JOURNALIST & POTTER
New York City to Camden, Maine
Jesse Ellison is a perfect example of someone who was able to reinvent herself by moving away from the city. Before moving to Maine, Jesse was an award-winning journalist at Newsweek for eight years. When the magazine ceased its print publication, Jesse left and started to work as a freelance writer. After six months of freelancing, she went to Maine for a visit and never looked back. It took only one trip to realize she had lost her purpose for living in the chaos of the city and was ready to make a new life for herself in the country. She sold her apartment in New York and moved to the summer town of Camden, where she had spent her early childhood years. After a few months of house hunting, she found her dream home, a little house on a few acres, with a pond, surrounded by woods. Nicknamed “the lady cottage” by her friends, Jesse jumped head first into painting and renovating her new home to make it her own. Leaving behind her previous 60-70 hour workweeks, she decided that she would start to use some of her new free time to take some creative classes on things she was interested in. Her path in the country changed the moment she stepped into her first pottery throwing class. She loved the peaceful but exacting rhythm of throwing pots and the almost scientific process of glazing. She kept a notebook filled with her experiments and didn’t let the many beginner's mistakes discourage her. After six months of classes, she bought her own wheel so she could transform her previous writing office into her pottery studio. She continues to take on freelance writing and editing jobs, but whenever she is not writing, she is working in her pottery studio. Her pottery is fresh, clean and modern. She has been experimenting with many under glazing techniques and patterns to make her work feel unique. She is hoping to eventually begin selling her pottery, making a sustainable career, by balancing freelance writing and potting. Jesse proves that anyone can forge a new path in the country and master a new skill. As Jesse continues to evolve as a potter, with her tenaciousness and ability to overcome the obstacles put in her way, there is no telling where this awakened talent could lead her. (Note: Jesse was photographed twice. The spring shots were taken two weeks after she moved into her house and the winter shots were taken seven months later, after she built her pottery studio.) Click here to jump to her interview
What inspired you to move to the country?
I came up to Maine in the summer of 2013 planning to spend just a couple of weeks. Within a year, I’d sold my apartment in New York and bought a house a mile from the house I grew up in. It was a turn of events I never would have predicted, but one I’m really, really happy about.
My family is still in the area - in fact my dad made the same accidental one-way trip here almost forty-five years ago - and I have two little nieces close by, so that was a big draw. But also I just think this place is special. I’d been in New York for sixteen years, and I don’t think I really appreciated Maine much when I was a kid (I was sort of anxious to leave), but that summer I just fell in love with it here. It’s Mayberry. It’s lovely.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
In New York I was a reporter and writer for Newsweek, so I’m used to asking a lot of questions and figuring out subjects I might be unfamiliar with, but I just felt like such a moron most of that first year. I’d never even owned a car, much less a house, and owning a house--even just renting a house, which I did initially-- is worlds away from an apartment. The learning curve has just been tremendously steep. I’m responsible for all of these things that I’ve literally never thought about before in my life. Off the top of my head: propane, lawn maintenance, lawn drainage, frozen pipes, my damn mailbox that keeps getting knocked off of its perch. I actually kind of love figuring it all out, but it can be overwhelming, and I live in fear that I’m going to break my house somehow.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
I still can’t get over how many young, like-minded, fantastic people I’ve met here. I don’t know whether I got lucky, or whether it’s true that we’re sort of on the cusp of a social shift, with more young creative types leaving cities. It certainly feels that way. I have so many amazing friends in New York, and I certainly didn’t expect to find anything like that here, so it was a very happy surprise to meet the kinds of people I have.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
I mean, sometimes I feel like I would give my left leg for Chinese take-out. But what’s proving tougher to get used to in the long term is the utter lack of anything resembling anonymity. There is no getting around the fact that there just aren’t all that many people, and sometimes that can feel totally suffocating. Literally suffocating, like sometimes I can’t catch my breath for a second. Camden has fewer than 5,000 year-round residents. It’s a small, rural, homogenous place where everyone knows everyone and where, when someone stays overnight at your house you get asked about it at dinner parties because people wondered whose car was in your driveway. It’s easy to feel.... Exposed. But I try to remember that there’s also something kind of great about the way small communities like this function. You can’t really get away with anything, so in a way it keeps people on the up and up. And you also can’t avoid anybody--not for long anyway--so if you have beef or tension, there’s no choice but to work it out. I think that there is value in that, but I can’t lie, sometimes it feels unbearably small.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
I couldn't do that to my dog.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
So like three months after I got here, when I realized I was staying a lot longer than originally intended, I drove (at age 35, it was my very first car!) down to the city to pick up some things from my apartment and get it ready for sub-letting. The trip was a nightmare for a ton of reasons--including hundreds of dollars in stupid tickets and my car overheating somewhere west of Worchester, Mass.--but by far the bleakest part was realizing that if I’d just had someone to sit in my car so I could load it outside of my building without getting a ticket the whole thing would be so much easier but there was nobody I could think to ask to do that. Everyone in New York is working so hard all of the time-- whether by choice or necessity-- that it’s like it’s just not in the culture to ask for, or give, help like that. Plus, it’s a pain for people. But it’s a lonely feeling, knowing that you’ve lived in a place for sixteen years and you’re still so on your own with it all. Within months of moving up here, I knew dozens of people I would have felt comfortable calling in a bind. When an enormous and unexpected snowstorm caught me wholly unprepared in November, friends brought me jugs of water, helped me shovel out, and, after I’d abandoned ship, stopped by to check on my power. And everyone walks each others dogs. My theory is that it’s like this here both because it’s necessary (fewer humans to battle mother nature means we must work together) and easier (hardly anything or anyone is further than a ten minute drive, as opposed to half an hour on the train). It’s entirely possible that this is my personal experience. But whatever it is, that sense of a safety net is something that I didn’t know I was missing, and I appreciate it tremendously.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
If you can swing it job-wise, and have any inclination whatsoever, do it. (Do it.)
