9 months ago
Dear Universe, thank you for the Asher Jays of the world. Those profoundly unique braidings of stardust who are unapologetically, deeply and miraculously themselves. The ones who blaze trails in a wildly different direction as if the common path would burn both their soles and souls. They do everything, including making their morning coffee, with passionate zeal bordering on the ecstatic. They are fierce, rapturous in their emotional makeup, like a lion shaking its mane and letting its roar rumble across the African plane to be felt as a reverberation of life force in the very bones of every living being.
Each intro and set of questions I write for every marvelous female I feature is done as close to her voice and essence as I can muster designed individually by one who divides her time between creating characters and examining them. I hope the robustly ethereal constitution of Asher Jay plays out in these words.
Asher is a National Geographic Explorer. Artist. Designer. Writer. Speaker. Conservationist. There are periods not commas separating these vocations with purpose not grammatical error. Each one is its own world and yet blended as seamlessly into the next as each of the seven seas into its neighbor…complete with currents, waves and atmospheric disturbances.
I met Asher through a friend also featured in this series, Mermaid Linden. From the moment we started chatting at a signing for Michael Muller’s book on sharks I thought, “Ah yes, here is yet another kindred spirit that defines my favorite Jack London quote.”
“I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
The function of man is to live, not to exist.
I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.”
She immediately poured out her heart about love…all kinds of love. Romantic love, love for nature, creative love. The fervent love that drives her every single second of every single day. She’s a Leo…of course. She dances when she wakes up…of course. She wears her heart on her sleeve…of course.
This fabulous mad hatter of a human has made a mark on the world and is continuing to make one as a National Geographic Explorer and Creative Conservationist. A title they created for her because no other mold fit. Of course, they did. This one doesn’t do pre-existing titles. In layman’s terms, Asher uses art as a means toward intelligent conversation and ultimately conservation. Through bold creative expression, she focuses on dwindling biodiversity, the illegal wildlife trade of keystone species and habitat destruction resulting from climate change and the global human footprint. Her work vacillates between magnetically engaging and tearfully breathtaking, like the systemic cold shock of seeing your life flash before your eyes when a semi truck veers into your lane.
You have a background in fashion and marketing, you’re a painter and artist, you do stand-up comedy, you give TedX talks…how on earth did you blend all this into a successful career traveling the globe and protecting wildlife as a creative conservationist?
Asher Jay: How did I seed my octopus of a career with each arm in a different jam jar? Determination, luck and hard work! Not every person gets to make an impassioned declaration to a salaried position on Seventh Avenue and find his or her calling in the Serengeti, but that is precisely how I began my journey. While I understand that most people take pride in never quitting, I believe it takes knowing when to quit to find one’s self and purpose. So my path and process began at “I quit,” which has since taken me, a mollycoddled city bird, out into the bush wild, to uncover and convey gripping stories instead of sew sartorial couture.
“Do not underestimate the power of a timely ‘No.'”
Of course, the real work begins after you say no. The moments that come after “I quit” are practically debilitating, it is riddled in self-doubt and a need to cling to what you have known. However, this is when you have to have the conviction, gumption and integrity to self to stick to your guns. Your “No” and “I quit” will break you before it rewards you.
I cried many hours and for many nights, over the course of a whole year thereafter. I felt lost and abandoned. Everyone doubted whether I would be able to generate a dollar toward rent and basic expenses, let alone afford the affluent lifestyle I had when my father was alive and underwriting my indulgences. I lost friends because I could no longer cough up ducats toward maintaining the lifestyle we shared in New York. It’s interesting to me that so much of being accepted in New York frames around how consumptive you can be as an individual; it’s never about simply being, but always about intentionally doing. Everyone is always out doing something and experiences cost money. Naturally the minute you cannot afford to consume, you are cast out like a stray. Your purchasing power dictates your social life and sense of community. This has always troubled me, and it’s one of the main reasons why I don’t see myself living here forever. This chapter of my life isn’t disclosed in depth to people, so those who meet me now think that I am a committed to this teeming metropolis. Surviving the lean years here made me want to wear it as a badge of honor, and as a proud label, but I am now willing to shed that and be open to places with more heart and soul. While I do love the diversity this city fosters, its dynamic energy, extraordinary expressions of culture and exquisite culinary spectacles, I yearn to root myself in richer substance than the transient sparkle of experience. I would be remiss to not admit how grateful I am to this hard city. Without it, I would not be me, my tenacity and fierce survival instinct was honed by its indifference and competitive clime. It is comparable to surviving in the wild, as it places all the same pressures on any individual that dares to take it on. In this light I found many parallels between the urban jungle and the bush wild. Yet every time I have left New York for nature, I have wanted to move, because I am okay with the quiet softness of being over all this frenzied doing. I believe in the coming years, I am likely to seed and sprout elsewhere, a place that is certainly wilder and more soulful than NYC.
