Muse:

Tara Mayer

November 16, 2018

Tara Mayer is living life with her senses alight, cultivating a generous flame that she wisely protects to nourish her multiple roles as an accomplished scholar, writer, and mother.

As a Historian, Tara writes, teaches, and consults on the material culture of India and legacies of European colonialism. An expert on Indian textiles, Tara’s scholarship engages with ritual, identity, storytelling, and historical understandings of race and gender, all of which are interests she developed growing up with parents from different parts of the world and through her experiences of travelling widely, and one of the many reasons we have resonated.

Mother to two beautiful girls, Tara's devotion to her daughters is expressed in her commitment to remaining present and as open as possible for them, gently guiding through example.

After many years in Paris and London, Tara and her partner Sebastian gravitated toward Vancouver’s North Shore mountains landing in a mid-century home with a beautiful, wooded garden. Here, the family finds peace and solace through simple pleasures: reading, talking, and sharing meals.


— You live in Vancouver, close to nature. Can you describe what drew you here and how you enjoy your surroundings, both personally and as a family.

Sebastian grew up in Germany, surrounded by nature, and I was born and raised on Maui. Our parents kept lovingly tended gardens and our childhoods were intensely marked by the amount of time we spent outdoors and that expansive sense of freedom that only nature affords. In contrast, our adult lives have unfolded in very large cities: Sebastian’s in Los Angeles, London, and Berlin and mine between Paris and London. Vancouver offered us an opportunity to work together in our shared field, and we soon gravitated toward the city’s North Shore mountains and a mid-century home with a wooded garden. We’re true homebodies, though work and travel draw us out more than we’d wish. We love walks in the woods and pottering in our garden, sharing meals with dear friends, or just drinking tea, listening to rain, and being with our girls.

— We admire your restraint from having any presence on social media. What are your motivations around this? What are the benefits and challenges in doing so?

It’s difficult these days not to feel conflicted about social media and its complicated effects on our psyche. On the one hand, its of obvious and incomparable service to creative expression, personal and professional connection, and political activism. On the other hand, I’m very wary of the psychological effects of producing and consuming social media content, which can distort our self-image or blur our understandings of intimacy and sociability. I’m not an especially private person, though I deeply value the closeness and satisfaction of face-to-face conversations. For me support, connection, vulnerability, and honesty most intuitively arise through the physical proximity of real-life exchanges. Someone once paraphrased this sentiment back to me as ‘opting out,’ but I don’t experience it that way at all. It’s simply how I’m able to be most present, for myself and those I love.

Tara wears the Fay Pintuck Dress in fine handwoven Indian diamond motif jamdani or jacquard.

— Do you collect anything (tangible)? If so, when and why did you start, and do you display or store this collection?

While I work with objects, or perhaps because I work with objects, I’m not especially drawn to the practice of serious collecting, which is more often about emotional conquest than a pursuit of things. I have little interest in amassing, ordering, or displaying, though I’ve always been sensitive to a certain kind of beauty in objects that serve a functional or practical purpose. I drink tea from the same bowl each morning – a dark, iron-rich clay with a pale, chalky glaze. We brought it home, carefully wrapped, from a winter trip to Vienna and I love feeling my palms warm against its familiar contours. One day it will slip put of my hands, or be nudged off the edge of the counter and break, and this is as it should be. Intimate connections with objects have led me to a deeper appreciation for beauty as well as temporality, fragility, and ultimately, detachment.

— What crafts and textiles do you feel personally drawn to, and how do you celebrate these in your daily life (wardrobe/home)?

I love natural fibres such as cotton, linen, different kinds of wool, and silk. The variations and imperfections of these fibres is inimitable. I’m also drawn to humble, everyday objects that bear traces of human labour and artisanship. Wood and clay are two of my favourite materials. As humans, we react more sensitively to things that have been crafted by human hands, slowly, and with skill.


Tara in the the Airi Gypsy Dress in billowy silk habutai.

— What priorities have shifted for you becoming a mother? Are there things you tolerate more/less? Strive for more/less? Have these changed over time?

