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 equally awesome 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, her 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 (of land, water, 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 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! :)
This photo was taken by Jess. She isn't just captivated by the light of day, in fact some of her most beautiful photographs are of the moon. Visit her on instagram to see more - they are magical.
I have so much more that I could talk to her about (and we will again, soon). 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!
If you'd like to follow along on her adventures, here are a few links to find her:
All her cool stuff
Instagram: @jbsmith, @goldenblueca, @bartenderatlas, @jbs_birds
She's also on Facebook, but I'm terrible with that one so you're on your own there.
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exploring life's beautiful (and sometimes prickly) moments through interviews, essays, illustrations, poems and other stuff.