But I digress. Reverting to the period of transition, quitting my job in fashion situated me squarely in professional limbo, which shaped me into a more holistic person. I could quickly count how many true friends I actually had when I was down on my luck. I don’t think I would have exposed the current iteration of me, had I not gone through this broke, disenfranchised artist phase of my life. Being impecunious and making ends meet through the kindness of strangers helps put life and self in perspective. For the first time, I saw that not being able to pay for $100 dinners and libations, or Burberry trench coats did not render me any less worthy or interesting as an individual. My father had passed a few months prior to this shift in my work life, so I was literally adrift in open seas with no sight of land. I had no bearings, and my family was in no position to support me. Each day I would wake up and brainstorm ways to contribute to the world and earn my keep. I gave a lot of my work away for whatever price it would fetch, and I struggled to pay my dues. I lived the red queen hypothesis and did “all the running I could to stay in the same place.”
I examined the waste generated by a lifestyle that orbited obsolesce, and a year later, albeit I began making enough money to purchase reasonable wants, I made a pact not to accumulate things, but aspire to live out of two suitcases for the coming three years. I did not buy any furniture, accessories or clothes. If I bought something, it meant I had to give something away, so as to keep all my belongings within the two pieces of luggage. I sublet from people who had furnished apartments, and I ensured I didn’t buy more than my absolute basic necessities. From 2010 to 2013 I successfully embraced a two-suitcases-lifestyle and I was inordinately happy.
Your life is quite complex. Let’s simplify. If a good-looking guy bought you a drink in a bar and said, “So what do you do?” What is your answer that is both a complete representation of you but doesn’t scare him half to death?
AJ: A friend recently asked me to coffee, and he was cute, so I told him, hey can I tell you what I do and you can let me know if you are intimidated? He agreed to participate in the evaluation, so I began telling him my elevator pitch. “I am a creative conservationist and National Geographic Explorer. I construct unique connections between seemingly disparate concepts that I flesh out through multimedia compositions in an interdisciplinary, emotionally intuitive manner that enables and ensures a wild future for us all. I empower people to be conscious of their daily choices, and assume responsibility for the impacts they have every time they vote on our planet’s present and future with their wallets. I get to travel extensively to the frontlines where I get to witness and document the plight of marginalized biodiversity and human communities. This direct experience catalyzes me to communicate the urgent narratives of our time more intimately to the masses. I love what I do, and I am profoundly grateful I get to contribute daily.” He responded, “That wasn’t intimidating, you are just a passionate strong woman, and the kind of man who would want such a woman to shine less just so he could feel better by comparison, isn’t worth your time.”
Q: Your resume has a lot of heavy hitting bullet points but being a National Geographic Explorer is pretty awesome to say the least. I picture it a little like you getting a call where they say, “Asher, we have a mission if you choose to accept it,” and then you jump in the Batmobile and save the world. Close?
AJ: Hahaha, random admission, I love the Batman Lego Movie, so I love that you think I hop in a Batmobile and speed toward my mission! I also do this ridiculous thing when people ask me who is calling, I say, “Jay, Asher Jay.” I am a sucker for Bond and Batman. Who isn’t? All I will say is there have been days when I have woken up sat at my desk to work, only to receive a Google Alert, “Your flight to Paris leaves in ten hours.” And I have literally been like, “what?” And then received a follow up email “Hey Asher, we do need you in Majorca after all, be sure to get on the flight tonight, it leaves JFK at 11, figured that would give you enough time to pack.” Jokes on them, I can pack and be ready in half hour. There have been days when I have woken up at 9:15 am, when my boarding time at LGA was 9:30 am, and somehow I still made it to my plane with time to spare despite waking up in a panic in Midtown Manhattan. So like a caped crusader, international man of mystery, and a sexy spy, I do have to be ready to pick up and leave in a moment’s notice. I do not have a man at every port. I could, but by choice I don’t. Random fact about me, I had fangs where you now see incisors as a child, which led me to act like a bat instead of a human toddler. For instance I would stick my fangs into juice and milk cartons, or even fruits and suck them dry instead of eat them like a normal child. I am surprised my parents felt inclined to having a second child after me; you’d think I would have turned them off procreation completely. I had to get them filed and capped to look normal. In my defense, I did not know Twilight was going to make it so big!
