Maine Artist and Activist Natasha Mayers Finally Gets Her Moment
The Whitefield resident is the subject of a new documentary detailing her connection to nature, prolific career, and progressive political activities.
The mood at artist Natasha Mayers’s Whitefield home, on this day after a celebratory screening of an award-winning documentary based on her life and work, is buoyant. The film has been screened at the Maine International Film Festival, the Toronto International Women Film Festival, and Vermont’s Made Here Film Festival, where it won the Vermont PBS Award for best documentary, but this August screening at the Sheepscot General Store was especially vibrant for Mayers, having taken place in the heart of the community she has been a part of since 1972 and with which she has built a legacy of public art in action.
The land that Mayers’s art-filled home sits on includes a large garden, a vibrant forest, a tiny housecat, and a path to the Sheepscot River. In the film, Natasha Mayers: An Un-Still Life by Geoffrey Leighton and Anita Clearfield, Mayers skates on the river and picks fiddleheads by its side. She says the river feeds her creative life by providing a setting for contemplative activity, keeping her aware of her body in nature. On this hot afternoon, she is swimming in it. “It’s my fountain of youth,” Mayers says, with the dark, peaceful water flowing around her, hemlock trees and pearly sky overhead. The river embodies the constant flow of creativity and insight that Mayers brings to her daily practice of art making and creativity, and its constant presence in her life allows her time to relax into the Maine forest and with the seasons’ changes.
Mayers has been immersed in art since she was a child, when she lived a train ride away from New York City in the village of Croton-on-Hudson. The eldest of several children, Mayers began taking drawing lessons in 1958 at the renowned Art Students League of New York at age 12. “They had to call my parents to get permission for me to see a nude model,” she recalls. As a student of artist Thomas Fogarty, Jr., she quickly became devoted to a life of creativity, helped along in her vision by a Jeep-driving neighbor who exemplified the life of a freethinking artist on his rustic property near her home. Building a multifaceted practice from a young age, she learned copper enameling, folk dancing, and music. “I always thought I was totally self-actualized, but then after my mom died I found these letters she had written to my father during World War II, and she was describing this [future] daughter who was going to be an artist, before they were even married…she was just kind of fantasizing about the daughter she would have.” Mayers remembers her mother’s powerful creative influence. The learning philosophy at her home recalled the famous British experimental school Summerhill, in which children were given the agency to determine their own intellectual growth and direction. In this environment, great leaps of creativity are the norm, and Mayers fit the pattern exactly.
After studying at Sarah Lawrence College (which had charmed her by including an image of a welding student on its catalogue cover); in Rome; and as a grad student at Antioch, Mayers went to Gombe in northeastern Nigeria with the Peace Corps. “I used to describe the symbol of my life as the roundhouse,” Mayers says, laughing. “I could go in any direction: the locomotive would go in there, and the tracks would turn and I could go out in another direction.” That sense of flexibility characterizes her life in Maine, where she settled in 1970. Teaching at a nursery school in Brunswick, she became enchanted with the paintings of her pupils. There she met painter Kathy Bradford, who had children in the school, and she and Bradford became long-term friends who both focused on painting as their main creative path and fueled one another’s studio practice with regular feedback. Since then Mayers has had a rich and varied teaching career, including working at the state prison in Thomaston in the 1970s, where she became the first woman teacher, and more recently working with adults with mental health disorders. With her luminous creativity, Mayers is also a lifelong student, having deepened her understanding of the craft of painting through studies with Leonard Craig, a professor of art at Unity College, and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
Open to the world, to nature, and to a kind of creative learning that transcends boundaries, Mayers has long been a political activist. Her teaching and art practices segue directly into her political activities, which are highlighted in An Un-Still Life. Whether making signs and banners for progressive causes with the Artists’ Rapid Response Team, organizing an experimental left-wing performance section in the annual Whitefield Fourth of July parade, or attending protests at sites like Bath Iron Works, Mayers has made a name for herself as a dynamic, energized activist who fuels her activism with humor and good spirit. In a protest captured in the film, her smile as she is taken away by the Bath Police Department radiates a beautiful openness and sense of curiosity about all of life’s experiences.
In her studio, located in a high-ceilinged, big-windowed section of her rambling house, Mayers flips through a sea of recent paintings. A prolific painter, she makes between 150 to 200 paintings a year, focusing on line, color, effacement, and a strong sense of both abstract pattern and narrative. Her paintings range from transcendent forest scenes painted in her own woods, to experiments with transparency and layering, to nearly abstract compositions of bodies on a beach or faces in silhouette. Color rages through some of her canvasses like a fire, and stark pattern and rhythm dominate others. Figures come and go, often in suits and ties or disguised in stacks of wood, waterfalls, or Brussels sprout stalks. “I give myself permission to not always know what the paintings are about,” she says. The process of discovery and invention is at the root of her painting practice.
Back at the river, Mayers will swim again tomorrow. The cool dark water and the protecting veil of hemlocks will allow her to tap into the inner silence that is the counterpoint to the dynamism and force of her creativity. As she swims and drifts, the language of birds will allow her to clear a path in her mind, leading to the next creative discovery in her studio or in her community.
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