Photograph by Kat Keene Hogue, Nat Geo Image Collection
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Explorer and Conservation Artist Asher Jay paints on her New York City rooftop.
Photograph by Kat Keene Hogue, Nat Geo Image Collection

This Artist Uses Creativity for Conservation

This conservation artist expresses her passion for conserving wildlife through creative work such as painting.

This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Asher Jay calls herself a creative conservationist, as the designation enables her to use creativity to enhance and empower wildlife conservation efforts around the world. She weaves together a passion for design with the wonder she harbors for all things wild.

Where does your work take you?

All over the world—from European cities like Paris and Salamanca, Spain, to the cloud forests in Colombia and the East African savanna. I have taken all forms of transportation—horses and helicopters, and I have even resorted to going piggyback on another expedition team member.

What’s the most surprising thing that’s happened to you while traveling as a National Geographic explorer?

I have something surprising happen to me every other week as a National Geographic explorer. I doubt this legacy institution would acknowledge me if I weren't of the ilk of eccentric risk takers who have astounding, absurd things happen to them routinely. Isn't that a prerequisite to belong to the yellow border tribe? Most recently, I encountered a thermocline that was a little less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit along the La Jolla Canyon during a night dive. I was in a seven-millimeter suit, with boots, gloves, and a hooded vest, but I still could not feel my face or feet. I have no idea how Paul Nicklen does the tundra waters; it took an hour for my toes to experience sensation again after the dive ended. I did see a pregnant horned shark, fluorescing corals, sea horses, various fish species and anemone, and three unforgettable harbor seal encounters at depth, so I didn't really mind the frigid, dark, wet ambience. Meatloaf would do anything for love, and I would do anything for wild. I would chance the perilous journey through unforgiving cold, endure blistering winds and scorching deserts, and climb to the highest room in the tallest tower if it meant encountering wild. Seriously, I would do anything for wild. I have done most things for wild already.

Have you encountered any sticky situations while traveling?

Living life by the seat of your pants is a given with being an explorer, particularly when on a field expedition. While we cannot account for all externalities, the first step as an adventurer is to err on the side of caution and do a thorough run-through before setting out on a trip. I say "Yes, and …" to most things so that I know what I am signing up for. The trick is to minimize the number of sticky situations you can possibly run into in the field and to know all of your exits upon boarding. When things have gotten hairy, I just wait for it to play out. I obviously cannot plan for everything, so I plan as best as I can with what I know, but I remain humble and open to the possibilities—good, bad, and ugly. My capacity to embrace uncertainty, even when I despise it, has helped me brave through situations that I was afraid of. You need to have courage to last long enough for the unfamiliar to become a series of recognizable variables. Thinking of the unknown as your ally makes the next moment your greatest collaborator.

When traveling, what do you never leave home without?

My iPhone. I know people have a poor opinion of those of us who cannot leave home without our smartphones, but as a self-employed creative with a life on the go, it is an absolute necessity—one I cannot afford to take for granted.

Have you encountered any travel snafus along the way? If so, what happened?

I sometimes refer to myself as the bloopers explorer, because my blooper reel is always longer than my actual footage. Two years ago, on my first morning in the Serengeti bush, I was awakened by a lot of rustling and grunts. Upon realizing it was wild activity that needed to be documented on my Canon 1DX, I ran out in a rush, still in my pajamas, to capture life in the now. It was near 5:30 a.m. I ran out with such enthusiasm, I stopped four feet short of a tall and regal adult giraffe. As I gathered my wits to photograph him in all his glory, I couldn't help but think to myself, "Gosh, this is like Walking With Dinosaurs meets Out of Africa.”

When I lifted the camera to my eye, all I could see was black. I had taken the lens cap off already, so it wasn't that this time. Then it dawned on me: I had on a telephoto 100-400 millimeter lens on, and I was peering into his flared nostrils. I yelped and reprimanded myself for not planning for the morning shots better. The only thing I could do was to step backward, one baby step at a time, without startling the subject, and manually override the snafu. As I started stepping back, left, right, left, right, left ... whoops ... I felt my head sink into something. It was warm, plush, and unexpected. I quickly realized that I had walked into the crotch of another giraffe. I look up and, lo and behold, it was indeed a male giraffe. He was munching away until this transpired, and startled by the intimate encounter, he tensed his legs up, which got my head further stuck between his hindquarters. I stood there thinking, "Heck, of all the ways to die as a new National Geographic explorer, this was the dumbest. Walking into the butt of a giraffe and getting kicked in the face for it, there's a new low.”

In the meantime, this tall drink of water unclenched, stepped over me, walked a few feet forward, spun around, and gave me the most judgmental look any giraffe has ever shot a human. The rest of the morning he kept two very wary eyes on me while eating acacia leaves. Never back up into a giraffe's rear end. It isn't something I survived because of survival guide training; it was dumb luck.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve eaten in the field? Did it taste like you'd imagined?

I am not insanely adventurous with my palate, because I don't think I could live with myself if I ate any wildlife. The hardest thing I have had to eat out of necessity was a can of tuna in the Serengeti bush wild. I cried through the entire meal, and mourned the loss of the apex predator with every bite. I was a vegetarian and vegan for a long while, which made ethical choices clearer, but those lines have obscured with travel to Africa, remote islands, and European villages. Now I am an ethical “vaguetarian.” I am vague about what I consume because I realize it's contextual and responsive. If you are intelligent, you can make discerning, inclusive choices without stark definitions. This is my position as of June 2016, subject to change. I am evolving my engagement and am a perpetual work in progress.

Tell us about a time you surprised yourself during your travels.

Every day. I no longer experience jet lag, because my body does not even know which time zone to adhere to. I sleep and eat when I get the chance to, and I have come to realize the thing I fight most every day is my physical form. It is my greatest limitation, to be held back by form, a form that is in constant need of input. It's inefficient for passion to have a form.

Please share any other travel hacks or interesting stories you have.

Travel hack one: Sign up for TSA pre-check through Global Entry; it saves a lot of time. Second: Laugh in the face of adversity. Third: Take responsibility for, be aware of, and accept what is happening to you without judgment. This one insight can help you navigate most any context or crisis.