I love that you use the word feral in your description of self. I use the hashtag #sightlyferal for my adventures and lifestyle. What does feral mean in terms of your identity?
AJ: We are all born into prisons of expectations and limited human understanding, but we can always elect to break free of these shackles and re-wild ourselves. I describe myself as feral, in a non-Aussie slang way, in that it refers to the wild within that has diffused and connected inextricably to the wild beyond.
Not only are you an artist, but your life is marvelously colored by actual experiences, expeditions, adventures and travels. Any highlight moments that rocked your world and made you say f-ck yes this is why I do what I do?
AJ: Every wild interaction I have endured while submerged beneath the big blue blanket or while driving through the savanna or hiking over snowy mountain trails in Wyoming or Montana, or clambering through Central American rainforests, has made me feel that way. Whether it is being checked out by a 17-foot female tiger shark off the coast of Kona, or observing moray eels on the hunt at night in a coral reef, there is no wild encounter that doesn’t make me feel validated for protecting their magic for generations to come. They are inimitable and breathtaking.
Think about one of the most magical experiences you have had in the wild and take us there using the five senses.
AJ: I recently went pelagic diving off the coast of the Big Island, and it was utterly otherworldly. Most people do not know that the largest migration on earth happens in our world’s oceans after the sun tucks into the horizon. One million metric tonnes of pelagic wildlife migrate to the surface to feed each night as the stars climb to their zenith in the ebony sky. The salty, raven, primordial potage sparks alive in an ethereal, vibrant blue glow, evidencing the abundance of bioluminescent dinoflagellate algae coddled within each column of water.
Suspended over nearly 8,000 feet of India ink, in what feels like gravity defiant, immersive, fluid black space I realized why aquanauts gave rise to the term astronauts. And as my eyes began to focus under the curated shine of an intentional flashlight, the abyssal pillar of sea no longer felt like an inhospitable void but familiar, akin to Times Square in the summer during rush hour. Swirling underwater UFOs, polyps strung together to form the smallest rotating galaxies, long tendrils of flickering lights that read with the same clarity of charted constellations, wispy membranes that emulated interstellar gas clouds, and the occasional purple-backed squid that inked me in the face after being spooked by my noisy apparition. Suspended squid ink looks exactly like dark matter. A deep-sea dive is akin to drifting through the universe.
The symphony of life was set to the cacophony of my laborious breathing, as I inhaled and exhaled through a voluble regulator. The uniformly pronounced saline palate of the ocean lingered in my mouth, a taste that had snuck in when I was adjusting my regulator on the surface, after disembarking from the boat. The wet, churning liquid was by no means static, as it streamed a multiplicity of microorganisms past me, while incrementally stripping me of my core temperature. My hands protected by black dive gloves took turns directing the light and by extension my gaze, yet not once did they attempt to make contact with any of the extremely fragile miniature extraterrestrials they brought into focus.
What is the vision you’ve developed over the years that helps you stand out as a creative in a world of nearly eight billion humans?
AJ: When I first began illustrating for conservation, Her Deepness, Sylvia Earle told me, “A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an artwork like yours is worth a thousand pictures. This is your talent and path, don’t give it up.” In light of what she said, I think I will let my work speak for itself.
What have been some of the strongest, visceral…maybe even unexpected…reactions to your work?
AJ: People have tattooed my compositions onto their body, think that has been the reaction I never measured for. I love it. People internalizing and relating to my composition on such a personal level that it makes them feel like it extends their voice in the world for a given issue or species, is also why I do what I do!
Passion is a powerful driving force for people. How did yours develop and mold who you are and what you do?
AJ: Wonder is the source of my passion, particularly the wonder seeded in me by the wild. I was as a toddler when I first remember experiencing wonder. I crawled my diapered butt onto a large coffee table book about the oceans. There was a photograph of an octopus against the black backdrop of a sunless ocean, and it captured my soul immediately. I was hooked. What was this alien creature?! What must its world be like? How does it see? What does it feel? What thoughts does it have…? Each question led to another. It is this inherent curiosity to tumble down the rabbit hole of unknowns that has helped me develop my self and career.
