An Interview with Rochelle Greayer

Rochelle Greayer is a garden designer and writer and the founder of Pith and Vigor Magazine, but she used to be a rocket scientist. I was curious about her story from the moment I first stumbled upon it. Back in 2014 I received a copy of the debut issue of Pith and Vigor (and wrote about it here). I've been following Rochelle on Instagram ever since. I'm delighted to have her here chatting with us today.

Rochelle Greayer, Italy, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: Hi, Rochelle, thanks for joining us. So first, I have to ask you about your jump from being a rocket scientist to garden designer and writer. On your website you say that you used to develop software to fly satellites and F-18 flight simulators. How did you end with this as a career? What prompted you to turn to gardens and writing?

rg: Changing careers was kind of a big deal - and it was something that wasn't easy for me to be brave about. But, when you get to a point of being just miserable on a daily basis and then you cross that with an opportunity to jump, sometimes you have take the leap.

I was working at Nortel Networks in the UK (which was nowhere near as fun as working in the aerospace industry - but similar technology) and the campus that I was at was closing down. All of us were being laid off over the course of about 18 months. I had lots of time to prepare and was offered a generous package that I used to go back to school (to study garden design). I'd been miserable at work for a while, which had led me to question myself, my sanity, my goals, my everything.

I did a lot of soul searching, knowing that as much as I loved (and still love) cool technology, science and lots of nerdy things, being in that industry as a working woman wasn't a good match for me and I was burnt out on it.

Figuring out that garden design would be my new direction was the result of a revelatory experience at the Chelsea Flower Show. I like to say that the Chelsea Flower Show changed my life (cue the dramatic heart wrenching music) - But it is true. I'm the offspring of ranchers and farmers in Kansas, Colorado and Montana. My childhood involved lots of time in the garden and messing around on the family ranch. Gardening was always functional and a way of life. Never was it associated with design, or cultivating beauty, or anything trendy or fashionable, and the thought of hiring someone to plan things would never have crossed my mind. I'd never even heard of Landscape Architecture (the ASLA was not doing their job very well back then!) let alone "garden design".

But, since I was living in London, I went to Chelsea. It was a revelation see that there was a huge industry around gardening, design, landscaping, landscape architecture and all things related. To see garden designers treated as rock stars, and gardens (that can cost millions) erected for less than a week all in the name of promoting and celebrating this industry I didn't even know existed was mind blowing. The decision to be part of it was made that day (I picked up applications to every school that had a booth at the show) and it felt so great.

Rochelle Greayer, Roses, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: In addition to writing and designing, are there other creative outlets you enjoy? Did you consider yourself creative and/or artistic when you were growing up? Would you call yourself an artist today?

rg: I’ve always been creative. When I was a kid, I drew a lot. I also participated in the craft shows that my mom and aunt used to hold in our house every year during the holidays (they were doll makers). My favorite ‘product’ was a series of wire sculptures that I created when I was in about 5th grade - each depicted figures playing a different sport and I mounted them on blocks of wood. Imagine a wire version of the wooden artist manikins - playing different sports. I really wish I still had one or two of them, but they sold out. In my mind they are really, really cool -- but I sort of think if I were to actually hold one on my hand and look at it today -- I’d think it was pretty elementary. The mind plays tricks and when you are 10 you are sometimes absurdly confident.

These days I really enjoy graphic design and collage, and I am obsessed with teaching myself how to draw/create interesting maps of all sorts of things.

I struggle with calling myself an artist today - I’d like to, but always feel like I am not sure I’ve earned the privilege. And by doing so, I’m inviting someone to criticize me for being pretentious.

Rochelle Greayer, Italy, Sketchbook, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: According to the bio on your website, you cherish your "Colorado roots", "Montana blood" and "rancher's sensibility". Was this background at odds with your experience studying at the English gardening school in London when you were starting your career as a garden designer?

rg: Not really. Though, as I said before - the idea of hiring a garden designer seems so luxurious or slightly ridiculous and that is something I’ve struggled with for my entire career as a designer. I understand who and why people should and would hire a designer, but I struggle to rationalize why someone would hire me to do something I’d never hire someone for. And that isn’t always good for business.

I’ve come to terms with it though -- and realized that I’d much rather teach people to do for themselves (hence writing, speaking, and teaching are an ever increasing part of my repertoire). And in the process, I hope they can learn things that will make them happier and the world healthier and more beautiful. That is much more in line with my mindset than pursuing people with lots of disposable income to hire me to make something that they probably will never interact with in a meaningful way.

P.s. I don’t take on design clients anymore… can you tell?

Rochelle Greayer, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: How does that down home, western background and your former life as a rocket scientist inform the way you approach gardens, gardening and writing?

rg: First of all, I see my garden as an ongoing science experiment (and I think others should as well). I am constantly trying things out, letting things die, testing - moving things along and generally wreaking havoc on any plan I might have once had. Some years are really good - some not so much, but I learn from all of it.

