Asher Jay. Photo courtesy of Asher Jay.
A designer, artist, and conservationist. Jay was recognized as a named and Emerging Explorer by National Geographic in 2014. Her digital billboard for ‘March for Elephants’ which she created in 2013 was viewed by over 1.5 million people in New York’s Time Square.
Interview by Ondine Jean-Baptiste.
I am curious, friendly, funny, witty, vulnerable, nurturing, loving, animated and inclusive. I am a loyal friend, a committed partner, passionate cheerleader, determined enabler, visual artist, creative conservationist, and life enthusiast. For 32 years I have distinctly avoided embracing a gender label as I felt it would hold me back in my line of work. My rather masculine name has often confused prospective clients to believe they are engaging a man, and this has often worked to my benefit. I finally proudly embrace my femininity and womanhood; all that I am and all that I do finds expression through the conduit of being a woman. Being a woman does not limit me from opportunities, it uniquely qualifies me to them.
What do you do, in your own terms?
I give. It comes so easily to me to give, and giving yields connections daily. It allows me to be a part of a narrative larger than myself. I find unique, fun and engaging ways to contribute toward making this world a more magical, wild, diverse and dynamic place. I explore connections, [put together] two distinct thoughts, and anchor them into a singular understanding about how indispensible it is to our own wellbeing.
You have experience in the fashion world, you paint, you give rousing TedX talks, you do stand-up comedy, and you’re a National Geographic Explorer. Needless to say, you wear a lot of hats. How do all of your many careers interact together?
I am open and receptive to life’s feedback; I constantly check in with myself to ensure I am doing things that make me genuinely happy and that they are not at odds with my personal integrity. I embrace change, growth and personal evolution. I go with the flow and I often seek constructive criticism from friends so I can do better tomorrow than I did today. I face my demons in order to do the work; only then can I authentically help others and be available enough to embrace more of the world around me.
Is there one art piece of yours that you are most proud of?
Every piece gives back differently and I am proud of each piece for the individual impact it evokes in the consumer’s attitude.
What is it like to witness people react to your work and see the direct positive change coming from your creations?
It is humbling and enriching. To feel that moment of unity when something that has poured through you and found resonance with another, is a magical and deeply rewarding experience.
What have been some of the strongest reactions to your work?
People have tattooed my pieces onto their backs, arms and legs. I doubt a work of art can be more intimately absorbed as an extension of one’s own voice. It has made my day to realize how personally people identify with some of the works that have found expression through me. I say through me and not by me because I feel like something bigger than me channels my hand and mind to produce the pieces I do. I am merely the brush, not the creator; the ideas come to me through both a confluence of events and as resolved visions.
“Asystole” by Asher Jay.
What has been the most challenging aspect of your work?
Finding guidance, funding and the right resources to build my career. I have also found an unfortunate number of obstacles in the form of older women who perceive me as a threat, either on account of being younger than them or single and attractive. In the early years of my career I spent much time pandering to such insecure egos, but even that didn’t help. I no longer care to cater to such women, they are worse than the ilk of men who think professional meetings are a context to express sexual advances. This has taught me to be a better mentor to the next generation of women out there. I think it is an utter waste of time to be so caught up in your own ego as to prevent collaborations and contributions toward the greater good. I take it upon myself to help women from all walks of life. I help my peers as much as I help women and girls younger than me. I know what I bring to the world, and I am not here to compete with anyone else. If there is one piece of advice I can give to other girls and women it is this – know who you are and what you bring to the table, and don’t let anyone dim your shine or make you apologize for your most unfettered, holistic expression of self. You are the only you out there, so be kind and help others find expression. Life’s too short and there are far too many urgent concerns in need of our individual energies and passions for any one of us to small minded and selfish about our personal engagement with others. If we can’t even be kind to one another, there is little hope for the greater good of humanity or any wildlife for that matter.
What is it like creating art in the digital age? Do you notice a difference when transitioning between mediums?
While tangible art still brings value to the patrons who commission it, digital works are democratic and place important insights and data in the hands of the collective. I enjoy transmuting my creations from offline to online and vice versa.
The National Geographic Encounter in New York City is featuring your interactive art installation, “Message in a Bottle”. This project is a series of painted plastic bottles that feature personalized messages regarding the ocean from celebrities, oceanographers, and scientists. How was it to work on such a collaborative project?
I thoroughly relish working with others and bringing as many people as possible into the fold. The Message in a Bottle campaign’s success has empowered me to start more collaborative social campaigns, because I know that while individually we can each tell essential stories, together we can change the entire narrative.
You’ve said many times that your core message is about biodiversity loss during the
Anthropocene—the “Age of Man”. Can you elaborate?
Art from any period should reflect the important narratives of [said] period. The most important narrative of our time is the loss of biodiversity in an age where our impact can change the trajectory of such loss. We inhabit a time when the outer world is a direct reflection of our inner landscape. If we each look within our own self, we will make this world a better place.
Do you think the general public thinks these animals are doing better than they are, based on your years of contact with them through your work? Are they constantly surprised that animals like rhinos and elephants are actually doing worse now than ever before?
No. They are definitely doing worse with each passing day. The count for any given species is decreasing and at best, levels off at an unsettling small population that we seem to be content at passing off as a success story. Want a real success story? Our species. We have proliferated like a plague. In comparison to us, all other biomass is horrifyingly eclipsed.
Why do we need to create marketing outreach for wildlife? It has been suggested that well-known mammals, renowned and sought out as they are, still have a bleak conservation status because the attention they receive is not actually helping them, but rather makes the public assume that they are already being helped, which results in disengagement. Do you agree?
