Apiece Apart Woman: Tara Mayer

Apiece Apart Woman Tara Mayer

Tara Mayer is an uncommon academic. An expert in eighteenth century textiles, her scholarship traces material and aesthetic exchanges between India, Britain, and France in ways that blur the boundaries of her discipline. She serves as a research consultant for international exhibitions on Indian art, Orientalism, and European portraiture and teaches courses on the cultural histories of colonialism. Born on Maui and educated in London, she spent a decade in Paris before moving to Vancouver where she now works in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia. She lives in a beautiful, mid-century home in the mountains of North Vancouver, where she is raising a family that is as grounded yet international as she is. We had a blissful, late-afternoon visit with Tara to discuss the journey that brought her here and the path that lies ahead. 
Photos by Gillian Stevens
 

Apiece Apart Woman Tara MayerApiece Apart Woman Tara Mayer

Can you share a bit about your upbringing — where you are from, what your childhood was like? 
I was born on Maui. My older brother and I were raised in a wooden house that my dad designed, at about 3000-ft elevation on the slopes of Haleakala, and surrounded by fruit orchards and vegetable gardens that my mom cultivated over the years. 
Nature there is remarkably benign, balmy but not hot and free of anything that would really bite or sting. Much of my childhood was spent barefoot and outdoors, pretending to be different species of animals, roaming and foraging my way around the garden. I had a hideout under a canopy of avocado trees and made all kinds of potions and infusions that I’d coax my brother to drink. I loved making crowns of jasmine vines and gathering fistfuls of hibiscus and plumerias for the dinner table. On weekends, we spent a lot of time in the ocean. Summers were spent in India with my mom’s family, or traveling around Nepal, where my dad had lived.

You lived in Paris for a decade. What brought you there and how did that time shape you?
I finished the equivalent of high school at an international boarding school in Wales and enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London to study Indian history. It was the richest environment to do what I was interested in so I did everything there, B.A. through Ph.D. During that first year I met someone in Paris and moved there full time when I was nineteen. Home was a light-filled apartment on the Rue du Mont-Cenis, between the steps leading to the Sacré-Coeur and the old vineyard in Montmartre. I’d take the Eurostar to London a couple of times a week, for classes and research or to meet with my thesis supervisor.

On a personal level, those years were marked by a kind of hyper-accelerated growth. I was with someone sixteen years older, an affirmed Parisian, who’d worked in fashion for decades and had evolved tastes in virtually everything. I inherited a lot by seeing the world through his eyes. Coming of age in a city with such immense history, with such an established practice and pace of life was formative in all kinds of ways, though cultural assimilation can be isolating as well.

Apiece Apart Woman Tara Mayer

 

Why did you leave Paris? 
I left for the same reason I had come: Love. Sebastian and I had met at university in London. He’d been a friend for many years. We had both done a lot at a very young age – marriage, a home, multiple degrees, and in his case fatherhood. We had built very adult lives, but it takes time to process the experiences of childhood and its legacies of expectation. There was an awakening, I think, to the possibilities that our lives might contain if we let go of what we thought they should look like. I like Rachel Cusk’s description of love as ‘the belief in something that only the two of you can see.’ Ultimately, we placed tremendous faith in each other and our desire to write our own stories. 

Who becomes a professional historian?
Bookish nerds. But of these I feel there are two categories, one comprised of people who are fascinated by big processes of change and want to analyze the underlying causes behind them and the other of people who seek to understand human behavior, emotion, and experience on a micro level. People in the former category might well thrive in other academic disciplines – Sociology, Economics, or Human Geography – but people in the latter are in search of something rather unique to History. Ideally, the professional historian cultivates a high degree of self-awareness, an ability to identify one’s own perspectives and prejudices and at the same time an ability to transcend these, to leave the present entirely behind and empathize with human experience in contexts and time periods far removed from our own. 
 
You are a historian of objects and particularly of textiles and clothing. What drew you to the study of material things?
Virginia Woolf wrote ‘Vain trifles as they may seem, clothes have more important offices that to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’ I am interested in the ways in which people have used objects and particularly clothing to represent their identities and, more importantly, to actively construct new ones. Historians are always selecting lenses and for me, clothing serves as one lens through which evolving attitudes about the body, gender, and race begin to take on new shapes.

Apiece Apart Woman Tara MayerApiece Apart Woman Tara Mayer

 

 

Your research is based on collections of objects, amassed during particular time periods. What do you collect?
I am actually good at letting go of things and love doing so, but yes, despite myself I’ve also amassed small, domestic collections of my own: Pottery. I’m drawn to kohiki and ash glazes, bare clay, and matte, chalky textures. Bowls are a favorite for their versatility. I cart pieces home with me from travels all over and we use them daily. Sheepskins. I love the variations in different breeds of sheep. Navajo Churro and the Norwegian Spaelsau are especially lovely. Linens. We have a lot of very heavy hemp sheets from France. Wooden spoons of every size and shape and large wooden serving bowls. Cookbooks. Grasses and perennials for the garden. Simple, tempered glass vessels are of recent interest. I appreciate objects that are functional as opposed to decorative. Eating on wood and clay feels primal, a tie to the earth.

 

 

What are you reading?
Reading has been my job for so long that I’ve become selective about what I read for pleasure. I value writing that moves me emotionally. Genre is of little importance. James Salter’s novel "Light Years" is one I read over and over again. In the last few months, I’ve discovered Rachel Cusk’s novel "Transit" and Anne Carson’s collection "Float," and rediscovered Robert Creeley’s poem "The Rain." The Studio Olafur Eliasson cookbook recently changed the way I think about eating and gathering and I love collaborations between Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. Oudolf’s design work is extraordinary but what really touches me is his intimate knowledge of plants. There is something philosophical in the way he describes the life cycle, from new growth to death before winter. I admire the value he ascribes to change, maturation, even decay.

Apiece Apart Woman Tara MayerApiece Apart Woman Tara Mayer

You’ve been an intensely private person, with no presence on social media. What are the reasons behind that?
I think I’ve always been wary of the distortions created in the process of representing ourselves online, to people we know and others we only imagine knowing. Life involves endless curation, but social media seems to heighten the need for a certain kind of editing. I worry about what gets left out of the frame. Funnily enough, I don’t think of myself as particularly private. I love conversations. I have a need to be face to face, to look into a person’s eyes and feel that they can see even more than what I’m saying.
 
What are some of the biggest or most valuable lessons you’ve learned? 
I’ve learned the importance of staying conscious and working on myself, my own family, and my relationships. When we’re content in our life and our choices we have little interest in judging others. 

I’m not sure if it’s being in my thirties now or motherhood, but I have no interest in fitting in. Virtually every measuring stick has shifted. I’m proud of my body not for what it looks like but for what is has done, that it grew and continues to nourish such a healthy baby. 
I’ve also come to see vulnerability as strength. It serves as a pathway toward connection with other people and I think human beings are built for that. 
 
What do you most want to pass on to your daughters? 
There is so much emphasis on cultivating exceptionalism, on being extraordinary, and on setting ourselves apart from others. I want our girls to see beauty and find connection in everyday life, to share wholeheartedly in the laughter and sadness of the people they care about, to be aware of the seasons, to read widely, to savor the food they eat, to listen, observe, and feel gratitude for what’s around them. I think children look at who we are and what we do more than what we say, so I try my best to live this. My sense is that when we’re awake to the beauty in everyday things, really awake, the extraordinary and exceptional take care of themselves.