An Interview with Natasha Mayers
Our current exhibit "Back to the 80s!" includes the work of Natasha Mayers. Ms. Mayers is a Maine artist with a passion for social justice and peace and these themes are often reflected in her paintings. Her career as an artist includes supervising more than 500 murals as a touring artist with the Maine Arts Commission, artist-in-residence for Peace Action Maine and, in 2005, she was the recipient of the Arthur Hall Award “for an artist whose work, community service and commitment to their craft inspires others around them to reach to their highest potential.” Recently we sent Ms. Mayers some interview questions and we were thrilled that she took the time to answer them so that we may share with you, some additional insight into her life and work. Enjoy!
1. You are being in included in the "Back to the 80's" exhibit at the gallery. Can you share the inspiration behind the piece(s)?
In 1982, I read an important book that stirred my conscience, Bitter Fruit, by Stephen Kinzer, about the overthrow of the democratically-elected leader of Guatemala by our CIA. I went to a teach-in about Central America and heard a remarkable German theologian (Erhard Kepler?), urge us to action:
“Every drop counts, even if you think it is like pissing in the ocean. No matter how insignificant your action might seem, you must do it to get beyond the powerlessness, the cynicism, the paralysis.”
I was nearing 40, I had a young child, and had this new sense of responsibility for the state of the world. If I wasn’t going to do anything, who would?
A march was organized in Portland to mark the anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination in El Salvador. Peter Gourfain designed a banner that was so beautiful that I cried. I made a boring poster. I didn’t know how to make a visual statement without words and I wanted to. I wanted to make art that could move people to action, that could stir their souls. I thought the only way I could learn how to do it was to go to Central America and see it firsthand.
There was an artists’ brigade, “Arts for a New Nicaragua”, which formed out of Boston, invited by the Ministry of Culture to come down and paint murals with Nicaraguan artists. Some of us painted a mural on the outside wall of a soap factory in Granada. Workers made suggestions about content and told stories. It became a talking wall. Even the food vendors would park in front of it because it drew so much attention. I also helped a group of young people paint their own compelling vision of the new Nicaragua. That gave me a new awareness of what an artist can do. I saw a government that validated and recognized its artists.
The Sandinistas had just won the elections. Their mark was everywhere and I captured in with the red and black slash you see in my work. The USA was doing everything to undermine the new government in Nicaragua, backing the contras, so I made my work about the red, white, and blue vs. the red and the black... the bully series. Someone said the larger drawings were like “ insidious travel posters”. I made them colorful and "patterny" and tropical enough to draw people in, where they were then presented with scarier images. Around 1984, I also created a huge performance/installation piece for the Maine Festival about US/Central America relations in a giant tent with 6 rooms, that 4000 people went through. It was reviewed in a national magazine by Lucy Lippard.
2. Your paintings often reflect peace and social justice and I understand you are often referred to as "Maine's most committed activist-artist". What drives you to seek social change and how do you use your art to inspire change in others?
Poet Denise Levertov wrote: “a poetry articulating the dreads and horrors of our time is necessary in order to make readers understand what is happening, really understand it, Not just know about it but Feel it.”
Art can help you feel your feelings when things are scary, and help to reflect on who we are and what we are doing as a nation. When you view my work, I hope that you will get more in touch with your unease about what’s going on, and sense the emergency and the madness of it. Many of our country’s values are idealistic and progressive. How do we harmonize our deepest values with our country’s actions, at a time when the US halo of democratic values and virtues and innocence is being so tarnished?? It IS a time when more people are seeing the contradictions and lies in present and past actions. But it’s still a place where we “Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable,” as the South African writer, Breyton Breytenbach said.
This is my quote on Robert Shetterly's "Americans Who Tell the Truth" portrait of me:
"We need artists to help explain what is happening in this country, to tell the truth and reveal the lies, to be willing to say the emperor has no clothes, to create moral indignation, to envision alternatives, to reinvent language. We need artists to help us come together and share our voices and build community around powerful issues concerning our roles in the world and our planet’s survival. Compassion must be translated into action. "
I want to make art that can move people to action, that can stir their souls. My job as an artist is to be creative, innovative and resourceful and to find fresh and unexpected ways to communicate so that viewers will respond. At times, my job is to help people come together and build community around some powerful issues. Not everyone is an artist, but we can each find a way to make a difference in the world. Being creative can help us find the most effective, compelling, and appropriate response and it can help us become engaged and stay motivated.
My work is asking you to stop and think and to feel and act. My work invites the viewer to collaborate in finding meaning. We must care for each other. I am seeking some understanding of how we can wage endless war.
I am making paintings of what the present world looks and feels like to me at a time when we are making chaos. Humor and creativity disarm people and get them to pay attention.
I wrote this to introduce my work to commondreams.org readers and I think it addresses your question as well: I’m talking about the most serious things with a touch of irony, humor, pattern, exuberant color, eccentric configurations.a playful and/or deadly serious response each day, a thought-provoking, open-for-interpretation visual image. I will want it to be a surprise for your readers, something fresh and unexpected to look forward to seeing. It may be simultaneously seen as a cry of joy AND a cry of rage, a damning critique of our government’s policies, but also an artist’s coping mechanism for living with the onslaught of depressing news.