I do not agree. Sure in the conservation sphere we care and prattle on endlessly about the wild we care for, but rarely is funding allocated to marketing the way it is for a brand of soda pop that claims to bring us happiness when consumed. We are losing biodiversity because we believe science and technology will and should save them, I do not agree with this point of view. The only way we will save these creatures and the habitats they need is if they are an implicit part of our social culture and daily narratives. We put up one billboard for one month of the year or have one day to hallmark a species and then wonder why said species isn’t “protected” in perpetuity. Think of how often you see something as banal as a soda pop commercial promoting happiness slap you in the face – how often are you reminded by the brand to consume it? That is what the wild needs. Someone with money needs to care to assign innovative marketing content for the wild in the way a beverage company promotes its drink. I think it’s the utter paucity of effective storytelling and marketing efforts fed through mainstream conduits that is causing the 6th mass extinction.
What are the reasons you think these animals have bad future outlooks?
We don’t value their presence in our national or global culture, and we do not connect social culture to the great outdoors or to the wildlife that inhabits them. We have lost sight of our human story: we come from wild. If we were actually intelligent about it, we’d save the wild because we are saving our own biological and evolutionary trajectory. Put another way, a crocodile with a brain the size of a walnut has lasted 200 million years on earth, [but somehow] we have barely managed to get to 200,000 years on this planet and we have already caused a mass extinction. We can do much better if we tapped into the wild within, and protected [this entity] we are a part of, instead of perceiving ourselves as apart from it.
What conservation programs have you seen are most effective? Least?
I think it takes every program out there and a whole lot more innovation from the current generation of youth to think differently than we have thus far and change the very fabric of how we exist on this planet. We need an inherent change in values, ethics, and understandings to shift out of the deep rut we have dug ourselves into by doing business as usual. We need to be heroes and aggregate as a species to protect the planet we live on, because we are one. I am certain we can do this; we are capable of extraordinary things when we address our deepest fears, heal our wounds and act from a space of love. Impact can only happen if we resolve ourselves as individuals. At the end of the day the founders of every major non-profit corporation are individuals, as are the leaders of nations. If that person is more about his or her own needs rather than the collective, their vision, projects, and efforts will reflect their own shortcomings. The world is an exact reflection of who we are at any given moment, so I urge each and every person to take a hard look at the world and their own self right now
Current project you’re working on:
I am building out a kid-native web application on makeyourownbottle, a campaign from the work I have installed at National Geographic Encounter in Times Square. Through collaborative partnerships, we will raise global awareness about plastic while engaging kids worldwide on what matters most to them. I believe kids should be seen and heard because they are resilient, hopeful, and are already capable of shaping the world they inhabit. [These] kids are encouraged to create their own bottles and drop the issue that matters most to them within their time capsule. An online map will light up in a shade of blue each time a kid drops a bottle onto the platform. As more kids participate, the map will turn from crude-oil black to a blue marble. My goal is to drive forth enough engagement to make that map go blue within 365 days. Within that year the top 365 bottles that get liked and shared the most will have the opportunity to be installed at the National Geographic Encounter alongside my exhibit. The leaderboard can change daily based on submissions and public involvement. It is for kids worldwide to tell the public what matters most to them, from bullying and gender rights to wildlife conservation and climate change; [here] they can amplify their concerns and passions and garner support for their cause. This campaign is the first initiative I will be running under Wild Creatives, a non-profit I created. Wild Creatives will fund and empower other “wild creative[s]” like me who are innovative, passionate about a collective future, and want to evolve the narrative by applying themselves. For as long as I can remember I have fallen between the cracks on drop down menus and boxes, and with immense tenacity I have carved out a niche for myself. I do not want the kids of today to have to fight as hard to make a mark that matters; I want their voices, energies and resources to find expression.
In a recent RealClear interview, you were described as the “Real-Life Lara Croft”. How does it feel to be described as such an iconic and adventurous character that has influenced countless women?
I had a man write a comment on my social media where he said, “She was a mercenary, a taker, you are a maverick and giver. I think she should be happy you were compared to her.” It is easier to compare than to realize you bring unique, inimitable value to the world and the people, whose lives you are fortunate enough to intersect with. I am deeply honored by the comparison, but more so by the comment this man posted. In the age of the Me Too movement, it is amazing when men stick up for and empower women.
When you’re not traveling around the globe or creating inspiring art pieces, we can find you:
Working on my self – so I can actively challenge and grow out of those expressions that do not serve others, the greater good or myself. I genuinely believe change starts from within, [and] any time I want to make true impact I begin with me. It is so easy to blame another, but in the end if you don’t take complete responsibility for your self you cannot take responsibility for anything bigger than the self. In order for me to stand for something more, I need to stand for me first, which means constantly having to refine and redefine who I am.
Who is a woman of empowerment in your life (a woman who inspires you, who you look up to)?
Several incredible women have enabled me to be the woman I am today; it takes a tribe of wonder women to make me worthy of being interviewed as a ‘Wonder Woman”. The woman who put me on my path however was Sylvia Earle. If she hadn’t said these words to me after an inspiring pep talk, I may not be who I am, much less be doing what I do today. “Asher, a picture maybe worth a thousand words but an artwork like yours is worth a thousand pictures. Please answer your calling.”
Asher Jay and Dr Sylvia Earle. Photo courtesy of Asher Jay.
How are you a woman of empowerment?
I work hard to resolve my internal conflicts and find center. When I am centered and empowered I cheer hard for other women, for wildlife, for men, for people, for life as I know it. I celebrate all who come into my orbit and I cherish the unique moments I get to share with each and every incredible individual I meet.
My mission is…to help ensure a wild future for us all. Wild to me is magic, and a world without magic would be lackluster indeed.