I can’t recall a time in my life when I didn’t feel connected to nature. Some of us are just predisposed to care and love all life, no matter the form it has found expression in. I have always felt compelled to speak out in favor of the eclipsed voices in our world and bring light to the struggles endured by the marginalized. In my formative years I was encouraged by my mother to rescue, rehabilitate and release compromised wildlife, whether it was birds being hawked illegally for pets or squirrels that had fallen out of their nests.
I brought any living creature that needed shelter and sustenance home, and my mom never failed to help me attend to their needs. We had an entire medicine cabinet with millets; grains, dried bugs, seeds and nuts, which we would grind up to supplement the diet of the critters we found. Once I did the necessary research to customize their nutritional needs, my mom would ready the ink fillers or syringes to feed the younglings in our care. Cultivating this early sensitivity toward beings that looked far different from me has played a pivotal role in shaping my passion for the unique and irreplaceable biodiversity extant on this planet. When you focus on the similarities instead of the differences, you can always find enough common ground to forge a meaningful, deep connection, whether it is with a snail or a fellow human being. I have always looked to the degrees of connection between things and not the degrees of separation. Coexistence cannot be persuaded within the self without a shift in internal perspective, from a myopic emphasis on the ephemeral parts to the effortless recognition of the enduring whole. This is what I strive to promote in my creative outputs.
You speak of your childhood with fondness, emphasizing the freedom that was granted to you and the wildness in your own soul that was allowed to burn. How did this loving lack of boundaries help you become YOU?
AJ: Not being assigned strong identities that I had to blindly follow urged me to question not only the labels and adjectives people assigned to me or I felt aligned with, but such a lack of definition has, over the years, caused me to question the concept of identity itself. Identity is just a way of placing limits on who you are and how much of your presence is available to life around you in a given a moment. The moment it dawned on me that I was still conscious and aware of my self, with or without the words to qualify my existence, I found freedom in unity and ubiquity. Even if I were to forget who I am and what I do, I would not cease to exist; I now assign value to that within me which is, irrespective of how it finds expression in a given instant. Is that too high brow philosophical? I can rephrase my insight.
There is freedom in letting go of your limited understanding of your self, as relinquishing the contours of control frees up space to be truly circulated through the entire system of life. You shape your reality by setting your own limits, and you isolate yourself the instant you underscore disparities over resemblances. In truth you are limitless and intrinsically bound to all life as but one pulse of its unfettered presence. Wild is unbound, it unfolds in real time, it is constantly recalibrating for ever-evolving circumstances, which is why we are unbelievably captivated by it. It’s “life” finding articulation in its rawest, most unencumbered sense. We, humans, are an extension of this; we have just gotten trapped in our overactive minds and estranged ourselves from its supremely innovative frequency.
Can you give a brief summary of your nomadic upbringing that had an impact on your current life mission?
AJ: I am grateful my mother highlighted travel as an indispensable part of my education. We usually took three trips a year growing up, often to National parks or reserves. She sent me on camping trips, hikes, and taught me the importance of plunging into the unknown instead of clinging to the known, of relating outside my comfort zone. She told me once discomfort would instill more character in me, than any tutor. Traveling has raised me to know my place on the planet, as a part of and not apart from it. Seeing new places, witnessing how other people and animals live, learning how they differ from me, has fortified my ability to embrace the unexpected, and empowered me to feel enriched by the unfamiliar. I wouldn’t be in a position to speak of unity without knowing or feeling such respect and awe for diversity.
What’s your favorite place in the world?
AJ: Bozeman, Montana. A guy I met on a plane from Minneapolis to Bozeman a week ago asked me this question and then he told me that my standard answer from that moment on should be, “Bozeman.” I spent four days there, in what I can only qualify as a magical snow globe, hiking the powder-dusted trails with like-minded friends and I have to say I am completely in love with its formidable beauty. There is something otherworldly about mountains and the open sky. I was there in the summer as well, to explore the wolf reintroduction sites and I loved its seasonally verdant, undulating expanse.
Not many know this little insight into me. My favorite book growing up was Nicholas Evans’ The Horse Whisperer, which was set in Montana. My mate in Yorkshire recommended it to me funnily enough, she and I bonded over our love of animals and horses. As a kid, when my parents asked me where I would want to go to University or live, I’d say Montana. I honestly did not even know where it was located. I just knew I wanted the pace of life and sense of space reflected in the story, and like any little girl I wanted to live in a world of horses. Montana coalesced my love of nature and horses, what more could I possibly need as an eleven-year-old? I have since been ensnared by the dichotomy between two polar opposite lifestyles, the frenzied Big City stride versus the pastoral Countryside saunter. I will confess that I need nature as much as I need nurture to be who I am daily. I think the craving for the prior has increased with age. I later watched the film based on this book, and Robert Redford certainly did all the characters justice, particularly the horse, Pilgrim. If he is reading this piece by some miracle, he should know he only further exacerbated my romantic notion of moving to Montana and finding a rancher’s son to fall in love with. Haha wouldn’t it be funny if that came to fruition? The invite would read, “bring your own horse!”
