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Work In Progress: How Erin Gleeson Designs Her Workspace For Creativity & Joy

Emma Loewe
November 7, 2019
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Image by mbg creative / Erin Gleason
November 7, 2019
mbg's new series Work in Progress, a spinoff of our popular Holistic Home Tours, zooms in on where and how we work. Join us as we swing by desks, kitchens, studios, and every workspace in between to explore what wellness leaders surround themselves with to feel productive, fulfilled, and successful in their respective fields. First up, cookbook author Erin Gleeson of The Forest Feast.

Erin Gleeson is an artist and New York Times bestselling author of four cookbooks (with a fifth on the way!). Her popular plant-based recipes are inspired in equal parts by her travels and her home base: a secluded cabin in the woods of Northern California. We chatted with Gleeson about her physical workspace, as well as the morning routine that keeps her on track, how she's adjusted her work schedule since becoming a mom, and the quick to-do list tweak that helps her feel way more productive every day.

Can you walk me through your workplace setup?

I work from home: In the kitchen, on my laptop at our dining room table with a cup of tea, or out on our deck if I am shooting recipes. I also have a small studio office space in a separate building beside our house where I keep my painting table, my desktop computer, and scanner.

Image by mindbodygreen / Erin Gleason

What's the most unexpected thing in your workspace, and what's the story behind it?

The most unexpected thing in my workspace is the sun! It's also the most unreliable. I love waking up to fog because it's like a big softbox in the sky, making outdoor photography much easier with the softened shadows. Before kids, I used to do the bulk of my shooting in the late afternoon golden hour before sunset, but now that is prime time for little-kid dinner, so I have to finish my shooting earlier in the day and deal with brighter sun, which is not ideal, but I make it work.

What does your typical workday look like?

My workday really varies depending on what stage of the process I am at. I feel lucky to be able to do all the parts: recipe development, cooking, styling, shooting, and page layout. It takes about two years for me to make a cookbook from the time I sign on to the time it's released. The first year is spent creating it, and the second year is spent editing, printing, and promoting.

For my most recent book that just came out a month ago, The Forest Feast Mediterranean, I traveled with my family for three months to gather all the recipe inspiration and take all the photos around Europe. Once I got home, I sorted through thousands of photos on my computer and came up with my list of about 100 vegetarian recipes I planned to make, inspired by our trip. Then I started cooking!

I always find it's a hard balance between seeking out inspiration and letting it come to me.

I work from home and make everything in my kitchen. Then I immediately shoot it outside on my deck (unless it's raining, in which case I shoot in the living room). This process takes about three months. I do all the styling and typically work solo, occasionally with one person helping. The three months after that are divided between testing the recipes in the kitchen and creating the recipe page layouts on my computer. The book is like a big art project to me; I paint backdrops and watercolor illustrations, which are scanned and overlaid on photos digitally using Photoshop. After I turn in my first draft, I get notes back from my editor, and the next few months are spent editing, reshooting, and reworking.

Right now, I am just starting to shoot my next book: A California road-trip cookbook that will come out in 2021. 

Where do you look to find inspiration for your work?

Our cabin in the woods was my muse for my first three books, which were entirely shot here. The light and vibe here continue to inspire me, but lately my travels have lent some new inspiration. On the road, I get recipe ideas through visiting farms and seeing what's growing, eating in restaurants, and shopping at local markets.

In terms of general inspiration, I look to design, fashion, and food—anything with color and pattern. I love magazines as well; the three I have subscribed to for years are T Magazine (with the Sunday New York Times), Bon Appetit, and Vogue.

I always find it's a hard balance between seeking out inspiration and letting it come to me. Sometimes I try not to look too far so that I can avoid becoming overly influenced. I've found that just staying in my own head on a quiet walk in the hills near my house can offer many ideas and might help me create something more authentic.

Image by Erin Gleason / Erin Gleason

What does productivity mean and look like for you? Has your definition changed over the years?

I used to make daily lists that I could never get through; I'd end each day feeling unproductive. So now I make a weekly to-do list and cross off a few things each day, which feels more manageable. I used to be a real night owl and would work late at night, but once I had kids who wake up early, that had to change too. I need my sleep!

I now work from about 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., four days a week, then I go pick up the kids from school. One day a week, I stay home with our toddler. I am very grateful to have a job that allows me to be flexible with my kids' schedules and a husband who works long hours to make that possible for me. When I am working on a book deadline and my part-time schedule doesn't cut it, I head up to my studio after the kids go to bed to finish my work.

How do you set yourself up for a productive day?

I start the day by checking email and social media for about an hour, with a big cup of coffee and a good breakfast. I then look at my to-do list, prioritize it, and get to it!

How often do you try to take breaks from work, and what do you do on them?

I have a short workday already, so I usually just take a break around noon for lunch. Since I work from home, I also tend to take breaks to clean up around the house or throw in a load of laundry, which is both convenient and distracting.

Image by mindbodygreen / Erin Gleason

What piece of work are you the proudest of?

My most recent book, The Forest Feast Mediterranean. I think my artistic style has evolved in the past five years of creating books, and I am excited about where it landed with this newest one. There is a lot more watercolor overlaid on photography, which was fun!

Image by mindbodygreen / mbg
Emma Loewe author page.
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.