the anonymous author
It’s March and Thais Mather sits in her Eldorado living room with a great firmament of inky constellations hanging above her head. She recently completed the artwork for a solo exhibition titled The Anonymous Author, and its centerpiece is a series of densely detailed pointillist drawings of objects from far-flung eras. Together, they present an alternate narrative of human history. The dots that make up these photorealistic images took over a year to apply, and Thais has been weaving together the show’s histories and mythologies for much longer. The project’s staggering scale isn’t a surprise if you know the artist’s biography, which is inextricably linked to the larger saga of Santa Fe. In Thais’s life, as in her art, fact and fiction have mingled in intriguing ways.
“Santa Fe is a myth. That’s the epiphany of this place,” says Thais. “It was created as a myth to bring people here, and it wasn’t real.” Thais’s mother, Christine Mather, is the coauthor of Santa Fe Style, the 1986 coffee table book that sparked a national design trend. Her father, Davis Mather, has worked to vault local artists to global notoriety from his folk art gallery in downtown Santa Fe since 1979. Together, they’ve helped shape the legend of the City Different for nearly forty years. These days, Thais is searching for her role in a new chapter of Santa Fe’s story.
“In Santa Fe, it’s been hard for me to find an audience. I don’t feel like my artwork is quite right for the market that’s here,” says Thais. It’s a surprising remark for an artist with deep roots in the local creative community. Throughout her childhood, Thais remembers idolizing the artists in her father’s gallery. She made frequent visits to see the colorful folk art in the Alexander Girard Collection at the Museum of International Folk Art, which her mother helped curate in the 1980s.
Santa Fe is a myth. That’s the epiphany of this place.
In her adulthood, Thais has mostly sought artistic nourishment outside of Santa Fe. She got her BFA in printmaking from the University of Montana in 2006. In 2013, she received her MFA in installation, social practice and critical theory from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where feminist artists Faith Wilding and Michelle Dizon were her mentors. Since then, she’s participated in a smattering of group shows in Santa Fe and was briefly represented by a Canyon Road gallery. Meanwhile, her national career has taken off, with showings at Frieze Week and Art Houston and solo exhibitions at two Houston galleries. Later this month, she’ll pack up drawings, prints, and sculptures from The Anonymous Author and drive them to Houston’s RedBud Gallery for their debut.
“Santa Fe just isn’t feeling me,” Thais says. She suspects that part of her difficulty with finding an audience in Santa Fe has to do with her politics. “When people are faced with ‘the feminist in their town,’ as I like to call it, it’s not popular,” she says. Feminist themes feature prominently in The Anonymous Author. The show presents a hidden narrative of human history in which women perform vital tasks that go unnoticed and create objects that do not bear their signatures. As “anonymous authors,” Thais asserts, women literally give birth to humanity—and hence, human culture.
Thais often feels anonymized in her own hometown. “There’s a really aesthetically driven market here that has to do with Southwestern art,” she says. “To me there’s just more than beauty.” Her observation reveals a peculiar predicament: the very market Thais’s parents helped create, and the lifestyle she has grown to love, may preclude her own work from taking root. It’s a discouraging thought, as she’s on the cusp of making a serious commitment to her hometown. Later in the spring, she and her fiancé, Todd Ryan White, will take the reins of her father’s beloved gallery. The generational handoff has Thais thinking about ways her parents have shaped the history of Santa Fe and wondering about her own part in its next phase. “What is our myth?” she asks.
santa fe style
It’s a May morning and Christine Mather bustles around the bright yellow kitchen of her Acequia Madre home, preparing a batch of coffee from Veracruz. A postcard for The Anonymous Author is taped up next to a red rotary phone on the wall. “I can’t keep up with Thais, because she has the mind of an artist, and I’m an art historian,” Christine says. “She always knew art was powerful, ever since she was a small child.”
They may have different professions, but Christine and Thais approach their work in strikingly similar ways. Just as Thais has fastidiously examined narratives of human history for her exhibition, Christine has been conducting her own inquiry into the tradition of Santa Fe mythologizing. Chris Wilson’s The Myth of Santa Fe sits on the kitchen table, dogeared and full of sticky notes. The 1997 book chronicles the deliberate creation of a Santa Fe “brand” by Anglo-American residents of the city in the early 20th century. Through tightly controlled architectural styles and counterfeit traditions, these newcomers kickstarted the tourist economy.
Christine contends that Santa Fe’s history of image-making stretches back even further, to the days of the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800s. “In the 19th century, the first Americans to come here would say, ‘What? This is it?’ It was like the end of the earth,” she says. “That’s what Santa Fe was most successful at in the past, presenting itself as a destination.” The Santa Fe Railway and the Santa Fe Art Colony continued the tradition, becoming larger-than-life proxies for a tiny village in a distant corner of the country. Christine has watched this pattern repeat itself in her own biography.
Santa Fe Style helped spark a public relations blitz that would solidify Santa Fe in the popular imagination as a fantasyland of adobe manors, howling coyotes, and turquoise bangles. The fashion trend may be long past, but this version of Santa Fe’s legend persists.
