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Conversations with the Inspiring Jessica Mahnke

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Mahnke.

Jessica, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I think you can learn and train for any career, but some things are just so innately inside you, it would be impossible to not live them out. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been an artist and a designer. As a kid, a blank pad of paper was a thrilling world of opportunity and any box or a found object got my mind swirling about what it could become: countless forts, funny gadgets, Barbie homes. I even remember being given a few small cardboard ring boxes and rigging them together with rubber bands and pencils as pillars to build this multi-level modern apartment complex…. ya know, like most kids do, when they’re nine.

Few things were more formative than those early days of disappearing for hours into my room to just create. I poured over my Dad’s home design magazines to learn how to draw space plans of our house so I could redesign it or create the houses of my imagination… chockfull of spiral staircases, indoor pools, wrap-around porches and always a solarium! The adventure, the thrill of problem-solving and creation took hold then and has never let go.

I studied interior design in college as I knew I wanted to get a solid foundation in design fundamentals, but knew I didn’t want to become an interior designer. I wanted to dig into things deeper: I wanted to create narratives. Thankfully, one of my professors encouraged that curiosity and pushed me to learn about all the other avenues of design and when I discovered production design, I knew I’d found it.

After I got my associate degree in Interior Design, I went to film school at Columbia College and crafted my own program in Production Design- learning how to develop and create the worlds that films, TV, commercials take place within. It was the perfect blend of design, problem-solving, history, sociology, psychology and culture. And it took every ounce of my ingenuity, Midwestern work ethic, and every creative skill I had (from drawing to painting to sewing to crafting to construction to crocheting) to pull it off- especially in college and for the first few years of my career, when you were given neither the time, budget or people needed to properly help you to execute your designs.

Though it seemed crazy to family and friends, as I regularly worked 18-20 hour days, seven days a week and would fall asleep trying to eat dinner or would never have time to eat or sleep at all, in my mind, it was just logically what it took to do this thing that was in me to do… and I have never felt so completely at home in a job.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
For all the feeling of having “found my calling” in my design career, there has not been a single step of my pursuit of it that hasn’t been a grind. College doesn’t prepare you for the fact that easily 80-90% of your life is trying to find the work, selling yourself, advocating for yourself and the other 10-20% is doing the work. (Or maybe it feels like an 80/ 20 split because the work comes so naturally and the promotion/ hunting, less so!)

So- to any young woman starting your career, I cannot recommend enough to first and foremost- save money. Start to develop a relationship with it where you think about money before you spend it and you feel excited to watch that dollar figure in your savings grow, because no matter how far you get, work is cyclical and never guaranteed and having a cushion is the thing that keeps you from feeling trapped or compromised to have to take work that doesn’t serve you.

Second, seek out resources to help you plug into what it means to be a strong empowered professional creative woman. Books or groups or blogs that help you to feel empowered to be an advocate for yourself, help you learn more about your craft and to network. Find a few trusted, honest, badass creative women to partner within friendship and creative collaboration.

Also, ladies- listen to the women and men navigating similar career paths and ask strategic questions, there is always something to be gained by other’s experience. I spent several years at the start of my career receiving overwhelmingly positive responses to my work, but being pigeonholed in stiflingly low pay- well below the expertise/experience I had or the overall worth and amount of work I brought to the project. I knew I could do the job, I knew they should hire me, but I didn’t know how to assert that I had value.

It’s funny, but I honestly learned so much from watching some of the most inept and inexperienced men who had no qualms with demanding more money or better accommodation. If these cocky fools with nothing to back it up could assert they deserved more, what on earth was stopping me from confidently stating my professional value? It was a turning point. The more you understand what you specifically bring to the table, the more that conveying your rate is an honest straightforward reflection of your professional value to a person’s project rather than an ask or a hope to be paid.

Please tell us more about what you do, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
After spending several years grinding away designing indie films and then moving on to television and to commercials, I had a glorious little turning point while doing several still shoots a couple of years ago.

I had spent so much of my career going balls to the wall, creating all these massive environments and the further I got into my career, the less hands-on I was able to be. So, being able to step into a role where I am developing an aesthetic and then crafting the precise composition of that aesthetic for the camera again has been incredibly rewarding and a level of precision and artistry I’d not been able to indulge in quite a while.

I have relished unearthing this new skill and discovering this new passion, have had so many great opportunities to collaborate with photographers and brands, have gotten more requests for this work than I even have time to take on and am thrilled to see where this takes me next!

For good reason, society often focuses more on the problems rather than the opportunities that exist, because the problems need to be solved. However, we’d probably also benefit from looking for and recognizing the opportunities that women are better positioned to capitalize on. Have you discovered such opportunities?
I am thrilled when I look at the prospects for creative women today. Don’t get me wrong, the old boys club (emphasis on OLD) is still alive and well and I still get commentary from time to time about certain men’s ideas that I somehow don’t “look like” I can handle something or really anything about my looks or gender-based assumptions at all. But there’s definitely been a sea-change post 45, post-Weinstein, post #metoo.. as simple as a feeling like, Nope. Not anymore. I might have laughed it off before so YOU didn’t feel uncomfortable about being antiquated or sexist or gross, but now I am just going to look you in the eye and state calmly and plainly what I accept or don’t… maybe even with a smile. 😉

We all need to do better and expect better- that’s how we all get better.
But even more than that, it is exciting to see that women are hiring each other, mentoring each other, empowering each other- refusing to play into the idea that we are all just competition to each other! We are on the same team. The more of us there are advocating for each other, the more normal our equitable employment, our equal pay, our overall equality will be and the less we each have to fight the same battle over and over on our own.

If there is one guiding idea that I live by and that feels like the hallmark of this era, it’s that a rising tide lifts all boats and I am here for it- and for you- ladies!

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Image Credit:
Steve Giraud, Hilary Tallie, Sara Gunderson, Evan Robichaud, Drew Suppa, Michael Dallatorre

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