Your travel schedule must make it impossible to maintain a routine, how do you manage?
AJ: You can say that again, gym is just a charity I donate to monthly! My favorite routine to observe is arising each day to grind my own cup of coffee, aero-pressing the rich dark brown granular powder into deeply intoxicating espresso shots for a custom homemade incredibly foamy cappuccino. It’s an elaborate ritual that I take productive pleasure in. However, tragically, even this set up doesn’t always travel with me. When it does, I will mention that all field researchers do take it upon themselves to make a pitstop by my camp to get their coffee to go. I was so particular that I even brought cinnamon to the field, so I could dust each serving like a true barista. Nothing spells commitment like hand pumping foam for your feral cappuccino. People call it glamping (glamorous camping); I call it my survival kit. However when I travel to civilized places and not the bush wild, I leave my caffeine distilling apparatus in my studio in NYC, so the only routines I abide by no matter where I am geographically, are: 1. Ingesting a disconcerting amount of sugar daily, in the form of baked goods, chocolate and candy 2. Meditating before I sleep, and 3. Rising to a musical number on my alarm clock and dancing a whole high energy choreographed sequence to it.
What do you do best?
AJ: Love. Platonic and romantic love! I love immensely and effusively. I give a lot to all my friends. I mail out cards, notes and letters to my tribe, at random, so they know they are being thought of and appreciated. I surprise people with gifts. I always show up for my people. I am loyal as can be, and I am kind no matter how someone chooses to behave toward me. I don’t let their ignorance diminish my awareness. People can mistake kindness for weakness, but if you only have a 100 years on earth, why spend them being selfish and sinister like Scrooge? I am a happy person, and much of my happiness stems from being able to nourish others, and love exponentially.
When it comes to romantic love, I love in grand gestures, sonnets, poems, letters, and proclamations, all espoused with sincerity, intensity and integrity. All my friends have asked me to curb it or put a lid on it, and play games so as to be less “available.” I simply can’t seem to find the off button, once I care, there is no off button. I can’t say my prolific nature is received well. I think the idea of me is more appealing to the opposite sex than the reality of me.
So much of our dating culture orbits being consumptive of people, treating human beings like commodities that can be exploited, extracted or traded. I honestly don’t know how that makes anyone happy, much less how that rouses growth intellectually, emotionally, spiritually or physically in anyone who part takes in such a destructive modality. We have countless apps that portray multifaceted people as two-dimensional products with branded page layouts, and we swipe through them like yellow page listings. There is no complexity to the culture such platforms promulgate, yet I know many couples who have had successful relationships born out of them. Maybe I am just the odd duck because I do not care to fit in a drop-down menu, and I refuse to sell my whole as parts through one line ad spots with my age on the top right corner. To me the format is laughable and I would never actually fall authentically in love with someone I meet in such a curated manner. My life is about spontaneity, so how could I possibly find something real on constrained forums?
Love, to me, is unconditional, inclusive and expansive. You know where I learned that? From animals! From observing and interacting with wildlife on land and in the world’s oceans. There is something so forgiving and gracious about a truly unreserved bond, whether between a pet and their person or between a humpback whale and its calf. Love is our redeeming grace and salvation. It imbues me with hope, and paints me eager to embrace a brave new world and a brand new day, every day! Don’t fear life, or people, or experiences or connections, instead choose to encounter this world through the filter of love. When you love, life is ripe in solutions and togetherness.
What’s the worst or weirdest thing you have ever eaten?
AJ: Fried scorpion! They say it tastes just like chicken, but really it’s more akin to a soft shell crab and I don’t like eating those either. It was not my cuppa, too crunchy and the stinger has a zest I do not care for… I was kept awake that night by the daunting picture of predatory arachnid parts floating in my tummy and that was far from pleasant. I am okay with mealworms; they are chewy and nutty, like segmented unsweetened beige raisins. Crickets have become too pedestrian to qualify as an exotic epicurean delight. I got through those just fine. I cannot and will not consume maggots or spiders. A girl has to draw her line somewhere, no matter how adventurous she is. Perhaps circumstances will compel me in the future to try more aberrant things! Life happens.