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
I feel like that list is always a little different. But always close to the top is just walking around. I could walk forever in New York. Lately I’ve been missing the tres leches doughnuts from The Doughnut Plant on 23rd Street, so I’d love to eat about a dozen of those. And no visit is complete without going to see my former next-door neighbor, Glory Lassman, the most sassy and stylish 93-year-old you’ll ever meet. Leaving her was the one unequivocally sad thing about leaving New York for me.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
I've been in a really fortunate position to be able to dedicate myself to studying ceramics this year. I love the face that it's such a tactile experience, and that it produces something functional, tangible and lasting. It's been great to do work that's physical in that way, and I'm finding, fortunately, that it is helping me embrace writing again.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away
from the city?
In my work? Um, yes. I’m calling myself an “aspiring potter.” Who am I? Also, I truly didn’t think of myself as being someone who particularly enjoyed the outdoors beyond like lying on a beach somewhere. Now I ski or snowshoe or swim or hike almost every day. I mean it’s just so easy. You can downhill ski at a mountain six minutes from my house. Across the street there’s a hike with arguably the best pay-off in terms of view that I’ve ever seen: from the top of a cliff, you look across Lake Megunticook, over the village of Camden, and out across the ocean to the outer islands. It’s ridiculous. But even the drive to Home Depot is just stunningly beautiful. Truly, that drive can be so pretty that you will actually catch your breath. I so frequently find myself pausing to consciously register how glad I am to be living here, to be doing exactly what I am doing in that moment, even if it’s just driving to Home Depot. It’s like the environment facilitates--forces even-- a certain degree of mindfulness.
Walk us through a typical day in your country existence?
There is no typical day, but that’s one of the things I like best. Everything changes so much over the course of the year, and so much depends on the season and the weather. The only real given is that there’s almost always some kind of business to take care of in terms of the house or the car. Lately it’s been all about snow management; shoveling and getting up on my roof to break up an ice damn that was causing a leak in my dining room. But soon, one hopes, it will be time to get the yard and gardens ready for spring. Then it’ll be time to start mowing the lawn. And so on.
Every Saturday my nieces go to story hour at the local public library and then we all have brunch. That is really the only thing that happens with any real regularity, and it is the highlight of my week.
Are there things that you are able to do here that you wouldn’t have dared to try before moving from the city?
Ceramics, for starters. I think in New York I would have felt way more reluctant, for a bunch of reasons, to embrace it to the degree that I have. And I’m definitely a lot braver about nature and outdoor activities. Last week I went downhill skiing for the first time since I was sixteen years old. And recently a bunch of us night-snowshoed up Cameron Mountain on one of the coldest nights of the year. I just never would have done that stuff before, and it has been so much fun finding out how much I enjoy it.
Do you have a specific space or place that helps you feel inspired?
My house came with a semi-finished workshop space that’s behind my garage. I’m obsessed with it. It has sliding glass doors that go out to my backyard, and I can sit at my pottery wheel or at the window and watch the birds out back while I work. I’ve got my sewing machine set up out there and all my paints and crafty creative things I’ve amassed over the years, but it’s also a busy, messy space that’s increasingly dedicated to clay. It just feels so much like mine and I love it.
What are some common misperceptions about life in the country? What do you want people to know/understand about life in small communities?
I feel like a lot of my friends think I live in either the suburbs or the straight-up forest. But really I live in a village. Camden is literally a village, complete with a designated “village green.” It is so quaint it’s a little gross sometimes. But there is also a lot more depth here than I think a lot of people realize. It’s small and it’s adorable and it can be provincial in its way, but the people here are sharp as tacks. Anyway, the point is that sometimes I think small towns are conflated with small minds, and they shouldn’t be.
What are your future plans/goals for the coming year?
This whole experience has been a lesson in not planning too much and being open to change, so I guess I’d just say that this year I plan to spend as much time as I can with my nieces. Beyond that, we’ll see.