. My life is pretty comical. I have a tendency to obsess over some statistics pertaining to wildlife trafficking, and they’ve come to affect my personal life adversely. For instance, every time I go on a date, I fixate on the fact that we are losing an elephant every fifteen minutes. By the time I get to dessert, I cannot help but wonder if the guy I am with is worth six elephants, and well… invariably he’s not. Yes, shocker, I’m still single. Putting big issues into the perspective of personal narratives allows people to function more consciously in this world, because they are more aware of how they are allocating their time and what else is happening in the world in those precise moments. Such introspective awareness always encourages personal engagement.
Do you think art can visualize a future world where the problems we are discussing now are essentially resolved? Making it more tangible, and through that, perhaps, more attainable?
Art makes life more intuitive, more perceptible. It makes learning more personal. People have genuine moments of epiphany, and art’s ability to evoke an “aha” moment in a person, is addictive, because it triggers the right hormones in our system, makes us positively associate with the content we are assimilating. Then we translate that to the next person, because we’ve seen something that they haven’t, which makes the narrative contagious.
With art you can be conceptual, you don’t need to rely on what’s available to you in the physical realm, you can contrast or overlay content from different realities. It helps to integrate the world and show it for what it really is, which is interdependent and united: a single pulsating planet. We think of it as separate things, and art can unravel that human, linear mentality.
At what point did you feel in control of your life? When did you feel you could do your own thing (as an artist, primarily), how did this come about?
It’s happened at various stages. My upbringing definitely helped, because my mum always encouraged me to be alone, so I’ve being living alone since I was thirteen. I claimed the freedom to travel alone since I was fourteen, my parent’s disowned me then, and told me “…we reported you as missing, we had no idea where you were. That’s it we’ve had it with you, can’t spend the rest of our lives worrying about your whereabouts, we are done, you’re responsible for you now.” Over time all those early assertions of independence helped me have this irrepressible confidence to take on a nonlinear path both professionally and personally. You need to have this kind of early reinforcement and encouragement to be you, to grow into your understanding of “self”. You stand by you when things get hard as you adult, because you survived and expressed your self when it was less expected of you as a kid. It helps to always be outside the expectation curve, if you keep mixing things up, and taking a chance on an unconventional life, people either give up on you and leave you alone, or align with you and support your unique path. Both have happened to me, I have been cast out, and I have been embraced.
When my dad passed away seven years ago, I began to realize I was living in a world where my parents were not permanent, and a lot of other things that I took for granted were not permanent either. Then right after that the BP oil spill happened. It meant as much to me, and I cried as hard for it as I did for my father. That was the reason, I felt compelled to take on this career path. So this is a very personal battle. It has come from knowing this is all I’m meant to do. And I love it. I love it more than anything else. It’s such an intrinsic part of being alive for me. It goes beyond doing; it is my fuel for being.
What have the things you do as an artist, as conservationist taught you about life? You just told us what prepared you for doing what you are doing, but how, does this work, in turn, affect your life, your philosophy of life?
I think, the more I do what I do, the more expansive and inclusive I become as a person. I am growing into this all-encompassing, deeply empathic being, who feels effortlessly connected to all life on earth. There is just so much love! I wake up and I feel it on an intoxicating level, in every cell, it is an incredibly, unbelievably, uncontained amount of love that emanates from me for everything! It comes from just wanting to give a hug to the whole Planet when I wake up! You realize everything’s a part of you, there is no degrees of separation, instead everything becomes related to you, by degrees of connection. So I am just connected. Every day. Which is a pretty miraculous feeling to wake up with, because you feel like the whole world is behind you, with you in every step you take. Which puts a dance in my step, a song in my heart and one heck of a smile on my face.
You can learn more by visiting Asher’s website: www.asherjay.com
It helps to always be outside the expectation curve, if you keep mixing things up, and taking a chance on an unconventional life, people either give up on you and leave you alone, or align with you and support your unique path.
Interviewed by Nik Makharadze, freelance writer living in Moscow
No part of this interview can be reproduced without citing Thinking Animals United.