Love is the strongest currency
By Thais Mather
Feminism has created a life of meaning for me.
My teenage years were a nightmare. I had been the golden child — straight-A student, gifted, always doing what I was told. Suddenly I started feeling so insignificant, in the culture, in my family, in society. Public high school in Santa Fe was the punchline of a terrible joke. The only way people were seeing me was as a sexual object. So, I went off like a bomb, in every way imaginable. I dropped out of school, became a drug addict, was selling drugs and using all the time, and I had so many sexually and physically abusive encounters that I honestly couldn't keep track. It was rock bottom — I mean as low as a human can go. It's amazing that I didn't die; many people I knew from that period are dead.
At that point something amazing happened: I got sent to a mandated detention school for girls in trouble with the law.
That was when feminism began for me.
You hear of the deep bonds that occur in war, and of course I don't mean to trivialize that experience, but I feel I could compare my years in an institution to that type of bond. I will never, ever, experience that level of love in friendship again, because we had to protect one another on every level. I began to notice how girls of color, and girls who did not have stable families, experienced such higher instances of abuse and neglect in the school, and in their lives. I knew it was wrong, and at that point realized the bonds of female friendship were more powerful than anything else in this world. Although it was my darkest hour, it gave me a resilience and self-determination that is like a superpower. All the feminists I admire, as scholars, are those that look at women's role in actually creating society, a part of society that isn't quantified and can't be reduced — because it is about caring for one another as family, and the way in which women raise the world, all the while loving so deeply one another and the communities they create. My interest in this type of scholarship stems from my communal experience with women, that our bonds are deep, so beautifully resilient and radically transparent.
A path to feminism slowly revealed itself to me throughout my formative years and into adulthood. My relationship to the movement might be the closest concept to a spiritual following I have encountered. It runs deep within me, because I know without a shadow of a doubt that the undeniable, hard truth exists within the movement. You always hear of the hero's journey, a universal narrative of coming of age, discovering oneself, finding true meaning and value. The hero's journey is a false narrative, because universality is only a path within a colonial fairytale, a narrative that has controlled most of us, through the means of nostalgia, throughout modern history. Next time you watch a Hollywood movie, especially one made prior to the past three years, take a cold, hard, look. The fairytale leaves out the vast majority of the world's population — and when you chip away at the fallacy (perfect word), you begin to reveal the strategic nature of control and contradiction therein.
When I began meeting other feminists, and working within the activist community, Pandora's box was flung so far open for me, and the metaphor of the first "Eve" was not lost on me. The "box" was a paradigm of the world's woes, which led also to the answer of how the paradigm might shift. Feminism, for me, was not a personal journey into a universal tale of how I might heal myself, although I believe those close to me have postulated that for years. For me it means the dichotomy between those who have everything and those who have nothing can change, that more than half the world's population is being forgotten or told they aren't as valuable. The false narrative runs deep, and sexism runs deeper. Let me stress the point: The work of equality for women is the most unfinished and important business of our century. Until there is true equality in theory and in practice, there will be no rest for me, in my artwork, in my activism, in my daily life. Identifying as a feminist for many years, I cannot begin to tell you how many friends, male and female, disliked that identity within me, or were put off by it. Seeing that paradigm shift over the last several years has been hugely rewarding, maybe the most rewarding shift in my entire life.
I hope the shift is not co-opted, however. The feminist movement is just that, a movement, not a commodity or empowerment product. The power lies within the grassroots efforts of women whom you will never hear about. It isn't about Natalie Portman at the Golden Globes, although I am happy she used that forum to be outspoken. It is about so many rights we enjoy: the right to choose, the right to vote, the right to sue our partner for beating us, the right to protect our children from domestic abuse, the right to get medical care, the right to work, the right to own property, the right to have a credit card, the right to sue people for harassment, the right to speak and be spoken to, the right to go outside, to travel, to have friendships outside of the household. The list goes on and on. A feminist, in her lifetime, gave you these privileges. Remember that, because for the most part it wasn't a politician, or anyone associated with the abusive world of Hollywood. It was a normal woman, a woman who wanted a better life for the next generation to come. That is what grassroots resistance does. No one bought or sold it. It happened because someone cared deeply and was responsible to us all.
