by Vivian Le
Photos by Mary Mathis
The founding mother of Fools Magazine Mary Mathis sat down with creative director Vivian Le in June to discuss life post-graduation and entering the professional workforce. Mary is currently a music photographer and videographer for Minnesota Public Radio: The Current. Her work can also be found in the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio, USA Today, Outside Magazine, the Des Moines Register, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette.
Vivian: Let’s talk about how Fools Magazine started. What fueled the creation of Fools and from where did you pull inspiration?
Mary: I thought that college is kind of the perfect time to fail. It was really important that we would have an outlet where we could not only get some experience working with other people, but also fail if we needed to. Some of that inspiration came, at one point, from going to Prairie Lights. I bought around ten art magazines, and I just started putting Post-it notes in them and took inspiration from it. I showed those pages to my friends, and I started emailing and DM-ing people on social media. I was like hey, I want to make something like this, let’s do it. And they were pretty down.
Vivian: I remember getting a DM from you in the fall of 2016 asking me to join Fools. I was a little freshman. I was so scared and I was working at the Daily Iowan still. But then, the year after, I saw the first two volumes, and I was convinced it was what I wanted to do. I dropped out of the DI. That was a risky move because I had just received a scholarship through them. But it’s incredible how Fools reached so many students and so many people through word-of-mouth and this trusted connection that people have with each other in the arts community.
Mary: Exactly. People in the arts are looking for other people in the arts. It can be really hard when you feel like you’re the only one feeling and experiencing something; but that’s ultimately why you’re creating art. So when you’re in a room of people who are also doing that, you don’t feel so lonely and self-conscious about the work you’re creating.
Vivian: I was directly impacted because of Fools and your mentoring. Just before meeting you, before being in this environment, I felt territorial about my work and very possessive of my skills and all my knowledge. It wasn’t until meeting you and being part of Fools that I felt really open to sharing my resources. And I think it’s because you were always so open and willing to do that for others around you. How has carrying that mentality over the past year post-grad helped you?
Mary: I’ve always been an open person as my family was in a public light because of my mom [Senator Liz Mathis]. It was locally public light, but I still feel like I’ve always been someone who is confident in the decisions that I make; not that I don’t care what people think about me, because I do in a certain way, but I don’t look back at my choices as embarrassing. I don’t feel the need to hide those things about myself. I feel things openly. I really have no clue where that comes from, but I can definitely think of times as a child where I should have been embarrassed and never was. That’s just always been a part of my life. So this last year when I went to New York, I closed off part of myself that had those qualities. I started questioning myself: oh, you aren’t doing quite what you wanted to be doing. And you’re banking all these tiny, tiny, tiny opportunties. I wish I could say to myself: you are removing the credibility that it takes to be vulnerable. You have it already. Just by being a human. So my vulnerability did waver and now I’m back, and I’m even better than I used to be better at not exploiting myself.
Vivian: Can you talk about some of those experiences that brought you back to this emotional state of being happier or more vulnerable and secure over the past year? What are some of those pivotal points where you just realized things had to change?
Mary: I had a point at NPR where I shared a photo. I think you probably remember this, but I shared a photo along with my writing during the Kavanaugh hearings that NPR thought was biased, even though it got hundreds of thousands of shares on Facebook. I experienced this overwhelming call-to-action from people. NPR was on the other line saying, “we think we’re going to fire you because of this.” And that, to me, was like any ultimate dichotomy. It came down to asking myself, what do I want to be? Do I want to be someone who doesn’t speak out because I think that I can keep a better job because of it? Or am I going to be true to myself and say what I need to say? Am I going to be an artist or am I going to be a journalist? I think that was a huge moment for me. I thought about journalism for the first time as a little cowardly. But on the other side, I was thinking that it’s also necessary for journalism to be unbiased. That was a huge turning point for me. Another one was realizing that I was in a group of people who had arguably the best jobs for our age in the U.S. It was a group of people who were working for NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Listening to our conversations, listening to how pissed off we were, just really put things into perspective for me. I eventually thought, I don’t think I want to do this. I don’t think this is my race to run. I don’t think this is who I want to be. Once I started realizing that my goal wasn’t to work for the New York Times, but that it was to be happy, is when I started to be happy. I really think those are two instances where I had to look really deep inside myself and level: you have to pivot. Otherwise you’re gonna drown in this; this is not what you want.
Vivian: If you had started off last May in the current position that you have at Minnesota Public Radio, do you think you would have been happy? Or do you think that you had to really go through it to appreciate what you’re currently doing?
Mary: I absolutely had to go through it. That’s the hard thing about writing this essay [“On Growing”]. No one is going to understand until it happens to them. It is impossible for me to get that through to you because I had people tell me this, too. I had my mom tell me a million times, “Mary, you can do great work in Iowa. You can do work you’re proud of in Iowa. You don’t have to go to New York and work for these big companies.” But all I heard from that was, “you should settle,” and I didn’t hear, “look around you; there’s opportunity. You’re being elitist. You’re being an asshole.” I didn’t know that about myself. I absolutely had to go through the process of realizing that happiness does not come from location and happiness does not come from succeeding above other people. It just happens by understanding yourself and listening to your body and mind. Last year when I was working for NPR, I was sexually assaulted. The weekend after, I went camping in Pennsylvania with my friends and I was so happy because there was so much space, so much air, so much time to think and positive energy instead of the negative D.C. energy that followed me around after being assaulted. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I had to go.
