Oaxaca with Pocoapoco's Jessica Chrastil

Jessica Chrastil
Artist Henry Moore wrote, “To be an artist is to believe in life.” This spirit is what comes to mind when describing Jessica Chrastil. As the founder of Pocoapoco, a multidisciplinary residency in Oaxaca, Mexico, she invites people from all over the world to consider the experience of living, seeing, and feeling as a creative act. Translating to “little by little” or “slowly,” “gradually,” Pocoapoco is based on simple truths that are just as simple to forget: Learning is beautiful. Listening and conversation are valuable currencies. A widened worldview is critical for wellbeing. You don’t have to be an “artist” to live a creative life. Below, a conversation with Jessica about these ideas.
Photos by Andrea Gentl / Text by Leigh Patterson

Can you share more about your upbringing? What led you to explore this space of living a creative life outside the role of an "artist"?
I grew up in a family that loved learning for learning’s sake. My mother (not an artist by any known definition) has always viewed reading and researching — on nearly any topic — as the most thrilling way a person could possibly spend a day. As a child, boredom was never an option, the fact that knowledge was out there waiting to be had was like open access to an goldmine. As a kid I loved skimming through the encyclopedia —  science, people, art, countries, beliefs — so much information available in one place and context and because of its basic proximity it all appeared connected no matter how disparate it was. So comforting and exciting.   
My father is the same way about people as my mother is about information — he never misses the chance to talk with anyone, hear their story, find an avenue for connection no matter how brief the interaction. In this vein, I have so many friends and people in my life who are not practicing artists, but who have the most most creative, diverse, innovative, and engaged approach to day to day work and life, as well as in the way they choose to document or share this work/ knowledge. It’s endlessly inspiring.
The process of learning, of experiencing, of connecting has always seemed like this fantastic project of sorts that never has to become a piece of art or even a means to an end but is more like the continuous building of a personal library.  
Are there any texts / quotes that have been particularly significant in thinking or researching more about this?
Essays in general are a favorite, writers that write non-fiction in a way that is as dynamic, experimental, and rich as fiction. Of course Joan Didion, her language of experience and research. I like Alain de Botton’s approach to philosophy, or anyone who manages to convey knowledge and a thought process through an unlikely shape or voice (can be anyone: My five-year-old nephew makes the most amazing drawings of the periodic table and the history of the British monarchy...)

What are some realizations about life, art, and the connection thereof that the residents have taught you? 
I get to see Oaxaca through new eyes each time a new person or resident comes through. The way people react to and connect with a new place or community is fascinating — especially when they come at it exploring whatever they are passionate about. It's like seeing each person wear the same shirt with an amazing, yet completely different outfit to a party.
So much innovation and creative output stems from a person's deep knowledge of and subsequent ease with their particular craft or topic. Photographers become so obsessed and vocal about light that for weeks all I can see are the shapes of shadows on walls. Florists use little purple bananas to create beautiful floral designs and centerpieces. Chefs seem to use the same bags of beans I see everyday to create meals so distinctly different from each other. One favorite project was a designer who photographed "mistake sculptures" all over the city, random stacks of objects that people here use to hold parking spaces. Yet when he presented photos of the mistake sculptures they looked so intentional. 
That said, I think I originally had an idea that people were going to be most excited about what specifically they were researching but I believe people have been most excited and inspired by the connections they’ve made with people here, people from/in Oaxaca, as well as the others taking part in the residency.
Why Oaxaca? 
Pocoapoco, or poco a poco, means “little by little” or “slowly,” “gradually.” It says a lot about the approach to this residency project, and definitely about life in Oaxaca. Maybe subconsciously it came from what I was looking for upon leaving New York — more time to let things unfold, more time to learn, less about finishing, and more about experiencing and creating a space for anyone to do the same. It’s a commonly discussed fact that Oaxaca is a great place for ideas but can be an impossible place to actually get things done.
In general, the residency provides a space for those looking to explore or expand their creative work. We host artists and non-artists in a variety of fields to support research, conversation, and community surrounding this work, process, and purpose.  This happens through month-long residencies as well as week-long residency / workshops, and a variety of individual projects and collaborations. A large part of this is about working closely with individuals and organizations in the Oaxaca area to provide education, inspiration, and cross–cultural exchange within these creative dialogues.  
Prior to moving to Oaxaca I was in New York and before that California for a so long, working in food and restaurants. In New York I was creative director at an NGO, we worked with artisan businesses around the world. I traveled a lot and spent a huge amount of time talking with people all over about how and why they create — also exploring how travel and culture and experience is so deeply embedded into and influential on the work we do, artistic or otherwise. One of these projects was in Oaxaca, and I suppose I fell in love with the place. There was very little logic involved in moving. I had lived north, west, east. Now south. This is a stopping point.   