I work within the feminist movement as a visual artist. Within the context of my work, I reveal historical, semiotic, and political inquiries based on deep research of feminism and women throughout history. I research hundreds of texts, artworks, specific political moments, and historical tactics that inform, visually, information that I find valuable. I also work within the process and not the product. For me the work lies within the process, and the product is secondary. Process for me is invaluable — as a woman, as an introvert, and as a nerd. "A Room of One's Own" is the most literal metaphor every woman should live by. Get one, and give yourself the opportunity to be yourself within. For me that is literally all it takes, and my biggest source of inspiration is giving myself the gift of the "room," in my intellectual interests, in my artistic interests, in searching on the web for relevant information on my particular research. Whatever you do in the room, ultimately you are gaining vital information about what matters to you. I cannot stress how invaluable Woolf's concept of the room is to me.
Self-doubt? It's a huge part of female identity. I have felt it in so many ways, and I think it is fair to say I don't go many days completely free of it, but it is okay to feel those feelings and investigate where they come from. When it comes to my professional life as an artist, I have to remember that I love being an artist. Whatever fear I am feeling, or insecurity, just means I deeply care. Leading up to the opening of my last show, I was able to be honest about it for the first time in my life. I said to critics, and people reviewing the show, that as an artist you put endless time into your work: When you put it out there it is truly terrifying, and I think that is why some artists choose to be egotistical — it is a defense mechanism. I would rather be honest and just let people know that I am feeling vulnerable, and I care. It feels a lot better than hiding in the bathroom, or pretending to be a genius about your work. It is okay to care, and to feel insecure! It makes us human.
I admire so many women. My number one mentor has been Faith Wilding. We worked together when I was in graduate school, and I respect her deeply as a scholar and artist. I will never forget my first conversation with Faith. She rung me on the telephone to talk to me about the graduate school I was applying to, which at that time she was serving as co-chair. The clarity in her voice was not like anything I had experienced before. She was so profoundly empowered; I could literally feel that empowerment radiating from the phone. I also thought she was maybe 30 years younger on the phone than when I met her in person. Feminists never age, because they know the radical power of self-care. She seemed to want to work with me as a student, which to this day I have never understood exactly why — thanks, Faith! She came to visit me in New Mexico; we are in touch often. I just never had someone believe my story, or believe in me, quite as much as Faith.
My favorite scholar is Silvia Federici. Her book "Caliban and the Witch" changed my life. Read it. That is really all I need to say about her. She is a genius and maybe the most important feminist scholar of all time, and luckily she happens to be in our time. In my personal life, I hit the jackpot with my mother. She was this beautiful young woman who couldn't have cared less about her looks and followed her intellect to become a famous author and art historian. She is so graceful, funny, and intelligent, and she taught me to value my mind above all else. That is the greatest gift someone can give you as a woman — because the rest is a recipe for a terribly unhappy life.
When you succeed as a woman people are going to hate you for it. Let them. Elements of the culture want you to fail. Don't. Honestly, that would be my number one piece of advice that I have learned from others. If you are being thoughtful within your profession and taking risks, you aren't going to please everyone. As women sometimes that is a hard pill to swallow, but you can't control other people. Investing in yourself is the best investment you will ever make. Educate yourself. Women all over the world would literally die to be in your shoes as an American woman — take the opportunities. Stay away from shallow people, both men and women. The culture wants us to be distracted and stay skinny, anxious about everything we eat, perpetually at spin class, and buying garbage we don't need to make ourselves "beautiful," but those things are never going to make you happy, because they aren't for YOU. Do what is actually FOR YOU, not for anyone else. For artists, and especially young female artists, keep going. Apply to every residency and show, and get to know other female artists. Learn skills from experts around you. All it takes is a phone call, and sometimes working for free. Reach out to your favorite artist, even if they are well known; artists are usually quite approachable. You have to believe in the power of art and that your particular voice matters in the dialogue. Do it for you, because that matters the most. And NEVER, EVER, lose your innocence to love. Love is the strongest currency we have.
Thais Mather is an internationally recognized contemporary installation artist, with an MFA in Installation Art and Feminist Theory from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work is featured in a solo exhibition yearly. She has won many fellowships and awards for her work and shows throughout the country. She now divides her time between activist installations, backcountry running, and art criticism. Thais has been a student and teacher of feminism for a decade. She works as a professor of art for her graduate program, The Vermont College of Fine Arts. She owns and operates the Good Folk Gallery, with her husband, Todd Ryan White, in downtown Santa Fe. Follow @thaismather. Read more about Thais' work here.
Words: Thais Mather