Ashley Mann left a government job to pursue her dream of becoming a graphic designer in New York City. Ashely shares with us her shifting perspectives and changing vision of what she wants from life.
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I moved here August 21st, 2011 and I remember that date because I was going to go to Parson’s the next week. I wanted to move here for so long and I knew that date would be my anniversary.
My mother and my sister drove me to New York from D.C, I only had two suitcases. I had a bunch of money saved up because I didn’t want to work while I was in school. The very first thing I did when I moved here was join a gym. I was super into crossfit at that time. I’m over it now so forgive me! I don’t regret it because it gave me a routine right away, and got me involved in something right away.
What did you study at Parsons?
It was a professional design program for adults, the program was a year and a half. It was for people who were like ‘fuck what I do, I hate this, I want to be a designer’. It’s an intensive program. I actually only did a year of it because it just got too expensive, and people had started to ask me to do freelance work.
What made you decide you wanted to be a designer?
When I was living in D.C I was working for the Federal Government (it sounds like it was cool but it was not). I was managing a security program for people who had access to sensitive government information. I managed their access and the facilities that they had access to. It sounds like I was in the CIA (laughs), but it wasn’t that cool. A lot of admin stuff. I worked with people that I didn’t identify with, they weren’t artistic people and were more conservative.
How did you get into that?
I started there as a temp receptionist, then they put me on full time and I moved up. I don’t know how I became a security person, I was there for 3 and a half years. During that time I was taking art classes, and was super into screen printing. Then because of screen printing I got into photography, and then I started thinking about design. I knew I wanted to make that my livelihood.
I didn’t want to try to be a creative artist, I wanted to provide a service. That’s why I decided to be a designer. Now that I’ve been doing it for a few years I’ve found that it’s much more satisfying than I think being an artist would have ever been for me.
As a child did you want to be an artist?
I did want to be an artist, and then in high school I really wanted to be a chef. I’ve always loved to cook, but as silly as it sounds, I didn’t really know that I could do that. When I went to college I majored in writing because I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, but I knew that whatever I ended up doing I should know how to write really well. No one ever told me that you can make a life out of creating things.
Your family didn’t guide you?
No, my mother didn’t go to school. And my father had a lot of tension with his parents so when he graduated high school he bolted. I think just out of trying to survive he started teaching, that’s what he did.
Of my elders, I don’t think anyone has really been passionate about something, or has tried to find that ‘thing’.
And you mentioned you always wanted to live in New York …
My aunt has always lived here, so I can remember coming here to visit. It always seemed magical and I knew that I could find a lot of work here once I became a designer.
How do you feel now that you’ve done that and made that transition?
Things are actually shifting a little bit. I definitely don’t want to be here forever. If I do get married and have children I don’t want to be here doing that. When I was in Ithaca this past week for my Grandpa’s funeral services, and I was hanging out with my cousin, she has this really nice house there, with all this land. I used to think that was so cliche, the whole suburban thing. But now I’m like ‘yeah, I’m totally into that’. I find myself more wanting to do those things, and to find a lifestyle that supports that.
What was your family like growing up?
I don’t remember when my dad moved out actually, because he was always around. I don’t remember my parents being together, so it must have been when I was around 5 or 6 that they broke up. They never got divorced, so it was kind of like they were better married when they weren’t on top of each other. He would still be there for Christmas, they got along.
They stayed married. It was weird, but maybe it just worked for them. If they wanted to date other people they would do that, I think it says a lot that they didn’t want that final sense of not being together. They must have been trying to hold on to something, like it was still unfinished.
I had such a good upbringing that I don’t really have much of an urge to figure out if anything was missing. It wasn’t perfect but there wasn’t a huge gap anywhere.
My Dad’s family is in Ithaca but I never had a close relationship with them. He grew up on a dairy farm in a small town called Horseheads. I don’t know what it was about him that made him just want to leave. I think I got that gene.
He moved away when he was 18, and by 22 he was living in DC which is where he met my mom. After the first time they went out, they didn’t want to be away from each other. They were together for 5 years before getting married. The way that my mom talked about it was really nice, that they were together the first night they went out and then he didn’t want to be away from her. I think that’s a really nice attitude.
But because my Dad wasn’t close with his parents, then I wasn’t close with them either. And it’s always been really uncomfortable the older I've gotten to reconnect with them. We spent so long being OK with not talking to each other that I didn’t really know what to do.