Talk more about the difficulties that come with being an outsider in a new place. And on the flip side, what is gained? 
There is a deep level of awkwardness and self-consciousness (at least personally) on entering a new place, especially a place with such deep history and customs and roots. On trying to simultaneously respect that place, understand those terms, navigate your way into it and meld with it, and still maintain the sense of self that is so crucial to any good relationship. It’s hard and makes me feel like such a floppy ridiculous adolescent all over again.  
That said, I think self-consciousness is important and it keeps us on our toes. But there is also a fine line between self-consciousness and being crippled by over-analyzation which puts a wrench into making any connection with anything. I’ve gone through so many iterations of this balance in the past year and a half.   like to think that lately there are fewer wrenches, a bit less awkwardness. A little more trust and commitment.   
People come down often and glamorize life here, but this has definitely been one of the hardest transitions of my life. I suppose this is also because building the residency has meant navigating Oaxaca and how to most gracefully enter this place, while also quickly becoming a bridge for so many others coming through. This is wonderful and so fun but also brings a sense of responsibility and nervous protection on both ends. It feels important that the residents are understanding and considerate of this balance —  when to bring a strong sense of self, ideas, and needs to the table, and when to step back and just listen, learn, observe. I suppose that is why to do it here, because Oaxaca has made the residency project not just about a "residency" but about exploring the connections between places and people and ideas, about thoughtful interaction, about how to be a responsible traveler and artist, a compassionate and curious human.  
Below is a list of questions that one of our partners here wrote for a group of photographers coming down in hopes of getting them thinking about what it meant to be behind the camera here. I think it’s pretty relevant to everyone coming through to explore a topic or project. 
How does the photographer affect the context/environment? Is it possible to capture those effects?
How does the environment affect the photographer? Is it possible to capture these effects?
What is the difference between a touristic photo and documentary photo?
When taking photos, are you giving and creating, or are you extracting something? Are you on safari or are you creating meaningful interactions?
How does the camera make you closer to or separate you from the experience and the context?
How are you present in your pictures? Does objectivity exist in photos? If you are portraying reality, what does everything else portray? 
Is your personal story present in the photos you take? Can you show this in them while photographing others?
Is it possible to portray the similarities between you and the people you are taking pictures from? The differences? 
Which long lasting elements, as opposed to instantaneous, do you find in your photos? Why would they be important for the future?
Could you describe an image from your life which is not a photo? Why would an image be different if you have it physically? Do you think it’ll portray what you’ve been thinking all this time? 
Do “mental photos” exist? How would you share with others what you see if you could not take photos? Could you start a photography project with the idea to take as few photos as possible?
Do you ever feel lonely or in a strange place of being a conduit to others’ creative process?
I’m doing it by myself but am rarely alone. I’m always working with someone doing something though those things and people change. I’ve gotten a chance to work with so many of my closest friends and so many people I respect, both from Oaxaca and from the US. I feel less like a conduit and more like a beneficiary. I get to take part in all these processes that I never would have been able to otherwise. When I was a kid one project my mother gave us was to make small books profiling different categories of artists —  names and biographies of baroque composers, impressionist painters, etc. It was this idea that if you couldn't be a musician and a painter, learning about the lives and work of musicians or painters is the second best thing. That’s kind of my life right now. Loneliness can be hard…but I assume that’s part of being human. 

If someone has never been to Oaxaca, what are some aspects of the city, the landscape, or the culture that make it most unique and fostering of the creative process?
I talk with people a lot about how grounding Oaxaca feels. The land is heavy, people have been here for so long. People are so connected to the land, its something you feel immediately upon arrival. Less frantic. More rooted. But there is also this light, the way the sun hits the city and the mountains, it shocks me every morning and every evening. There is a lightness to the city, an energy. So much celebration, appreciation. It’s noisy, alive. New things happening, changing. So much art. Here, it feels like art exists in a way that it is not about trying to be something; it's just about being
I was at a gathering of ceramicists in Oaxaca years ago, and one of them said, “Clay is the most important thing in the history of humanity. The history of clay tells the history of us.” This always resonates in the sense that to me, here, “making” and the concept of objecthood feel less about self-identity, and more about the act of being part of something so much larger.