reen & jess : part one
You know that saying, “you meet everyone for a reason”? Well, it turns out to be true in this case. I met Jess 14 years ago and I’ve been learning from her ever since. She's crazy talented with a fierce determination to create. She was the first person I knew who was selling art on Etsy, and convinced me to start my own shop too. She was the first young woman I knew who had started her own creative business and blog and even had her own studio. We instantly clicked and a friendship was born. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to witness the transformation of her work as a photographer, as well as watch her develop ideas into bigger projects including two more businesses, Golden Blue where she sells her Birds Oracle Deck along with other beautiful treasures and Bartender Atlas that she owns and manages with her husband, Josh. As if that wasn't enough, she's also a Reiki practitioner and writer. But to tell you the truth, the business success and professional talents aside, it’s her generosity and thoughtfulness that inspires me. No matter how much she has on her plate, she consistently remembers and makes time for the people in her life. She's supportive. She always checks on me, even by snailmail with hand-written notes delivered to my actual mailbox (just cause). She would offer to go to chemo with me (even just to sit quietly and hold my hand) or deliver homemade soup (my favourite) and go for quiet walks to watch birds. She pays attention and always listens so carefully. I'm really lucky to have her in my life.
It seemed right to start this series of female-focussed interviews with her. I hope you’ll enjoy reading her ideas and will also feel inspired (the way I always feel around her) to look upward, listen carefully and always choose to chase the light.
Jess is a photographer, writer and small business owner based in Toronto. She has a BFA in Photography Studies from Ryerson University and has been a freelance photographer for 16 years. Photography has taken her all over the world from Trinidad to Cuba to France to New Zealand. She loves using her camera to dive into the lives of others. Jess is the creator of Birds Oracle Deck and is currently working on a second volume of it. Along with her bartender husband, Josh, she runs Bartender Atlas, a worldwide directory of bartenders. Through Bartender Atlas, they create and organise cocktail-focused events all over the world including Toronto Cocktail Conference, an annual event for over 500 people. When not busy creating and scheming up new projects, Jess can usually be found in nature looking for birds or hopping on a plane to her next adventure. She loves coffee, pilates and being Auntie Jess to her three nieces and one nephew.
Eau de Vie, Melbourne
1. I’ve known you for a while now, over 14 years (!!) and one thing that never ceases to amaze me is your determination. You manage three business and are also writing a sequel to Birds Oracle Deck. What motivates you to continuously create?
I like to keep busy and I like to constantly challenge myself. Since graduating from University in 2003, I have run my own business. When you are living that self-employed/freelance life, there is no time to really pause. It is a constant hustle to get work and to build something really great. I love the challenge of all of that. And once you start building something and start getting feedback from clients and consumers and followers, it feels so good. Suddenly you have these people cheering you on from the sidelines which pushes me even further to do great things. The last thing that I want to do is disappoint them.
Jess signing copies of the Birds Oracle Deck Book that accompanies the deck
2. I’ve heard that it’s not easy to run a business with a spouse but you and Josh have successfully launched a company that demands a lot from you both. What do you enjoy about that process and can you share some of the challenges?
I love that through Bartender Atlas we have been able to create something that combines both of our skill sets. It is a constant challenge for us working together. We learned early on that we should each rely on our strong points and trust the other with their own. We have started dividing up the tasks of what we do. Josh becoming more of the “face” of the business and me being more “behind the scenes”. But, like everything in life, we do butt heads once and a while where we have conflicting ideas of how to go about a challenge so there is a lot of talking things out, a lot of time alone reflecting and then coming together again to solve the problem.
La Condesa, Mexico City
3. I love mugs but one of my favourites is the one you gifted me that belonged to your Nanny before she passed away. I love the portraits you took of her and her hands and that you wear her rings. You had the chance (sorry, I should say, you created the time) to sit down with her and record some of her thoughts. I think that’s such a special thing you did. What are some of the thoughts she shared with you, that have stuck?
Just before my Nanny turned 90, I wanted to create a video interview of her telling her story. Like I am sure everyone thinks, my Nanny was the best. She was one of the kindest people I have ever met and she always spoiled us grandkids. She lived a very humble life, she worked at a factory for 30 years before retiring. Terrible work but work that enabled her to live well in retirement. And she never complained once. The interesting thing in doing that interview was realising that she had never been involved in new technology. A phone and Cable TV is as far as she got. She never once touched a computer or a smart phone. She knew there was something out there called the Internet but she had never experienced it. I was also amazed at her childhood and how much our society has changed in a relatively short time. She grew up on a farm outside of Port Hope, Ontario. Her parents were immigrants from Ireland and England who met on a farm which is now where Sunnybrook Hospital is in Toronto. Once they had saved enough money, they bought the farm, traveling the 100 kilometres (or so) via a Horse and carriage. She went to a one-room schoolhouse that went up to Grade 8. Form there, here parents couldn’t afford to send her to a school further away to continue her studies so she moved “into town” which was Port Hope. That was just what you did in those days. She moved into a boarding room with her sister above a restaurant where they were waitresses. Imagine being 15 years old and this being your life. How spoiled we are today! (I could talk on and on about her but that is what first comes to mind!)
