When she’s not sculpting minds in the classroom or tearing up the soccer field for the Malted Barley rec league team, you’ll be sure to see Westerly native, Jillian Olson (JNO), out and about photographing the natural beauty of her hometown. Born and bred in the great Ocean State, Jillian grew up on the shore, went off for a degree in education, then returned home to pursue a career in teaching. Not only is Jillian educating her community, but she’s also giving back through her talented skills as a photographer. Scrimshaw recently caught up with the Rhody artist at her local coffee spot, Junk & Java, to learn more about her work, upbringing and love for music.
SC: The both of us actually grew up right over the border in Connecticut, but have been coming to this treasured part of Rhode Island for years. Have you always lived in this area?
JNO: I have actually and I come from a rather large family - deeply rooted in tradition. Family, as well as the sea, are both really big parts of my life. Growing up by the ocean I’ve taken over as a persona - it’s like everything you believe in and enjoy is about the water! My brothers and I grew up as beach babies, which I was so happy about! Our mom would take us down to the beach early in the morning and a lot of times we’d stay through the night - sometimes even having dinner on the sand!
We totally feel you on that; we met in local swimming classes as kids, and had a very similar upbringing. Sunscreen and sea salt are big parts of our lives too!
I headed to Providence for college, and its funny that it took moving away to make me appreciate what I had before. Westerly is so nice and it funny how many people visit our town, and end up falling in love with it.
Agreed, as I said, Westerly and Watch Hill have both been parts of our lives since the beginning of time. Our area down in Noank and Mystic also have that same appeal to visitors. So you’re not full time photographing is that correct?
That is correct, I am not full time. Photography is just a hobby for me, and I teach second grade up the way at the elementary school. I used to teach the fourth graders, but am with the littler ones now. It’s cool because you have so much freedom in how you present things to their young minds. So many great imaginations to fuel!
That’s great to hear the district has a great teacher in the classroom! So, you’ve been dabbling with photography since childhood then, or is this a more recent pastime?
I guess as far back as a high school photo class I took, which must’ve sparked my interest! I’ve always been attracted to aesthetics and beauty, so now being able to capture what I think is beautiful has been nice. I originally learned how to shoot film in class, but the technology now for digital is amazing. Now with my SLR, it’s easy to get a little click happy!
Well you have a fantastic eye for it! With the beaches, the surfers, and everything coastal, it’s right up our alley! So the big question, Canon or Nikon?
I’m a Canon girl, and got the camera from my mom as a graduation present - she knows me so well!
Amen to that. So, when you’re out for a shoot, what inspires you the most?
Being from the coast, I focus on the outdoors and the beach the most. I find myself using the sky as my subject quite frequently. The outdoors are my go to, as its easy for me, and I love it! I love natural sunlight, it’s the best light source ever. It provides all the natural colors that’re intended to be had. I recently had to look up how to photograph the moon, and after a few attempts, I finally got it!
I was in the city the night of the lunar eclipse blood moon, and was sure I wouldn't get a solid view or shot with the light pollution and clouds. Lo and behold, the clouds parted, I leaned my zoom lens against my window sill, and I also captured a great shot. So was your first camera the SLR you got from your mom?
No I started with a little point-and-shoot, so the Canon was a huge upgrade. I’ve got a few lenses, apart from the one that came with the camera, but I’ve really been able to capture what I like with the tools I have.
Definitely, it’s really important to use what you have. That’s something that I learned from my grandmother. A bit off topic, but my grandmother was a huge photographer, and our family just resurfaced all her photos, old cameras, and gadgets, so I’m looking forward to delving into the treasures we discovered over time. I would love to digitize our findings at some point.
Imagine the things you’re going to find; you absolutely should archive it all!
That’s the plan! I’m a firm believer in preserving culture and history. Which I would totally say you’re doing by preserving the 21st century coastal scene of Westerly through your photos. There will always be a nautical history, across many generations, but seeing photos over the years of how a place transforms, can really tell a story.
Well you should make that a project to complete; who knows, there could be one full story in a photo, or even multiple ones!! I do love stories, particularly listening to stand-up comedy. I just love hearing all the different tales, of which some are vulgar but whatever!
You're exactly right, the process will be exciting. Eventually we'll get through them all. So apart from here at Junk & Java, where else have you featured your work, and are you set up anywhere for the holidays?
This is actually the only place I’ve ever featured my work, apart from online! And people responded so well to them. All I wanted was the opportunity to get my stuff out there, so people could see it, and the success was great. Now I know that people like it, and there’s an audience for it. Nothing specific for the holidays, but I do have a site where you are able to order custom prints, and follow me on my Instagram (Jillian’s website HERE & her Instagram HERE).
Awesome, well we’ll definitely spread the word, and let us know if and when you get into any other locations! Apart from home, have you been able to travel anywhere outside the country?
I have; I’ve been to Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. I’ve also been to Spain, and Canada. Something I’ll never forget from our trip to Canada when I was young, was the fact the sun stayed up so late, and that there were no BUGS! Windows wide open, no screens, and somehow no bugs. Oh, and I got to visit my brother in Maui when he was living there.
That’s sweet - we’ve actually both been on major kicks for Hawaii recently! Did you get some great photos?
Yes I did, and I’ll actually argue that that was the trip that changed my life. When I got to Maui, I saw how they were living and realized that was the way to live your life. I was walking down the street, wasn't watching where I was going and bumped into a man. I apologized, then he looked at me and said “Don’t be sorry you’re in Maui!” It was the coolest response I could’ve gotten. Once I came back, I realized its more about the experience, and appreciating the views, aesthetics – taking it all in.
Wow, yeah. At the end of the day it’s about living simply, and enjoying each day you’ve got. On taking it all in, is there any particular music that you’ve been jamming to recently? Like, what’s the last song you played on your iPod?
Well firstly, have you seen the movie Begin Again? There’s a scene, where a musician and producer, switch iPods, and spend the day walking around the city listening to each other’s music. I just thought that was the coolest day you could ever have! Spending your day going through someone else's music. And on the iPod note… well, it looks like it’s in my car – be right back!
[QUICK INTERLUDE WHILE JILLIAN RUNS TO HER CAR; SHE WAS SO AMPED ... After 60 seconds, she returns]
It’s Sirens, “Sirens” by The String Cheese Incident. It’s the only song I have from them, but I got it from my brother, who has had a huge impact on me musically, and it’s awesome!
That fact you just ran out to your car is amazing – love that you just did that. And love that you’re jamming to String Cheese! Well, this has been a pleasure meeting you and learning about your photos. Thank you so much for your time and please keep us updated as you continue to showcase your photos across Rhode Island and beyond!
Thank you so much for this opportunity to chat with you guys. I absolutely will keep you posted on updates!