Like Thais, Christine felt discouraged by her initial attempts at finding a place for herself in Santa Fe. Christine and her husband Davis are both from Ohio and first dated when they were teenagers. They moved to Santa Fe in 1975 with brand new graduate degrees—she in art history, he in English literature—and $100 in their bank account. Early on, they made ends meet with a series of odd jobs. “I worked at Bishop’s Lodge and the Ski Basin, and we delivered phone books. Dave got this job at the penitentiary,” Christine recalls with a laugh.
After these struggles came great success. Christine landed a curatorial job at the Museum of International Folk Art and then at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Davis started a folk art business and went from selling objects out of their house to opening the Davis Mather Folk Art Gallery. He promoted New Mexico artists like Felipe Archuleta to international buyers and together they made frequent buying trips to Oaxaca, Mexico. Their daughter Amanda was born in 1981, and Thais came along two years later.
Then there was Santa Fe Style, a phenomenon that would shape the nation’s perception of the city for decades after its publication. Christine coauthored the book with local designer Sharon Woods. “I approached it in much the same way you approach exhibits, where you’re trying to give visual life and explanation at the same time,” she says. Rizzoli published Santa Fe Style in 1986 with an initial run of ten thousand copies, and it sold out immediately with no advertising. “I had been convinced that there was some sort of fashion thing going on,” Christine says. “The publisher was astounded.”
At her first promotional appearance for the book in Denver, Christine recalls walking in to find a standing-room-only crowd of five hundred people. By 1988, Santa Fe Style had sold seventy thousand copies. The book is full of glossy photo collages that introduced a national audience to Santa Fe design elements. Small blocks of text with headings such as “Canyon Road Adobe” and “Sunlight Along the Camino” offer tidbits of Santa Fe history, much like the placards on a museum wall.
Santa Fe Style helped spark a public relations blitz that would solidify Santa Fe in the popular imagination as a fantasyland of adobe manors, howling coyotes, and turquoise bangles. The fashion trend may be long past, but this version of Santa Fe’s legend persists. Christine cheerfully refuses to predict Thais’s part in Santa Fe’s next phase, but she’s quite sure that a new shift is coming. “It’s fascinating to see how the city self-identifies, how that plays out,” she says. “We wouldn’t be here today had this process not happened. It’s self-creation. Santa Fe has been involved in that for quite some time.”
past is prologue
It’s June and Thais sits at her desk in the Davis Mather Folk Art Gallery just before closing time. Colorful art fills the narrow Lincoln Avenue shop: there are zigzagging snakes crawling up the walls, polka dotted hippos crowding a table, and a full-fledged circus crowding the gallery’s famous picture window. The Anonymous Author was well-received in Houston, and Thais excitedly recounts inspiring conversations she had at the opening. Now she’s back in Santa Fe, but things are looking up. She and White recently married and have officially taken ownership of her father’s store.
“There’s a great Joan Logghe poem where she identifies New Mexico as a lover that’s always entangling her and bringing her back,” says Thais. “I think of New Mexico that way. I love it, but I’m from here. It can be a trade-off.” The gallery sits at the crossroads of this compromise. It’s a treasure chest of early memories for Thais, but now it’s also a vehicle into a new phase of her life—and of Santa Fe’s story.
“My whole childhood was a chapter in Santa Fe Style,” Thais says. Folk art from this gallery, including the snarling coyote sculptures by Archuleta that terrified Thais when she was little, appeared in Christine’s book and several sequels. She remembers sleeping under her father’s desk as a small child and selling lemonade outside the shop on summer days. Seeing Thais at the helm of the gallery, it’s easy to trace the origins of her fascination with overlooked objects and their creators. “The gallery is an important legacy to me,” says Thais. “I think what my parents have done here very much relates to The Anonymous Author. They’ve really elevated people who weren’t appreciated.”
We are seeing an identity crisis of epic proportions here, because Santa Fe Style cannot go on forever.
As fond as Thais is of those memories, she has a new awareness as a business owner that big changes must be made. “I think Santa Fe struggles to find a new identity not so embedded in Santa Fe Style,” she says. “We are seeing an identity crisis of epic proportions here, because Santa Fe Style cannot go on forever.” She wants to see galleries and museums take chances on new artists and is ready to fight for affordable rent initiatives that would allow artists to start businesses in Santa Fe’s downtown area. “I think we are seeing risk-taking happening in the city, finally, but we need it in our institutions to survive,” she says. “We cannot forever be looking back, or progress will be stymied.”
In her Santa Fe art career, Thais is seeing a more immediate shift. She has proposed a winter 2017 solo show to form & concept, a new nonprofit art space in the Railyard District, and they’ve just confirmed. She will fill the entire ground floor of the art space. “When you’ve really been fighting tooth and nail to get people to recognize you, it’s like a dream come true,” Thais says. “I have this opportunity in this huge space, and it’s an amazing culmination of all my artistic experiences. It feels really overwhelming.”
As for the city’s larger art scene, Thais seems ready to tackle some of the difficult questions ahead. “What do we want people to believe about our culture here?” she asks. “The market will have to change, and we’ll have to reevaluate what people want, what’s useful, and what artwork is really important.” Thais is brimming with optimism. After all, she’s seen Santa Fe recreate itself before. “What is next is a big question,” she says. “I think we’ll all be part of it.”
Editor’s note: Author Jordan Eddy was not yet an employee of form & concept when this article was published.