Motherhood has changed everything. There are emotions for which I have no language. There’s the feeling of being broken open, à fleur de peau, as we say in French – like the first layer of skin is rubbed off and everything stings a bit, everything is felt deeper and more intensely. It can feel painful to be so exposed, to care so deeply, but it also brings clarity. I see others differently too. I recognise those who are similarly exposed and gravitate toward friends who care deeply, share unreservedly, are passionately supportive and loving and who want those things in return. I’ve lost all interest in equanimity.

What person/s, moment/s or experience/s do you think led you to devote your studies to history?

My parents were born and raised in very different parts of the world. Their cultural makeup and worldviews are quite distinct from one another and we travelled a lot when I was growing up. I became interested early on in the subjectivity of truth, belief, and memory, and how narratives we construct and that are constructed around us shape our understanding of the world. LP Hartley wrote ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ To study the human past is to be in a perpetual state of travel, not merely geographically but temporally, and to cultivate, simultaneously, awareness of how legacies of the past shape our present as well as how our present informs the questions we ask of the past. Historians are eager to draw conclusions and yet cherish the complexities and contradictions that define so much of human experience.

— What are you currently working on, both professionally and personally?

I’m organising an international conference on the theme of visual literacy and collaborating with the Museum of Vancouver on an upcoming exhibition of their South Asia collection. This academic term has been especially busy with teaching, research, and writing projects and I’m looking forward to being on Maui in a few weeks. Our girls love spending time with my parents and I’m craving long swims, quiet walks, and late afternoons in the garden.

— We feel we resonate on our mutual love for Indian textiles. What initially drew you to this craft and tradition?

As a child, I was surrounded by Indian textiles. There was a large box of folded saris in my mom’s closet. My favourite was a feather-weight silk, from Varanasi, that was deep, cerulean blue with a heavy gold border. I remember being lifted from the bath, wrapped in airy khadi towels from Kerala. During long travels between Hawaii, where I grew up, and southern India where my mom’s family is, my brother and I were bundled in soft, woollen shawls that were scented with sandalwood oil. I’ve always had a deep affective connection to these materials, which provided familiarity and comfort to my mom and a material tie to her homeland while living abroad. It was only later, while studying in London, that I came to fully appreciate the cultural, political, and economic centrality of textiles within the history of South Asia.

— If you were to borrow concepts from artists and/or teachers to apply to your approach to living, who would these people be and what is it about them and their work that you align with?

Now in my thirties, I’m deeply moved by the writing of Rachel Cusk, who treats subjects like marriage, divorce, and motherhood with exquisite and brutal honesty. She seems to assign no moral value to specific emotions – doesn’t esteem happiness more than unhappiness, for example – but is simply interested in exploring different states and what they look like. There’s a wholeness and complexity of emotional experience in the lives of Cusk’s female protagonists that’s sharpened my ability to appreciate this kind of complexity in my own life, not because its beautiful but simply because its true and authentic.

Tara standing in the Yuri Blouse and Annex Pleated Trousers in handwoven striped cotton, made by our non-profit weaving cooperative in Central India. [Images taken and reproduced with permission from the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, situated on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people.]

— As someone who is constantly writing about the past, I can imagine this can affect the way in which you foresee the future. You have two beautiful daughters and I am interested to know how your work and scholarship feeds into their lives, perhaps it is through story telling, or introduction to cultural traditions. And do you believe there to be benefit in this for them?

Historians craft arguments about the past and create convincing narratives. Beyond any specific aspect of my scholarship or what I study, I try to convey to our daughters my belief that the stories we tell – both about ourselves and others – matter a great deal. I want them to recognise narratives that are empowering from those that cast them or others as smaller, unequal, and understand how those narratives are constructed, by whom, and for what purpose. My youngest daughter is just three, so storytelling is such a big part of how we imagine together, exchange ideas, and communicate but as human beings we construct and receive narratives our whole life, well beyond childhood.

— Can you share something you recently saw/read/heard/tasted that really moved you?

i am relieved.

when

I see the feminine presence

in a man's eyes.

it means he is a peace

i do not

have

to

bring to him.

-ease

Nayyirah Waheed

Interview by Yasmine Ganley

Images by Ian Laterman