Vivian: That’s such a scary place to be in. I can’t imagine how it further amplified that experience for you.
Mary: It definitely makes me think of my time in D.C. as a negative experience, even though I know deep down that I still did have moments where I was really happy; and that’s the place I was in when I started running, when I started actually thinking about my body. To answer your question: no, I could not have just started in Minnesota because I would still probably think, you’re settling. You’re not going for the gold. The truth is, that is the goal I had to try to reach so I could get to this awesome place and appreciate it the way I do.
Vivian: Reflecting back on the images that you took at the beginning of May last year up until now how do you see your subjects and focus shifting? How has your photography grown since going through this first year after college?
Mary: That’s really hard for me to answer. I’ve taken this year to focus on being a better person, a better friend, a better lover, and a better daughter, instead of being a better photographer. Actually, if I picked up a camera right now and covered the same event I did last year, I would have probably made better photographs back then, but that’s because it’s a different kind of photography. As far as documentary, I’d be better a year ago because I was photographing events every day; now I’m in a place of peace in my mind. I think out of this is going to come a natural progression where I get better, and I do things that are more concrete and out of my gut feelings. But, to be honest, I work in photography and videography right now, so not a ton of my personal free time can also go towards photography. I am still making images of my friends and the people I love, but it’s just random stuff right now; however, I have started researching a project that I want to do based on parachute journalism. I’m going to do a portrait series of Iowans involved in politics through activism or entrepreneurship or canvassing. I’m going to show faces to a group of elite media. I’m going to try to pitch it to the New York Times and say, “here. I’m showing you the faces of Iowans that you never see because all you see is people in cornfields; that’s all you think we have.” If you’re only seeing what you think exists, then that’s what exists.
Vivian: Absolutely. I saw your tweet in response to that journalist from an East Coast state. You were addressing her one-dimensional take on Iowa.
Mary: That’s exactly what it’s about.
Vivian: As an Iowan who has been working for some of these media companies and is now back in the Midwest being hyper-aware of how people take that identity and capitalize off of it during the election season, I think it’s important that you’re speaking out as a journalist. A lot of people aren’t even noticing it.
Mary: Right. And all of a sudden this East Coast paper’s staff says to me, “we need you to go document this place.” So, to myself, I’m like, well now I’m going to do what I hate. I’m going to be the person that I hate, and I’m going to show you the images that you want to see. Because that’s exactly what you’re expecting. I feel like I really need to do a project like this that focuses on something that I care about, so I can feel good about journalism again. So I can feel like journalism can also be art for me and I don’t have to feel gross about documenting people. This is trying to spin journalism and art with a bit of information from the public. Open your eyes. Iowans aren’t bumpkins. This project is a huge accumulation of my year.
Vivian: It’s very healthy for you to not be consumed in your craft. And you have other things that you do on the side that you’re not going crazy about it. Can you talk about how you have been practicing that? Whether it is with you running or any other forms of art?
Mary: Yeah, totally. Oh, my God. I do think that for a while your form of art needs to be something that you’re completely obsessed with. I’m still obsessed with photography even though I don’t photograph every day. I’m constantly looking at photographs, and watching things, and reading about photographers. There’s never a moment that I’m not thinking about photography. But, on the other hand, running has become this other form of art to me. I realized I’m good at other things. But the time-consuming parts of life can be so hard when you’re putting weight on one thing that you want to be professional about, you want to be creative about, you want to be ethical about. It’s a lot of stress and energy to put on one thing. So I use running as my outlet for my mind, instead of putting all of my ideas and all of this pressure onto photography. Now I’m so much better at being a good friend; I spend so much time with friends now just sitting. We don’t even do anything. I now just spend so much time not doing anything. I’m not lying. Someone asked me if I did this a year ago, and I was like “what the fuck do you mean ‘not do anything’?” and he was like, “yeah. Do you ever just sit? And not do anything?” I literally thought he was insane for suggesting that; and now I love doing that. I love sitting and thinking and writing and listening and reading. Those are such important things. You might think you’re not being productive, but you are being so productive.
Vivian: I think it’s great that you have the time to do nothing now.
Mary: That’s a huge switch, too. I know I’m so lucky because I have a stable job where I never have to work a 9:00 to 5:00, and I still get to work on the side. That doesn’t mean I’m not stressed about money. I’m stressed about money all the time, but I’ve decided that to make this lifestyle switch I am going to make sacrifices. Those sacrifices include complete stability with money. There’s a huge balance. It’s a balance of drive and passion. You can’t be solely career-driven or you’re gonna drive yourself off the cliff. And you can’t be lazy. You have to be in the middle. I think that’s really, really difficult. Trying to balance things this year was so important.
Vivian: Absolutely. Is there anything else you want to add?
Mary: It really helped me to work for Fools, an outlet that I wasn’t getting paid for. Not because I think we shouldn’t be paid for our work, but to show yourself that you’re truly passionate about something. To do things for free is so important to your art, and important to other people’s art. Yes: artists should be paid; but when you have your own personal project and you just want an outlet? It’s such a beautiful thing to have one. Fools is a gift. Fools is not a company you work for, but something you work at, left and right, because it’s that outlet. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I really wish I had something like that now, you know? Kenyon and I talk about making things all the time. She’s like, “let’s make Fools 2.0.”