What’s your favorite natural phenomenon?
AJ: I love witnessing the power of the planet, so natural disasters do captivate me completely. I love that this biosphere can claim us back at any moment, yet we think we have all the control. It’s laughable really that we are so arrogant, and naïve. However, my favorite phenomena are upward lightning and snow. I watch, transfixed and enchanted, as snowflakes fall and frost the ground. I doubt I could ever satiate looking at the white powder make its way from the lofty blue above to the brown I stand upon. It’s almost as though the sky wants us to know what it feels like to walk upon it.
Funniest thing that has happened to you in the wild?
AJ: In the Andaman Islands, there used to be the world’s only swimming elephant, by the name of Raja who would wade out into the sea each morning with his mahout. Divers were allowed to dive around and beneath this hefty, aquatic pachyderm, so I signed up for it one morning. I got dung bombed in the face and through my regulator. Elephants can take a shit when swimming as it turns out, and it isn’t apologetic in size.
A more recent memory was in Hawaii, while I was out surveying the state of bleaching amidst cauliflower corals, a dolphin calf and her patient mother unexpectedly joined me. I was on my own, so I kept up with their frolicking. Shortly thereafter the entire pod joined us, and I swam out into sea with them. It was unbelievably magical, I even began making clicking sounds and whistling through my snorkel as I motored my fins to maintain my position amidst the formation. They made contact from time to time, by lining their body against mine, which made me feel more dolphin than human, and if I could have rapidly evolved a blowhole, I would have left my terrestrial ways behind right then and there. Partway through, the young male dolphin swimming right beneath me veered to the side and emptied his bowels. The currents ran in his favor but right into my snorkel.
I have been crapped on by two species now, and I sure hope that hits my lifetime quota.
Something you have not disclosed in an interview before.
AJ: When the weather turns cold in NYC, I begin putting together these care packages that contain food, warm clothes, pet food, toys and beverages; I then walk around until I locate a homeless person I can drop off the bag for. I feel poorly knowing that there are those out there that are overlooked by society at large and are suffering both emotionally and physically in the harsh winter months, while the privileged get to bundle up and feel nourished and loved. I do what I can as an individual to make a difference, but I think we can come together to impact many lives across the whole nation. No one wants to be sitting with a street sign in the snow or cold rain begging for scraps and alms. I find it hard to walk past these people because sometimes I have nothing to give and I too dismiss them like countless others who have walked past them that day. I suppose we walk past without truly relating because in acknowledging them, we are obliged to examine how we are failing a fellow human being, so it’s better to be in denial than to deal with their presence. I bet it makes them feel invisible, and worthless to be unseen by so many that walk right past them. It weighs on me. I try not to make judgments or assumptions about those who have fallen on hard times, but many friends have told me that I am just falling for their bag of tricks, and being conned by people regularly. I give in different ways, sometimes even at Grand Central Station, I buy fare cards for people. I doubt people would hold a sign expressing need if they were living in abundance. Would I ever be begging for a train ticket if I had the means to get one? No. So why on earth would anyone else be vulnerable to something as unpredictable as relying on the kindness of strangers?
I always ask if they want what I have to offer, and when they accept I always thank them for receiving. I don’t give money, I prefer giving in kind, because I would hate to see my contribution enable someone to overdose on drugs or alcohol.
I would be eager to build an app that would help scale the giving I am capable of alone. Yes, it is incredible that there are soup kitchens and apps to redistribute food from events that would otherwise go to waste, but I think we can customize giving in the age of technology. What someone needs can be catered to by someone who has more than they need in the same zip-code. That’s what I want to do with my spare time, build a mobile interface that would allow people to be there for people. If anyone reading this wants to partner up, hit me up via my website! I would love to collaborate with others who share my vision, so don’t hesitate to reach out. I don’t think giving should be limited to the cold months of the year, but it is a start.
You are, in your own words, a deeply emotional creature. That quality made it impossible for you not to choose the path you’re on. How so?
AJ: In 2014 I was given the accolade of National Geographic Emerging Explorer and receiving their magnanimous acknowledgment definitely felt like a spam mail from a Nigerian prince at first. The title and award helped put me on the radar, but I still have to wake up each morning and brainstorm ways to contribute to the world and earn my keep.
