Meeting Ashley Church is like being sprinkled with glitter. She’s warm, bright and you just want her everywhere when she’s around. Ashley is the creative tour-de-force behind the Photography Label ‘Dinosaurtoast’ (www.dinosaurtoast.com). She’s also highly experienced in creative collaborations around the capital, both commercial and artistic. While I’ve known this Wellingtonian for over 10 years, on and off (we met at Zeal when I was 15), it is only in more recent years her unmissable photography has been catching my eye, in everything from fashion shoots with Okewa Rainwear to Capital Magazine.
"Ashley has an infectious enthusiasm, a mid-length brown bob that swooshes strongly and a cracker smile that warms your heart."
On the day we meet up finally in person, there’s a severe storm brewing in the Wellington harbour. Despite the cold day outside, we huddle over sushi and orange juice from Moore Wilson’s like old friends. Ashley has an infectious enthusiasm, a mid-length brown bob that swooshes strongly and a cracker smile that warms your heart. Ashley kindly agrees to unpick how she started taking photos, who are her biggest influences (spoiler: her grandfather and her friend, Xoe Hall), depression and why she considers working part-time a key element of keeping herself passionate about her photographic craft.
Ashley was born in Phoenix Arizona, an only child to two Americans, yet has no trace of an accent (“It comes back within three weeks if I visit the States” she laughs). Her father is from Rhode Island and her mother in California. While you may expect Ashley to have come from a family of artists, her grandfather, in fact, is an entrepreneur who started selling live fish as the family business. Due to the heat in Arizona, the conditions were perfect for growing algae and the company would provide fish to eat the algae on lakes instead of using chemicals and has been passed through the family. “Fish brokering?” Ashley laughs when I ask her what the official title for this trade is.
“He’s been a carpenter. He’s built his own plane and flown me in it. He’s lived in a teepee and skied to work"
New Zealand was always a holiday destination for Ashley’s parents when she was a child. Over time, they fell in love with the country and after selling their fish broker business in the US they decided to move to the Wairarapa, part of the greater Wellington region. “They bought something quite quickly - it's funny because they’ve had it for 15 years in the end.” Her mother continued to work on the family business from New Zealand. And her father? “Dad has had every job you can possibly think of,” Ashley explains. “He’s been a carpenter. He’s built his own plane and flown me in it. He’s lived in a teepee and skied to work. He went back to university at 40 and studied business. He’s actually just written a book - “Fat Wallet” (www.fatwalletbook.com), which is a millennial's guide to money.” Ashley's father is now working to become a money coach Clearly, there is more than a streak of business savvy in the family.
In the art room...
Ashley’s family grew olives for olive oil in the Wairarapa, a slower life than living in Phoenix’s city of 11 million. Ashley went to Greytown primary school and then Wairarapa College. During this time, she also found her creative place in the music scene and in punk music. Ashley met her now-husband, Dave, at a punk music gig, X-Air, where he was drumming (he is a musician) in a band onstage (“I caught the drumstick he threw out and after the show, he gave me his email - it’s the cheesiest thing ever” Ashley laughs).
After struggling to find the depth she wanted for studying photography and design, Ashley left Wairarapa College and moved to study in her last year of school to Samuel Marsden in Karori. She admits that she “lived” in the art room. “I was always really passionate about art and design from a young age” Ashley explains, “and my Dad put a premium on my education in this area as a result.” However, it wasn’t all easy. “Going from co-education to all girls was a real adjustment, but I made friends with some cool girls,” she says.
"I love the instant nature of photography."
Why photos? I ask. “I always drew at school - it was cool but it could be frustrating. I love the instant nature of photography. I’m not super technical in my approach to photography - some people are very specific - I’m messy and tend to be instinctual. Ashley found herself inspired by Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tilmans when she came to study at Massey University - “I admired how they captured people and spaces in a raw way” she says. This was reflected in her choice of the subject matter at university which centred on people and intimacy.
One of Ashley’s greatest inspirations in her photography is her grandfather, a sculptor and artist, who passed away earlier this year. “My earliest memories of photography is my father taking photos of me when I was a child,” Ashley says, eating a piece of California roll. “There’s a photo of my friend Maria and I playing in the sprinklers as children. I don’t know if I remember it because I actually remember that day or whether it is because of the photos jogging my memory.” Ashley admires his boldness and the fact he felt drawn to a second act in life, one that revolved around art. “He was a builder his whole life and at the age of 55 he sat down in a cafe and started drawing on napkins of people dancing and interacting and shape and form. He ended up building a bronze foundry and being very well recognised in Italy for his work. It just shows that you can do anything at any age.” Ashley's grandfather was also a skilled photographer. “He inspired me to go in the direction of art”” she reflects.
Struggles, Travels and Style
Ashley has at times struggled to find her own unique style. “University was really intense and I was encouraged to explore a whole range of different styles, from fashion to documentary photography. It was my time to play a bit. The whole time I searched for my style. After Uni didn’t want to pick up a camera for ages.”
"The whole time I searched for my style. After Uni didn’t want to pick up a camera for ages.”