When my Dad died when I was 15, there was really a complete separation with his family. It totally broke, there wasn’t that link any more. I blamed all the adults, they should have facilitated those relationships more.
When I went up for my grandpa’s funeral recently I was expecting it to be weird and uncomfortable. But when I saw them I immediately felt really good about being with them, almost like no time had passed. It felt so natural. I went up on Friday and I just didn’t want to leave, it was kind of strange. I feel like I want to be with them in a way that I’ve never felt before. It feels like I have this ‘nook’ of people, I feel connected.
Sounds like the next few years will be a transition for you! For now though, what do you think of New York?
I love New York, I still really do. I think there’s just so much here, especially as a creative. There is such an abundance of opportunity here. But there are so many other cool places in the world, it’s starting to feel difficult to live here and have the kind of lifestyle I want. I just turned 29, and I think that I should be able to have my own apartment. I make a decent salary and I don’t have too many financial obligations. I feel like I should be able to have all those things.
You’re in Prospect Heights at the moment, do you like this neighborhood?
I do like this area. I love Vanderbilt Avenue, so many good shops. I like Milk Bar for coffee, and then Hungry Ghost for their cookies (but not for their coffee). Beny’s Delice has delicious pastries. For restaurants I like Cheryl’s Global Soul, they have amazing brunch and dinner with a bit of a southern flair to it. Marietta has killer southern fried chicken, that's actually in Clinton Hill. Martha’s also has really good fried chicken. All the restaurants that I really love are in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill.
You work as an associate visual designer in DUMBO. What do you do in that role?
[Laughs] Someone actually asked me this yesterday as well and I didn’t know how to respond. I have this idea in my head that I design websites but on a day to day basis it’s really not that.
It’s a lot of maintenance. I’m on two accounts that aren’t super design heavy but they allow me to learn a lot about design. It’s very valuable for learning.
To make that big change from DC to New York is impressive, that must have been hard.
I wanted to quit Parson’s a whole bunch. There are four distinct times when I was just crying because it was too hard. But I’m also of the thinking that if there is something that I really want to do, if I just grind through it then at some point it will probably fit together. And it sort of did!
I get the sense through this conversation so far that your story is not really work related. You seem so passionate and driven about life, but not specifically about work?
I don’t feel like I am what I do. I feel like I’m more of a creative person that I am a designer. This creative inclination that I have can see itself in many things, it’s bigger than working in Photoshop.
I don’t know if it’s growth or age, but I’m starting to look more outward. My vision is more expansive. For example I never thought I would want to live in Denver, and now I’m thinking maybe I should move there, maybe I should go to Prague for Christmas, maybe I should go to Ireland by myself ...
Do you see yourself as a solitary person?
Yes, very much so. It kind of scares me because the older I get the more my relationships mean to me, and the more I think about the quality of those relationships. But I still like to spend a tonne of time by myself and the struggle has always been not to have people internalize that, and to not take that as me not wanting to spend time with someone.
It’s about me, not about you. That’s what I struggle with, is having people understand that.
Complete side note, your hair is amazing …
I do it myself. I’ve had people telling me that these sorts of braids are healthier for your scalp and hairline because each twist takes a much bigger chunk of hair, there is less pressure on your scalp. There were all these YouTube videos about how to do it, so I started doing it myself. They’re called Marley Twists, and they’re super easy to do. It’s like knitting, meditative.
Looking back is there any advice that you would give your younger self?
Don’t be scared. Someone told me that after I graduated, and I remember that all the time. I live by that now. Take some risks, you’ll be fine. That’s what I would tell myself.
I used to be really anxious about the outcome of things, and the truth is you actually will be fine. You can make decisions based on what feels right or seems right at the time, and if you’re a smart and responsible person you’ll figure out how to deal with it. It’s an amazing truth that I’ve accepted.
What do you think of when you think of New York?
I think of so many things, and it’s really hard to communicate. It’s too many things. Sad as it is, I feel like I didn’t really have much of a life until I moved here. So much has opened up for me. There are so many choices to make, so many things to do, there isn’t one thing that New York boils down to.
I kind of like the word romantic. I wanted to be here for so long and I fell in love with it and I'm still in love with it. New York has given me a lot and helped me grow, it feels like such a sweet experience I’ve had that I don’t want it for too much longer anymore.