Rochelle Greayer, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: I'm always curious about how other creative people handle creative blocks and dark times. What techniques do you use to work through uncertainty or doubt and return to a place of positivity and productivity?

rg: This is hard. I am not sure I have a good repeatable recipe for this on a consistent basis. But I will say this - I recently spent 6 weeks (this last summer) in Italy. While I was excited, I knew going in that I had mixed feelings - I was terribly nervous about spending so much time away. Part of the trip would be my whole family with my husband and part without (all of it with my kids though). He would go home to work - he didn’t have enough vacation to do the whole thing.

I’ve never taken trip that long and I was somewhat obsessed about the perception of it. (i.e. what kind of woman am I - am I the kind of woman who goes it Italy for 6 weeks while her husband comes home in the middle of the trip to actually work for a living… umm...NO! - but then obviously yes). But something happened on the trip that I didn’t expect. I went into the trip very lost creatively, and very frustrated (with the decision to shut down the paper), a bit depressed and entirely burnt out. I was really working hard to dig myself out of the rut that I was in, to no avail. I’d been stuck in it for more than 6 months at least. I was having a meltdown because I couldn’t even tell myself what my goals where…I lacked focus and everything I tried did little to help me find my path again. I couldn’t even answer the question of what I wanted to do next (only what I didn’t want to do). I’d read these things that would say, “what is your vision of a perfect life?” I literally could not imagine what would make me happy and excited. I was not in a good place.

But somehow being away solved it. I came back to tell a friend that I felt that by magic, not focussing on fixing the problem had somehow fixed the problem. Her (rather wise) response was: No magic - I just stopped caring what everyone else thought, and was away from any possible judgement, and that is what allowed me to get back to myself. She is right - no magic. Travel removed me from the obsessive judgement that I thought others had for me and that I heaped upon myself. I am still trying to work out how to keep myself confidently on my own path - not worrying about what anyone else thinks - without having to go to Italy for 6 weeks. I know that when I figure this out, it will be the core of how I consistently move through future blocks and dark times.

Rochelle Greayer, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: Can you share a bit about your trip to Italy and what inspired and energized you while you were there?

rg: Besides just being away and living in the moment…It was so good to walk. I love to walk and I really hate to drive. Walking not only gets my brain working better (physically) but it is at a pace that allows me to take things in. I just get so much more out of life when I am walking more. I’m constantly inspired creatively. If I could change one thing about my everyday life it would be to eliminate my need for a car (way easier said than done!). 

Rochelle Greayer, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

ab: Earlier this year Pith and Vigor transitioned from print to digital. When you announced the decision, you stated that you'd been waffling over it for 10 months. What was the hardest part about the decision and how has the development of the new Pith and Vigor taken shape? What's next on the horizon for you and the magazine?

rg: I am not sure - and I am trying not to overburden myself too much with figuring it out. I have this fear that trying too hard to figure it out will somehow make me slip back into the darkness I was in before.

So, for now I am getting back into some good creative habits like writing daily, creating more often and generally using time that was once dedicated to being an editor, publisher, and distribution agent to get back to being what I am best at and what I enjoy. I am loving blogging again - that is something that really took a hit when creating the magazine.

Letting the idea of ‘print’ go has been utterly liberating. I think that thinking that ‘print is so important’ tied into the ‘what everyone thinks’ mentality. ‘Everyone thinks’ that when it is printed it is somehow more valuable. I’ve come to think that is old fashioned thinking and it is something I am happily letting go of. Print is lovely and I do miss working on layouts and I’m not saying that print is dead or I that am never going to do another print project... but for now, I am finding new ways to create online. And the upside is that (literally) millions more people see it and I let a lot of stressful things go allowing me to be a whole lot more prolific.

I’m also working on a couple new projects that I am very excited about. You could probably guess what they might be - but for now, I am keeping them to myself.

Rochelle Greayer, Artist Interviews, My Giant Strawberry

Thank you, Rochelle, for sharing your story with us today.


Dear reader, I hope you enjoyed learning a bit more about Rochelle. You can connect with her:



Want to read my other artist interviews? You can catch up here. And find more inspiration from the Sketchbook Conversations series of mini, sketchbook-related interviews, all of which can be accessed here.



*Photos in this post ©Rochelle Greayer. Used with permission.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this! - I just re-read again, and I feel I must add (in case its not obvious), that there is absolutely nothing wring with going to Italy for 6 weeks... and everyone should do it if they can!

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    Replies
    1. Hahaha! Sounds good to me. :)

      Thanks, again, Rochelle, for sharing your story and your thoughts. It was a joy to have you here!

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