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The Inspired's Inspiration: Jess Scully & Creative Sydney

For those who write, it’s pretty much impossible to not look at Jess Scully’s career with awe. At the moment her life is consumed with organising every minute detail of Creative Sydney as the festival’s creative director, but come a couple weeks, she can go by any of her many other titles – as the editor of Summer Winter or Creative Cities East Asia, the director of SOYA, or, of course, her original job description; journalist. Her long list of creative pursuits is, by and large, the future to aspire to for anyone who has been trained in a similar field. Ambitious, driven and intensely passionate, Jess isn’t someone who has gotten as far as she has by chance or any other undeserved navigation. Rather, her position(s) – which seem to be growing with more and more depth and enviable status with each passing year – have been nothing but the result of endless hard work. Sure, there has been an element of being at the right place at the right time, but that’s because she has strategically made sure she was. After all, the ability to network to one’s greatest advantage is perhaps the most important skill set a creative can have.


Creative Sydney 2009

Social (read: professional) interaction has been the most crucial element in Jess’s direction of Creative Sydney, filtering through everything from how the festival started to the team she has hired to the people she has asked to take part in the sessions. “It’s all about personal recommendations,” she explains. “They are the most important sign of approval a person can get. You know if someone else trusts and respects someone, you can too.” During the year leading up to the event, Jess stays alert and keeps her eye on the people behind the city’s most interesting projects. Given the plentitude of such creative endeavours, she insist that the most difficult part of organising the event is, of course, deciding who and what is going to be in it. “Whenever I meet with someone, they suggest an additional three to four people. Not everyone is able to fit into the program, but I always find that there’s some element of their journey that should be shared… so I keep them in mind for the future.”

When she explains that she views Creative Sydney as the “publication” and each individual session as a “feature story”, it is evident that Jess is still, at her very core, a journalist – and it provides insight into precisely why Creative Sydney has found the audience it has. “It’s all about story telling. The way creative people absorb information is through personal experience. Inspiration so important, but so is practical advice, which is harder to get. You need to get inspiration and convert it to practical advice, which is what we do with each individual presentation. I sit down with each person speaking and we work out what part of their story to tell.”

And then comes the curious question: how on earth did she get here? Well, she studied journalism at UTS because she “always wanted to be a political journalist”, and although she has found herself working across the fashion, music and art worlds since, Creative Sydney has allowed her to merge her original objective with her passion for creativity. She can easily go on a tangent about the political systems in place and the influence of the information age if you let her, but she is normally too strapped for time to do be able to do so. But even just a taste of her take on the newly evolved “urban planet” is enough to grasp just how bright she actually is – another unequivocal factor in her success so far.


Creative Cities East Asia

Jess worked on her uni paper, Vertigo, in 2000, a year marked by the Olympics and the beginning of Bush’s reign in the US – and one she claims was “awesome to be angry student activist in”. She then met some people who wanted to start a magazine called Stu in 2001. It was to become her first experience in magazines, where she learnt all about format, paper blend and the concept behind editorial direction. It was also her first foray into the creative industries, which she claims she started working in before she even knew that was what they were called. Taking a slight off ramp from her original aim, Jess headed the position of fashion editor.

“I grew up in Glenfield and went to an agricultural school on a big farm in middle suburbia,” she reflects of her initial fascination with fashion. “It was so removed from the city – just a bunch of country kids living in a bubble, and I always felt different; I was into music and dressed in vintage. I eventually started getting the train to Newtown when I was 16, where I found Pretty Dog. Back then it was a vintage store, and I started to get more and more into fashion. Tanya [the buyer] then started stocking Australian designers, and no one knew anything about them at the time. An awareness was growing that there was cutting-edge fashion coming right out of our own country.”

After nearly a year of studying, being an editor at Stu and working some cash jobs on the side, the guys behind the magazine decided to launch Yen, which Jess took over as editor from issue four. She was 23 years old, and she stayed there for just over a year. Three days after leaving, she received a call from photographer Chris Ferguson, and Summer Winter was born.

“We had the same ideas about what was beautiful and we wanted to create a new nationalist magazine,” she says. “It was all about embracing the products we have here and focusing on local creativity. At the time, other magazines were just showcasing exhibitions we couldn’t go to and shooting clothes from overseas, but there was this amazing local content we could celebrate.”

The domino effect of opportunities continued; she launched Hot Press in 2005, then came Empty Magazine, then SOYA and then, finally, Creative Sydney, along with a few extra bits and bobs along the way. Jess insists they have all been a random result of putting her name forward, but although her career sounds immensely creatively fulfilling, to say it hasn’t been without a fight would be an understatement.


A snapshot from Summer Winter

“It’s only in past three years that it’s been less of a struggle. I am still working all the time – as writer it is hard to make a living for yourself, so you have to diversify. The more work you do, the more work you get; people just have to see what you’re doing,” she replies when asked about matters of money, an unavoidable question for anyone who has tried to make a living out of the written word.


“I remember when I was 25, I was working like 90 hours a week for $200, living in the shittiest place in Redfern, where it rained indoors and there was no sunlight. But I’m not throwing a pity party – I LOVE what I do, and I meet a dozen people every day who I want to do amazing things with. It’s a trade-off; you can either work for someone else and get paid well, or you can work for yourself, work all the time and maybe one day get paid.”

Back to her most current project, which excitingly launches this weekend; Jess describes that Creative Sydney is “all about changing the way Sydney is viewed externally and internally.”
“Creative Sydney focuses on how creative people all face the same challenges. They struggle to find paying clients, extend networks, find investors – they’re all fighting these battles individually, so imagine if they fought them together?”

Thanks to Jess, who pitched the idea of the festival to the city last year, they will be. It is because of her initiative that she has come to gain the respect she has, and while she has no problem sourcing inspiring people to be involved in her projects, she is perhaps one of the most inspirational of all.

“You can’t expect to have a great job and for it not to be your life. You have to be prepared to commit fully, and understand that you’re not going to make a lot of money for the first 10 years,” she begins when asked for pearls of wisdom to impart. “You have to multi-task and juggle to make ends meet… but the benefits… the benefits are the ability to meet people, test yourself and have fun. Do exciting things, be open, collaborate with people whenever you can. Don’t be afraid to ask people for advice, particularly older people who have done it all before and have knowledge to pass down. Look at the bigger picture – and you know, people who do awesome things are NOT cool. Everyone who does amazing things aren’t causal about it – they’re bordering on obsessive. And that’s the way they should be.”


Jess Scully


Creative Sydney launches its amazing schedule of events tomorrow. For full details, visit their website.


words: Seema Duggal

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