4. I have so many more questions but I’m going to limit this to four more. Anthony Bourdain said that you always ask someone what makes them happy...(sounds simple but it’s maybe the toughest to answer).
What makes me happy? Being outside. Walking in the woods alone. Swimming in the ocean. Laughing with my husband. Discovering new places. My nieces and nephew. A nice glass of wine or a shot of mezcal.
Auntie Jess with her sweet nieces and nephew
5. Thinking about and observing birds has become a big part of your life, but it sounds like you’ve been drawn to them since you were young. You shared a story about watching a flock of barn owls fly from a palm tree above you. I can only imagine how moving that must’ve been (the image has even stayed with me!). But in your recent years observing birds in their natural habitats, what have you learned from them?
I have learned that when it comes to birds, there is so much more to see. Birds are everywhere and yet we often don ‘t even notice them. You can discover so much of them even in your own backyard. Each species is so unique and it’s just so hard for me to describe how much I love them. Birds light me up.
Ferrunginous Pygmy Owl photographed by Jessica in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca
6. As a photographer with broad experience, you’ve captured special occasions, people in movement, landscapes, the corporate world, art, wildlife, and lifestyles. You’re given access to people’s personal spaces and present them with the gift of capturing a moment in time. What does it feel like to stand behind a REAL camera, look through the viewfinder and explore a perspective that is true to the subject and your art.
My camera gives me access to people in a way that I would not have. I get these intimate insights into their lives and I learn so much from it. I learn about their life stories and their insecurities. It is such an honour when people choose me to document them and it is such an honour when they choose to share a part of their story with me. There are a lot of life lessons to be learned when listening to others share and in learning from them, I believe that my life has become much richer and vast.
self portrait, Toronto
7. you have a thing for chasing light - whether it’s early morning portraits (or people or birds) with the rising sun or the fullness of the moon. When I look at your pictures during those times of the day and night they capture a magical feeling. What is it about that specific light (sunrise and moonlight) that draws you in?
This is such a hard thing for me to describe. Light makes me feel. I am drawn to it. I do better when I am in places with night natural light. My heart swoons when I see pockets of light. Light peaking through cracks. Light reflecting from skyscrapers. Patterns that light makes through things like the leaves of trees. It lifts me up and simply inspires me to create images. It allows us to see our world and spaces differently. I have learned that it is always worth seeking and hunting for good light nor matter how early you need to get up for it!
Like this strip of light on a building that I took here the other day.
Like the light here that hit just the head and upper body of this woodpecker perfectly.
8. And finally, do you have any questions for me?
Not right now but I bet I can come up with some! :)
Jess and I usually skip the small talk and get right into the real stuff, so this is definitely going to be the first of many "interviews" and maybe one day we can record one of these. For now, I'll just hold onto her wise words and the gift of her friendship. I'll always be cheering you on from the sidelines, Jess! Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions for me (and for being patient as I figure out how I want to present them). Keep up the inspiring work and never stop chasing that light. Love you!
new year, new project
Hello and welcome to The Cactus Flower Journals: a collective that will feature journals, interviews, essays, illustrations, poems, possibly some bad puns & other stuff about life's beautiful (and sometimes prickly) moments.
I have had a journal and loved writing for most of my life. It was my favourite subject in school and I switched majors in University to pursue studying it. Blooming late, but in perfect time.
It's no surprise that eventually my words would catch up with me, needing a larger space to grow. Words have the power to build, connect, inspire and flatter, but they can also wound, break, offend and belittle. Words have the power to represent a feeling, which can grow into an idea that can evolve into an action.
And like a cactus, standing still and protected by some thorns, ideas take time to blossom. I hope we can share some kind and honest words here. It's an extension of kisii, and gives me a place to share my first love: writing.
The thing I love most about owning a small shop are the connections I've made to other like-minded people. Karen is one of those people. In my first year of opening the shop, she bought coconut wood bracelets for her relatives as Christmas gifts. I remember feeling so excited when she sent me a message, asking if I would be able to make her more than the 3-4 isted in my inventory on the shop. Of course I would! I never imagined that someone would want more than a few, so this made me really happy.