It is surreal when your life pivots and the same people who doubted you begin to embrace you for being exactly what you have always been, your authentic, evolving self. People often ask me about the process, and how one gets picked to be a National Geographic Explorer. My particular case was just fortuitous and like everything else in my bubble, it unfolded organically. You see, I cried at my own talk during the Global Plenary session at Wild 10. I was so embarrassed by my inability to keep my emotions about the ivory trade to myself, that I sat down mortified by my conduct. Apparently my vulnerability and transparency had reached even the most jaded policymakers in the room, which culminated in the entire audience giving me a standing ovation and many delegates as well as members of various non-profits rushing the stage. I was still welling up and couldn’t see or hear what was transpiring, but when I regained my composure, I found myself face to face with the then VP of Nat Geo. He asked me to visit the headquarters in DC when I returned stateside, to give a talk to the Yellow Border’s enthusiastic staff. I recall being welcomed into the family shortly after giving a talk in DC. It was heartwarming to be accepted for ‘who’ I was and ‘what’ I had to offer, which was just a dog’s breakfast of skills and interests.
At what point did art and conservation intersect for you?
AJ: When I came across my first cave paintings as a child! Pictorial representations of wild have always been a part of how we handed wild onto the next generation, so I always saw the relationship between the two. I made a career of it only in 2010, right after the BP oil spill unraveled me emotionally.
What is the core message of your art?
AJ: The fate and future of nature rests on you. You get to shape the world we live in with every action you take. You determine whether wild has a place in our collective timeline, so choose wisely, like every decision matters, because it does. Countless lives are affected by and depend on your every choice.
Do you find the inspiration for your art pieces or does it find you?
AJ: It is a back and forth process, as my canvas or the dimensions of empty space for an installation often speaks to me and tells me how it wants to be resolved. If I put down a daub of paint, what comes beside it or over it is partly disclosed by that daub. So it is a process of co-creation, where I do not know what something is going to turn out like until I am already immersed in it. At times you can hear me having conversations with my canvas or sculpture, pleading with it to tell me what it needs, why it is giving me such attitude and shutting me out or what more it wants to drain me of before it will open up and whisper its secrets to me! It sounds deranged, but all artists are to some extent, deranged. We live in an alternate reality. Most people are shocked I don’t do any drugs and am legless after just one cocktail. The public expects artists to be more sauced than that, yet I am not.
There have been works I have created that I would like to resolve differently now because as I grow, I feel the need to revisit and change my creative offspring. I want their story to grow with me. To me, my work, are my living children, and I recall them even if they are no longer with me. I fawn and fuss over them even if they are finished products hanging on my wall, but they call to me and make small asks of me from time to time. I am inspired by every detail of life, from a stripe on a formal shirt, to a stain on the subway platform. Life is inspiring and unfolding all around me, as is my creative process. I also get visions, I often see the completed canvas or idea in my head before I begin a work. Sometimes I do not even have the skill to execute the work I see in my mind’s eye, which forces me to learn new mediums, processes and skills.
My best, most memorable works have all come to me as finished compositions. All I had to do was give them life. I saw them so starkly that I simply had to reproduce them. I say “reproduce” because they came produced, they came to me as clearly completed images, there was nothing to add or resolve, it was self-evident. At times I have to search the Internet and all the art books I own to make sure that an idea or pictorial representation I am seeing within my headspace isn’t already a part of our world. It is that vivid. Makes me feel humble to know that I am channeled by something beyond me to do what I do, because honestly a lot of the time I cannot take credit for what I give rise to, as it simply pours through me. I am more a vessel or a brush that executes than the source that conceives. I surrender to that.
What do you mean when you encourage people to “channel their inner mosquito?” I love this statement.
AJ: A mosquito, despite its diminutive size, is able to affect beings several times its size, and make a pronounced impact every time it lands a bite. If a mosquito can hold such power, imagine what you are capable of?
You consider yourself a wild thing. How would you translate for us your connection to the wild and all its inhabitants?
AJ: How can you not be spellbound when you see a flawless shiver of silky sharks cruise around you? When I am with a shark, the shark within me comes alive, when I am with a rhino; the rhino within me comes alive. So when wild disappears, it’s really parts of me, a part of us, that ends up disappearing, and such a loss is palpable.
I am in love with wild.
Isn’t it extraordinary that we get to share time, space and a common lineage with beings that look so very different from us? We are all different, yet we are irreplaceable articulations of the same source — life.