My challenge is to make a symbolic image that expresses both personal and universal feelings, to avoid cliches, to get under your skin and not turn you off, to help you connect the dots between events and issues. I am trying to capture your attention so you’ll feel something. Grief can open the heart to courage and compassion, and outrage can move you to an active and moral response. 3. You have had an extensive career as an artist with many successful shows and accolades. Are there any moments that are particular standouts to you in your career?
The most important thing I do now and the most satisfying as well, is meeting once a month with my fellow artists of the Artists' Rapid Response Team (ARRT! ), which I founded about six years ago. We have painted about 300 banners, placards, and parade props.
ARRT! creates positive social change through the arts, supporting collaborations with social justice, labor, environmental, and other groups, to help them gain media attention, hold our public officials accountable, and shape public opinion. ARRT! creates jobs for artists to effect change, inspire and impact our communities, and help turn artists into engaged activists. As artists we have ways to capture and captivate people's attention that are creative and non-threatening and the ability to depict issues with a clarity unavailable to many other groups. We make ideas visible, with pictures and text that authenticate what others are feeling and thinking. A strong presence by artists willing to put themselves on the line lifts community morale and empowers others to become engaged and to have the incentive and courage to act. When you help people engage in effective, meaningful, relevant, and fun activity, they take over and continue the work.
An honor that was important to me was The Arthur Hall Award. This award was created to honor the work of an artist in the state of Maine, who - by their artistry and commitment to work within their community, has enriched and transformed the lives of those they have encountered and thus the state of Maine. The Arthur Hall Award is given annually to the nominee who most successfully meets the following selection criteria:
1)History of creating positive change through the arts within their community and/or throughout the State of Maine.
2)Fostering quality artistic expression and the integration of the arts into daily life.
3)Inspiring others to use the arts as a tool to bridge gaps in their community
Peace Action Maine nominated me for this award. Here are excerpts from their nomination statement:
“Natasha was chosen to serve as our first Artist-in-Residence because of the amazing community work she has done over the past 30 years, facilitating art projects throughout the state that have fostered artistic expression and political and social activism in many communities. she has done considerable work with people coping with mental illness, the homeless, people in prison, immigrants, and refugees. She has worked in numerous schools and has supervised the painting of many community murals."
"Through our work with Natasha we have come to share her belief that art is a language that can bridge the gap between people who speak different languages, who come from different religious, cultural, racial, ethnic and class backgrounds. We have learned through her, that the arts are a most effective way to speak to the hearts and souls of people and can help people and communities address the crucial issues we all face as part of the human family today." (Greg Field, Executive Director of Peace Action Maine) 4. The upcoming show focuses on the 1980's. What was your life like in the 80's? What was your artistic style? Has your approach changed over the years?
I've been a member of the Union of Maine visual Artists (UMVA) since 1975. In this organization, Carlo Pittore, fervently encouraged us to embrace emphatically, unrepentantly, even dogmatically, the ideals of art ---- not art as commodity, not art for the creative economy, but art for the creative society, art for the salvation of souls.
Artists interested in better communication and support among artists; and organizing for artists' interests and rights. What I was getting from the union that I was not finding anywhere else was a constituency of people who wanted to talk about art, people who wanted to share their stories & visions & struggles as they strove to realize their artistic dreams in whatever form & with whatever content. I also found many of what would become my best friends and the people I most admired. For many of our members who combine art making with community involvement and personal activism, whose art is issue-based, grass-rooted, and participatory, the UMVA is about how we get engaged as artists, having a role that is more central to society.
The union is about collaboration. We work together to create images and events that have meaning. ARRT! grew out of drawathons and printathons, of individual banner making and the process of sharing our ideas and passion about how images can communicate when words fail. t is also about our responsibility to act, to do what we do best to make a difference.
In the 80's we would put out an “artists’ call” to other members and organize exciting group shows including:
site-specific shows: (Thomas block bldg in Portland, Head Tide, Camden Hills),
home/homeless storefront installations on Congress st.
Warflowers (swords into plowshares)
Erasing Racism, Ghost Dance, and a multitude of group shows throughout the state
studio visits, slide shows, potlucks, speakers, theme shows, group shows
The UMVA started in Brunswick and later established chapters in Portland, Rockland and Elsworth with leaders Carlo Pittore, Robert Shetterly, Pam Smith, Susan Drucker, Maury Colton, David Brooks Abby Shahn and local chapter heads like Deb vendetti, Lori Austill, Dorie Klein and Amy Stacey Curtis.
I have been on the editorial board of the Maine Arts Journal: UMVA Quarterly since its founding.
Since the 1980's I don't think my style has changed much and my interests haven't changed much either. I have always worked in series but I do tend to use humor more now.
Thank you so much to Natasha Mayers for taking the time to answer our questions. This look into her life and inspiration really adds even more interest in her work. Please stop by the gallery to see her work in our "Back to the 80s" exhibit which runs until September 1. You can also find out more about the exhibit on our website HERE.