She then travelled to the USA for seven months, visiting her family and living for two months just out of New York working in a bakery. “I photographed their amazing artistic cakes and bakery treats which was pretty cool.” Through taking photos whilst travelling,Ashley fell in love with photography again. She, however, arrived back in New Zealand and hasn’t yet looked at those 5000 images taken on her travels.
While she was travelling, Ashley’s mum was diagnosed with a brain tumour which though benign was the size of a grapefruit. This cut Ashley’s trip short. Despite this horrific ordeal, Ashley and her mother became particularly close. While her mother recovered and now is fine, a side-effect is the experience triggered anxiety and depression for Ashley. “It was a long process for mum. She couldn’t drive anywhere. But we were all together. It’s really hard to see your parent like that in a hospital. I put everything on hiatus then.”
Ashley has had to deal with depression over the years, which has proved to be a rocky ride. “I did all the cognitive behavioural therapy and things - but when you lose someone or there is a difficult event in life it sets you off, such as when my grandfather passed away. Doing a personal development course called ‘The Forum’ has helped me - a course where my parents met 35 odd years ago.” Ashley admits she’s a very empathetic and emotional person “so feeling numb or feeling anxious scares the shit out of me.”
When her grandfather passed away, Ashley admits she grieved more than she ever had before for a person who she’d lost. “It was because he inspired me so much. It’s an amazing thing actually.” She finds talking about that feeling of anxiety and depression helps her manage it. “It took me a long time to say “I am actually depressed” but many of my friends have it and they deal with it in different ways” she explains. Ashley says that ultimately, she believes in uplifting and inspiring people, but she feels it is important to talk about depression, particularly in a life of social media where there is pressure to be a certain way. Sometimes there needs to be dark leather to contrast that bright glitter.
Finding her muse
After returning from her travels, Ashley fell in love with collaborating more closely with her fellow creatives. She contacted artist Xoe Hall while she was travelling in London, who she had admired from afar working at a coffee shop Ernesto a few years back. Xoe has ended up being a formidable influence on Ashley’s life and art. “I kinda girl crushed on her - I didn’t know what it was at the time. I ended up messaging her and asked her to collaborate. When I got back to New Zealand she was working on an exhibition called ‘The Pop Rebellion’ which is something I really dug.” Ashley ended up doing a shoot with Xoe that involved 8 models and went for 14 hours. “At the end of the day, we thought it would be a good idea to make a video of us flinging spaghetti at Xoe in a t-shirt that said ‘, Sell Art, Buy Shoes’.” After that, Ashley was hooked.
“At the end of the day, we thought it would be a good idea to make a video of us flinging spaghetti at Xoe in a t-shirt that said ‘, Sell Art, Buy Shoes’.”
Ashley continues to be inspired by Xoe and their friends. “She is my muse. The way that my style has evolved is down to her. She pushes the boundaries on everything - she’s extreme. I would hold back and she always knows when to push me a little bit further. She asks ‘What are you afraid to do Ash? Let’s do that.’ It's all about being a square peg in a round hole.” From there Ashley was hooked on fashion photography,the avant-garde and being a bit different.
Getting her groove
So what is Ashley’s style? “I love clean lines, minimalism and fashion design. But I also love glitter and sequins that are over the top and in your face disgusting.” Ashley did work full time for a couple of years taking photographs “for everything and everyone” and while it extended her, it also ran its course. Now she works three days a week at Creative HQ (in a marketing role and learning heaps) and she is regularly at her studio, shared with Xoe and several creative geniuses. “Magic happens - and it happened organically.” Over the time Ashley and Xoe have worked together, Ashley has photographed jackets Xoe has customised, worked on shoots and collaboratively styled together. Sticks and Stones agency's blog have featured photographs the pair did together of Xoe’s exhibition ‘Black Leather, Blue Suede’ displayed at Hunters and Collectors on Cuba. She’s also been featured in Undone Journal, Collective Magazine and Capital Magazine, just to name a few.
“Only now have I found a style that I feel is me”
“Photography can be an art and an outlet” Ashley explains her choice to go part time in her work again, and only dedicate a few days a week to her photography practice (although it overflows into her other areas of life). “Before I was doing it as a job to make money. But more than the money I enjoy people and I enjoy meeting people. Now I don’t have to make ends meet like that so I can afford to be more choosey which I prefer and work with people I want to work with. “I like the misfit side of things. It can be hard to push the avant-garde. She also loves married life - Ashley and Dave got married last February - on an afternoon that came complete with disposable cameras for the guests and a picnic themed day.
Ash and Xoe are taking their collabing to the next level and launching a brand new project called Fever Hotel in a couple weeks, watch this space for more glitter, neon lights, sweaty nights and the next loved up project by the duo - (www.feverhotel.com)
“Only now have I found a style that I feel is me,” Ashley says. Raw, intimate, grunge, influenced by 80s cult classic movies - she may be all these things - but I think Ashley is a real sweetheart. “Always be kind to people around you,” she says. “You never know what difference you’ll make for somebody.” And that kindness and openness are as intoxicating as a flash-photo of glitter on leather.