Chelsea J. O’Leary

The founder of Wiley Canning Company shares the meaning and memories behind her many creative practices, as part of our series on pursuing dreams.

I’d describe myself as an artist and entrepreneur, a practitioner of canning, a photographer, and the founder of Wiley Canning Company, a company dedicated to canning, pickling, and preserving local and seasonal fruits and vegetables.

I create recipes and host workshops to teach others to can, pickle and preserve. I also explore photography through both a film and digital format, and I am especially drawn to photographing fruits, vegetables and flowers. I find myself drawn to their colours and shapes, and believe we can learn a tremendous amount when we notice, study and appreciate their unique intricacies.

I was born and raised in Ohio, with a huge emphasis on family, community and academics. My family, teachers, coaches and friends contributed significantly to the woman, artist and entrepreneur I am today. I grew up in a small, rural town, but we had the best teachers, ones who really believed in their students, held us accountable and taught us to dream. In college, our professors taught us to think deeply and independently. Together, my teachers and professors taught me to believe in myself and think for myself—this combination now allows me to productively follow my curiosity and confidently build a life and business representative of my honest heart and mind.

My Grandma Trudy canned, pickled, and preserved fruits and vegetables. Her practice was very consistent and meaningful, and at times, quite romantic. I loved the way canning, pickling and preserving deepened her relationships with her food, land and family. As her granddaughter, I was impacted by the way she gathered her family around a table of delicious and homemade food. Her table is where many of my favourite childhood memories took place. When I left home for college at 18 years old, I really recognised how special it was to be in the close presence of someone like my grandmother, who valued great food and a close, tender-hearted family. Canning, pickling, and preserving now bring great meaning to my life. Engaging in each practice is also one way I honour my grandmother and the beautiful, hardworking and long life she lived.

When I’m not canning or creating photographs, I value and seek meaningful, curiosity-driven dialogue with others. I love to run, in the woods or through the city, and I cherish time spent with my husband, Jared, and our son, Sullivan. You might find us at a local farmers’ market, park or nearby wooded trail.

Before beginning Wiley Canning Company, Jared and I worked in Boston, MA, in academics. We were looking for new jobs across the United States, and we were drawn to cities with large universities. We both pursued Vanderbilt University, and ultimately, it brought us to Nashville, Tennessee. We fell in love with the city—its supportive community, access to undeveloped lands and rivers, and incredible music and food scenes—and decided to create long-term roots here. Our colleagues and co-workers are the best, and our families and lifelong friends in Ohio are able to visit often. We feel so fortunate to live here among such an exciting, compassionate, and fun community.

Some of my favourite Nashville spots include Shelby Bottoms, where I walked nearly every day when I was pregnant with my son. We also take our dog, Jones, there often. I also love Percy Warner Park, Centennial Park, and Radnor Lake, Long Hunter, Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Parks. Really, I can’t name a park in Nashville I don’t love and appreciate in some way. Proximity to outdoor beauty and activity is one of my favourite things about the city.

“Nature reminds me good things take time… To ebb and flow, retreat and expand is to be our most natural selves”

I normally spend weeks imagining a given project before ever taking action. When I run through the woods, I imagine this project in detail. When I drive to the grocery store or when I ride my bike, I do the same. I often type notes into my phone about any detail that feels aligned and exciting. Then, I begin talking about it with family and close friends. Together, we massage and stretch my vision until I feel confident I want to move forward. I then create small, approachable action items in my journal. I take a given project one single action item at a time, and do my best to build it well. I release fewer projects over time to ensure they are built well and genuinely.

I am very easily inspired by those around me every day. My biggest inspirations are my family—especially my son, Sullivan, who inspires and enlivens me in indescribable ways.

My relationship with him allows me to connect with music, poetry and ideas that I may not have noticed before he was born. There is no power like the power of being a parent; he has given me new-found endurance and expansiveness that directly affects the story and calibre of my work. Any work I release into the world is released into his world, so it must be something I stand by and value.

When I write, I try very hard to write the truth, to write honestly about how I’m feeling or how I’ve experienced an action or event, even if it might feel surprising to a reader. When I teach, I try very hard to tell the truth, to teach only what I know for certain. One virtue I admire most in others is honesty, even when that honesty might lead to the absence of popularity or praise. The pursuit of truth feels less and less prioritised, culturally, as time passes, and my small act of resistance is to stay committed to it.

The way I access my creative mind best is through physical movement. If I want to write an essay about any particular subject, I first run or bike. It’s how I ‘warm up’. I recently wrote about this concept, you can find the essay on my website.

I am a huge believer in routines and rituals. I believe they lead to efficiency and freedom day to day. This area of thought and practice is very much on my mind as of late.

Nature reminds me good things take time. The world’s most-beautiful trees are hundreds of years old. It also reminds me that there is a very real element of surrender when growing. We can do our best to grow and stretch in any direction we choose, but we are doing so surrounded by others who are doing their best to grow and stretch in any direction they choose too. We are a part of an ecosystem. We must stay true to our vision while creating and nourishing space for others. Finally, it reminds me that everything changes and most things are seasonal. It’s OK to be dormant for several weeks to ultimately bloom into something new. To ebb and flow, retreat and expand, is to be our most natural, primal selves.

Alongside our evergreens, the leaves of our seasonal trees turn from green to vibrant yellow, orange and red this time of year. There always seems to be a welcomed energy shift in Autumn. We spend more time outside wrapped in cosy layers. We eat more of our favourite foods, such as warm chilli and spicy tacos. We begin to look forward to the holiday season and dream about what’s to come. This time of year, I love to make canned applesauce, canned tomato juice and sauce, and a variety of pepper jams. I also love to freeze sweetcorn.

I take my time searching for pieces that feel unique and well crafted. I prefer to have fewer items in my house, to allow for more open space and flow. I also tend to incorporate light, earthy palettes into our home. One will find wooden materials, cream walls, terracotta accents, and fresh flowers and greenery. We weave nature into our home simply. We have a clay vase sitting out with sunflowers or dried pampas grass almost always!

Some upcoming projects include my first book, The Wiley Canning Company Cookbook; it’s in its final editing stages and will be published in March 2023. I am overjoyed! I would also love to return to Charleston, South Carolina, soon to spend time near the water and search for fossils.

Follow Chelsea @chelseajoleary or visit