Naturally, when I awaken each day, I feel compelled by the beauty and wonder of nature to create compositions, coin campaigns and draft impact assessments or script stand up comedy routines to reconnect people to this raw understanding of life and to humanity’s true biological history. My creative purpose is to evoke the wonder I experience in others, so they too might elect to embrace interdependence over independence, nature over nurture and wonder over worrying.
Wild is where we come from, wild is who we are, and wild is what need to rediscover during the Anthropocene, the Age of Man. Wild is the wonderstruck child within us that we stand to lose forever, if we don’t each do everything in our power to protect it. We must wonder at the wild, preserve the wild beyond and within ourselves.
Modern parlance has really hijacked the term “spirit animal,” but if anyone on this planet has the right to claim one, it’s you. So, what is it?
AJ: Scorpion mouse! It is also known as the grasshopper mouse. It leaves its burrow three weeks after its birth to heed the call of the wild beyond, and to make its own way in the world. It sits up on its haunches and howls at the moon, it is astute and adept at surviving against intractable odds and it feeds off of poisonous predators. Really it became my spirit animal when I heard its piercing cry resound through the Sonoran desert. Do not let its size or cute demeanor fool you, it is one scrappy, tough, evangelist for independence. I love that no matter how small, you have impact and you can assert your presence in the big world!
Your favorite travel memory?
AJ: I have always been a handful and my parents tossed me out ages ago, and while my trip to Scotland at age fourteen got them to denounce me, my trip to wales was when my dad said, “I’m not paying for you to find yourself anymore. If you are still lost after this latest soul-searching journey, then stay lost. I’m done funding your introspective process, it’s expensive, absurd and always involves a train or flight ticket.” Unfortunately he died before he could see me make a career of it, he would have been vastly amused and exasperated to know that I got my way and had the last laugh. When he reprimanded me about my trip to Wales, I responded, “But dad I have to make this literary pilgrimage to Tintern Abbey, it is a bucket list must. How else can Sir William Wordsworth and I bridge the time-space continuum from atop the hill from whence he once witnessed the ruins? I plan to assume his perch and see a landscape unchanged between us over 250 years! Doesn’t that stir you?”
“Stir me? Stop talking like you’re from his time. You think you have a valid pursuit each time and all I am saying is that I am not swiping my visa anymore.” I asserted,”Dad, years from now when I get interviewed on BBC I’ll tell them you held back my young imagination, romance with the literary arts and that you dared to come between Wordsworth and I” To which my dad replied, “You said the same thing about Shakespeare last summer.” “And I meant every word Dad, it’s the whole nature versus nurture argument that Prospero underscored!” Despite my father’s tantrums, I did make my way alone to the towering ruins of Tintern Abbey to read the poem named after the place, out loud to the babbling brook and copses.
“Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a sweet inland murmur.*—Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
Which on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky.”
And felt alive in every cell as I realized how much nature enriched me, and how much I shared in common with Wordsworth.
“In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,”
I was an odd kid; I spent a lot of time alone being romanced and feeling understood by dead poets and writers.
What future life goals do you have? Any big bucket list items, travels, career goals, etc.
AJ: Find the love of my life, marry him and live happily ever after! Travel to all the countries of the world before I die. Dive as many marine abundance sites as possible (preferably from liveaboards), and explore as many national parks as I can.
What do you feel are your biggest professional and personal accomplishments to date?
AJ: Installing my Message in a Bottle exhibit in Times Square at the National Geographic Encounter has definitely been a wonderful feather in my cap, as was participating the Faberge Big Egg Hunt (which exhibited at the Rockefeller Center) and installing anti-ivory, anti-rhino horn billboard campaigns with my artwork across Chinese cities in partnership with Wild Aid. The best is yet to come, and I have a few projects in the pipeline that I am extremely excited about.
What would you be doing if not this? What’s Asher Jay doing in some parallel universe?
AJ: Sleeping, and when awake hopefully having a whole lot meaningful, passionate, wild, unapologetic sex. The Asher in this world is neither getting laid, on account of not having found a worthy intimate partner, nor is she getting any shut-eye thanks to her overactive, kinetic mind.
Everyone has a message they put out into the world through their words, actions and lifestyle. What is yours?
AJ: Share, care and be self-aware.
What questions would you like to be asked by journalists?
AJ: How many pizzas have you ever eaten in one sitting? Two large deep-dish pies that I proudly washed down with ten glasses of Coca-Cola at the age of 13. No one has ever understood how I am skinny. How many three-layer slices of cake can I consume in one sitting? Seven. I am slightly nauseous after, but like that fat kid in Matilda, I will not back down from such a sweet challenge.