We kept in touch over the years and I admired her work from afar, listening to her podcasts and reading her blogs - feeling connected from afar and always remembering the support she offered me in my first year of owning a small, creative business. Karen is that kind of person.
A few months ago, after I read that her family had to rebuild their home from scratch after Hurricane Harvey, I felt I compelled to reach out. We decided to join efforts and begin a project to "make light" named after her podcast.
For every necklace or keychain sold, the proceeds will benefit luminAID's Give Light Initiative, a company whose mission is to bring safe light to those who need it the most. I'm so grateful to Karen for inspiring me to shine my own light where I can - it's these connections that make it all worth it. Please join us in fundraising for this important cause ♡
The loom is ready for a new adventure!
I'll be using some very special yarn from Americo Original for this one. This lovely shop will be closing soon and I'd like to celebrate its legacy with a piece made using some beautiful, naturally-dyed Peruvian yarn.
I found Americo the year I began chemo. I had no idea at the time that I would open a shop, or learn how to use a loom to weave. At the time, I was just a beginner knitter, making baby blankets for all the newborns in the family.
Nicole has been an amazing mentor and friend over the years. My winter hats might still turn out like pointy triangles, but it's no fault of her patient teaching. She's planning her retirement now and I'm so excited to see where her new adventures will lead to. As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I'm sure her wisdom will benefit many, just as her love of knitting has.
One thing is for sure, I will keep going back to her for knitting advice. The things she's taught me about slow-craft hit really close to home on so many levels. Knitting is like life - we try, make mistakes, reflect and try again until we get it just right.
I've been reading a lot about the Scandinavian concepts of Lagom (not too little, not too much), Hygge and Lykke (simple pleasures and everyday happiness). I've also been pulled towards decluttering my personal space to make room for...well, more space basically. Clear space, to help keep my mind clear too (sidenote: chemo brain fog is a thing!).
So, as someone who wants to live with less, it's been an interesting challenge as a small business owner. Of course, like any business, I want to see it grow and become a steady source of income. But to embrace this philosophy with integrity, means creating stuff with purpose.
While Lagom is about finding balance, Hygge is about the cozy comforts that surround you. Even for the mindfully minimal person, the point is not to detach and deny yourself of the simple pleasures in life that bring you happiness. Rather, think of yourself as a curator instead of a collector and fill your personal space with things that are meaningful.
Pretty honest it turns out. I recently bought some from Maiwa and it is the most beautiful linen I've ever seen.
Embroidery is a big part of my family's tradition so it's no surprise that I grew up to adore it. Who wouldn't fall in-love with the intricate work involving soft textiles, colourful dyes, beautiful threads and block prints? I know I did. So when I discovered Honest Yarn through Maiwa, I couldn't resist getting my hands on some (literally). This beautiful linen was naturally dyed and made from Belgian organic flax, spun in Bengal.
You can read more about the company here, and please do because they have a Foundation, which is a non-profit organization dedicated to education and the relief of poverty for traditional artisans and their family. The purpose is to reduce poverty in rural villages by promoting artisan self-sufficiency. Good people doing good stuff.
I decided to use this beautiful, naturally dyed organic linen to make these tassels. Paired with birch wood and some simple silver details, I am so happy with how they turned out.
My family is from Kenya, and a love of wildlife in all of it's forms was passed down to me. David Sheldrick is well-known in East Africa for the work he began in the 1940s, transforming some of the land into one of Kenya's National Parks. His conservation efforts were unparalleled for his time and his love of wildlife helped change attitudes. He founded The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a haven for elephants, rhinos and many other animals.
Since then, so much has changed and yet, there is still so much important work to be done. I really try to focus on the positives in life, but it would be silly to ignore the important work that still needs to be done. The reality is that today, threats to the environmental stability of the area includes elephant and rhino poaching (for ivory and horn), snaring of animals for large scale trade (some countries will pay big bucks for that rare, game meat), and illegal logging of forested areas (which is another issue all together). But The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is doing it's part and more, and one program in particular - their incredible foster program is an example of that. I hope through these types of small efforts, we can raise some awareness. The Last White Rhino is now gone, and I think we have it in our power to create a shift in animal conservation in our lifetime.
So, to celebrate the arrival of summer, I’ve decided to donate all proceeds from the sale of the bracelet pictured above towards DSWT. It was handmade using carved birch wood, and features one hand-stamped and sterling silver fair trade elephant charm.
I’ve been an elephant foster for a few years now. I love it and hope you’ll join me in helping these beautiful elephants find their way back to the wild. Also, it's time for me to pay it forward as Kisii is named after a Kenyan city after all!
