Jake and Alissa Hessler are artists, designers, writers, and photographers. The husband-and-wife team’s popular photography courses focus on quiet landscapes, and Jake’s expansive and meditative fine art photography is also featured in the fine press book Boundaries alongside the poetry of inaugural poet Richard Blanco. Alissa published Ditch the City and Go Country: How to Master the Art of Rural Life From a Former City Dweller with Page Street Publishers on her stories from Urban Exodus, her popular blog about the stories of city residents from all over the country resettling in rural areas. Together, they are raising their 3-year-old daughter Haven in their Maine farmhouse, which also serves as a meeting place and venue for artist workshops, art exhibitions, and events.
ANNELI SKAAR: Jake, are you shooting right now? Do you have thoughts about people seeking out the quiet landscape, as you call it, in contrast to the quiet landscape being more or less forced upon us?
JAKE HESSLER: I honestly haven’t been shooting much–parenting is my primary focus right now–I’ve gotten excellent at fort building. I am finding new meaning in a lot of the work I’ve shot in the past. The only time I have available is at night so I have spent my evenings going through my archives and posting images that evoke the emotions I am feeling right now. My work has always felt quiet and mostly void of human subjects. Although I am an introverted person, this has made me aware of how much all human beings need some social interaction to thrive. Our weekly student critiques have been a nice motivator to practice my craft and to revisit images I’ve made in the past.
AS: How are you connecting with your students, collaborators? How is this changing the way you continue to work?
ALISSA HESSLER: Work for us right now is about creating as much goodwill as possible. Like so many other artists, we aren’t making any money at the moment but we have decided to spend our time bringing people together (virtually) and giving them a creative outlet to help process/guide/distract from the surreal nightmare we are collectively experiencing. In early March we made the difficult decision to cancel our spring photography workshops. We didn’t know how bad this would get back then but it felt like the right call because a majority of our students are in higher-risk groups.
In mid-March we decided to offer free weekly online photography critiques to former students and friends on our newsletter list. We have weekly assignments and students submit one image each week to review. We encourage folks to dress up and have a festive beverage if they feel so inclined. The response has been overwhelming. After the first session concluded, our cheeks hurt from smiling. It was the first time in weeks that we felt lighter in the spirit department, versus heavier. We knew that this very small thing was helping connect people and inspire them to find time in their day to create. After every session we get emails and texts from attendees thanking us for our time and for creating a space where they can laugh and feel like they are part of a virtual creative community.
We had planned to launch The Workshops at Howe Hill Farm this summer. We were supposed to launch on March 30 but as things have progressed we have decided to give our instructors the option to create a virtual course with us instead. The creative industry, like many other industries, is really struggling right now. Most of our instructors have seen jobs, gigs, engagements, and/or sales dry up overnight. We want to use the tools we have available to try to help our instructors support themselves through this extremely difficult time. Although it is overwhelming getting these different things put together, it seems like the only way to move forward. We don’t honestly know what work will look like for us in the future but we hope it will be some combination of virtual and in-person. This nightmare has made me realize how much we love teaching, and although in-person interaction is preferable, virtual learning can still be inspiring, informative, and fun.
AS: Alissa, as the creator of Urban Exodus—all of it, the workshops, the blog, the book: how are the stories of people choosing a simpler life informing this time while we are ALL essentially off the grid for a while? How has your work with that project informed how you are tackling all this?
AH: Most of the people I have featured on Urban Exodus chose to leave the city because they felt removed from nature and wanted to pursue a life less reliant on the conveniences of our modern world. There are a lot of first-time farmers who were desperate to create a life and livelihood not dependent on long commutes and sitting in a cubicle all day. Many of the first-time farmers I’ve interviewed felt called to farming as a way to serve their community.
That said, I guess I’m tackling this by getting my hands dirty, literally. We’ve been sowing seeds like crazy. All sunny windows, tables, and unused spaces in our house are being converted into seed starting stations. We are using our photo reflectors to bounce light back on the plants. We are building little cold frames out of old windows and making more growing space. My plan is to grow as much food as possible this summer so we can give away our excess. I hope to have lots of seedlings, beyond what we need, so I can give those away as well. I just feel so grateful to be in Maine, to be in this amazing and supportive community and to have space available to grow. I want to utilize the tools and skills we have to help others weather this.
On Urban Exodus I’ve added links to basic gardening video tutorials and I’ve started recording little easy DIY growing clips on IGTV with ideas for growing using food using materials you might already have available: yogurt containers, egg crates, toilet paper rolls, etc. The Coronavirus Victory Garden–lots of people with previously no interest in gardening are tearing up their lawns and planting food! Online seed companies are selling out of seeds. I see this as a step in the right direction. I hope it sticks.
AS: What is inspiring you at this time?
AH: After spending the last couple of weeks crying while reading the news we’ve turned our attention to some of the amazing things that are happening behind the scenes–communities and people coming together to support one another. Our societal systems of convenience that most of us rely on in our daily lives have changed overnight and there is a real collective awakening happening right now. I hope we are able to use this momentum to address the very serious issue of climate change once this is all over. There has never been a time where the entire world has come together to focus their efforts on a single outcome. I hope we are able to do the same for climate change once we are able to find a vaccine for Coronavirus.
AS: Whether it’s through the lens of using this time to seek out quiet landscapes with your camera, or finding ways to be self-sufficient at home, what advice do each of you have for those people who want to use this time with creative purpose?
JH: When it comes to photography, just have your camera with you, always. The best time to shoot the landscape is when the weather is overcast. When the weather is sunny, shoot in the early morning or later afternoon/evening light. This is a pivotal moment in history and it demands documentation. Even if you just create a collection of images that your kids can show their kids in the future, that will be worthwhile. If you feel an immediacy or urge to create, do it! There are lots of amazing artists offering tutorials, creative prompts, etc. online right now. It is a melding of the minds. All you have to do is look for it.
AH: Don’t bite off more than you can chew when it comes to homesteading–starting small is the best way to go. My first year growing my own food I planted WAY too many tomatoes and was tied to my kitchen all of August/September processing and canning them all. If you have a small space to grow, focus on higher-yield crops: potatoes, greens, kale, a couple of tomato plants. Don’t get livestock or chickens unless you are prepared to care for them; animals are a time and money investment that doesn’t always equal out, depending on your motivations.
All that said, it is OK to be still, to be processing, to be overwhelmed. This feeling inside of all of us is grief–grieving the people we have lost, grieving the life we knew before this, grieving a future still unknown. These feelings ebb and flow. You don’t have to write a novel, or finish all of those projects waiting for your attention–just focus on being kind and using the skills you have to help others as much as you are able.