The fundraiser will run until August 1. Thanks for your support! 🐘❤️
Have you heard of the company péla? It’s the first compostable phone case, made using biodegradable plant-based materials to help keep less plastic out of our oceans. I have always been a lover of the ocean and have never owned a phone case, so when my phone got smashed beyond repair, this was my chance to justify the purchase of a product I've never needed before.
Signe, a good friend of mine who is an eco-blogger introduced me to the company. I loved their mission: trying their best to preserve the planet for our children and beyond. They don't claim to be perfect in their efforts but they are always pushing themselves to believe in better, to be better and to do better every single day. That is a philosophy I respect.
I feel so good knowing that companies like this exist. And I LOVE that a Canadian company is leading the way towards positive change, with a truly sustainable, innovative eco-friendly product that can really make a difference. It's beyond ironic that this plant-based material is going to protect my technology.
Can you believe that 1 million seabirds are killed annually by ocean plastic? Or that 93% of Americans aged 6 and up test positive for BPA. Too many more scary statistics.
The earth is what we all have in common, and we must do our part to take care of it.
Wouldn't it be amazing to get home and find a surprise parcel filled with things you love at your doorstep, or a hand-written letter waiting in your mailbox? Warm, unexpected, friendly gestures melt my heart. I'm sure there are lots of people out there who still make time to do things like this for others, but it seems more and more rare.
Life is busy. We keep ourselves distracted by aiming for more, planning for more and even spending more. More, more, more! It's a culture of consumption. That's one of the reasons I tried to create a shop that is filled with goods that are handmade with intention. But is there a way to balance a slower, more mindful lifestyle while hustling to be a girl boss and a teacher, and still make time for random acts of kindness? Sure there is!
Time is no infinite resource (unless we're talking about it in a grander scale, relative to the Universe). Becoming aware of how we spend our time is a start. For example, I wasn't on social media until recently so it takes me a little longer to learn/understand it, but the hours I spend each day online can be saved. I don't have to use as much time thinking about daily posts or Instagram stories to build an authentic brand. People who care will be there. What does it matter how many followers you have, if you're not truly connected to them? All that time spent thinking about the online world suddenly becomes extra time. Maybe the online world is a giant, black hole where time may actually be infinite - it's always there regardless of where you are.
Maybe we can find little reserves of time in our day that can be redirected in more meaningful ways that make us a little nicer to ourselves and the people around us. Like a tree that spreads it's branches in all directions, we can create goals and make plans that are not based solely on ourselves, and our roots of kindness will grow farther. We can make our own work more meaningful, and bring joy to others too. I'm trying to reinforce this in my own life these days.
So here's our homework: do something really nice for someone this week. Follow the ideas in the picture above (taken from The Little Book of Lykke: the Danish search for the world's happiest people), or think of something different. Do something for someone who isn't expecting it. Just cause. Here begins my new personal project to start random acts of kindness. I hope you'll join me on these warm and fuzzy adventures.
I've always been interested in meditation. Having grown up in a South Asian home during a time where getting 'Indian' groceries meant driving all the way to Gerrard Street in Toronto for fresh mangoes, I also had the incredible experience of learning about Eastern medicine, spirituality and culture (an education I wouldn't receive in public school).
As a kid, I remember watching my Grandfather silently practice yoga with 30 minute headstands, or watching my Grandmother cook traditional foods, listening to my family gather to sing and read traditional poetry, or even enjoying freshly picked mint from a loved one's garden...there was method to each practice. They were being mindful.
As a teenager and young adult, I would watch my Mom stand before her special spot at home and light a diya (homemade cotton wick and ghee in a small clay pot). She would meditate and send out good wishes in silence. My aunt told me about Vipasana (a silent retreat) that she attended for one week where everyone just meditates in silence.
Meditation was everywhere, and people who influenced me were making it a part of their daily life. And science began to back up the theories. Researchers began to study the effects on the brain through neuroscience. Doctors began stating that stress is a leading cause of heart disease, cancer and pretty much every other ailment.
There's nothing wrong with meditation apps (I've used many), but many people didn't need them. They didn't have to set a timer on their phones. They just focused on fulfilling their intention of creating or completing something with purpose, and they did it as perfectly as possible. Full attention, limited distractions (and definitely didn't take pictures on their phone to document it).
We spend a lot of time in our daily life multi-tasking. I wonder how much more productive and creative we would be without technology distracting us. We need to find more time to rest our minds and reset. I know I do.
When do you feel the most focussed in the day? Have you wanted to try meditation? If so, try this exercise to help you get started:
So, open a window and listen to the breeze, put on some of your favourite music. Do something that requires all your attention and helps you to slow down. Whether baking, reading, knitting, crafting, gardening, running, yoga, traditional meditation, singing, cycling. Something that gets you away from stressful work or screens.
Just focus, take a deep breath and enjoy that moment of zen.