Blue Corn Pancakes & the Photography of Mei Ratz
A few months ago the great Holly Hoover herself shared some images with me that she thought I'd like. They were double exposures of peoples' faces with flora--trees, pine-needles limbs, and flowers. They were beautiful and I was mesmerized but in the often frenetic hustle of work and life I didn't even stop to look for the artist's name.
Time passed. More of the hustle; the weeks going by far too quickly, inundated by media, staring at screens, going out, running around--literally and figuratively.
Then I was at Kinkos/Fedex on West Burnside a month ago, printing a few things. There was a woman nearby rolling up some huge prints, fresh-off-the-press. I glanced over as I stood at the counter and suddenly froze in recognition, my brain seizing upon the stark outlines of human faces made by natural forms, overlaid by photographic trickery. My mind reeled back to the images Holly had sent and I realized this was the same artist. I had to talk to her, tell her I loved her work.
We chatted and she enjoyed my compliments (as all humans do.) She seemed like a really awesome person to get to know, and an obvious subject for this column, so we exchanged contacts.The next time I saw her was weeks later, for breakfast at Byways Cafe in the Pearl. She's a local there, due to the proximity to the PNCA that she attends; it was my first time. It was a neat, quirky place, better than expected. They remember you there, Mei said excitedly; I figured because it reminded her of small town Wyoming life, where she's from. It was true, the waitress called her by name and they chatted like old friends. I was instantly treated like family too. It was nice. There were colorful ceramic plates hung all over the walls and glass cases along one side of the small restaurant with funky mugs of all sorts and other kitschiness.In our email exchange leading up to breakfast Mei had written about the food: "Have you had their blue corn pancakes?! If not, they might change your life. Can't wait to be part of that life change." I was eager to sit down and talk, life change or not.Mei Ratz is a truly fascinating character and an extremely talented animal. She spoke of her and her husband's future plans for residency in Iceland and she may have mentioned reindeer and/or reindeer riding but I can't recall for certain. There were other wild thoughts too. Lots of ideas got thrown around the diner table at Byways that Monday morning and I didn't doubt that she would make them happen.Talking about all her potential globe-trotting adventures made me a little envious, although I was more thrilled for her than anything else of course. With youth on her side, staggering talent, and a new husband in tow, life is good and fruit bearing, the possibilities limitless.We're all excited for the future--projects, collaborations, spreading love, compassionate world domination for the good.I didn't get the blue corn pancakes that morning at Byways and neither did Mei. That's ok; I still feel like my life changed on Monday and Mei Ratz, as she'd hoped, was a part of it.Here's some Q & A with Mei for EYES + EDGE readers…Enjoy!Mountain City: Where did you grow up and how do you feel your surroundings affected your development as a person and as an artist? Was time in nature always a part of your day to day experience?Mei Ratz: I grew up at the base of the Wind River Mountains in Lander, Wyoming. It’s paradise, it’s a paradise with so many contradictions but it is paradise. Let me just give you the quick over view of what this amazing place looks and feels like…It’s sunny pretty much every day of the year (not even close to a joke, when it’s not sunny there is a communal understanding that it’s time to drink tea, watch movies and take naps.), The city center is 15 minutes from some world class sport climbing in Sinks Canyon State Park, the colors of the landscape are somewhere between your favorite color and the most amazing mix of water colors. The air always smells like alpine snow and sage. The sun comes up right over the aspens and it goes down over the mountains filled with alpine lakes. The speed limit is slow and slower when people wave you down to ask about your photo in the paper or you are behind the heard of cattle that is being driven down main street. The community there loves so tenaciously that sometimes it feels like they are gossiping and tattling but in moments of crisis they will always rise to the occasion with support. There is a community with ranchers, climbers, mountaineers, nomads, families, educators, Native Americans and a group of people who came to Lander to work for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Lander is a town of 6000 that has learned to stick together even with it’s differences and similarities.So, I think I was affected by my surroundings in Lander because the wild was my back yard. There was always a tent drying on the laundry line or a climbing rope lying around awaiting its next time out to the crag. Weekends were just made for going deeper into the mountains, adventures like going climbing or going for a hike or playing in the dirt happened at lunch on Tuesday or after work on Thursdays. There is always time to be in the wild. From an early age I knew the Paul Petzoldt rest step, I knew to find my foot hold in climbing and stand up, I knew to take care of my socks while on a trip, and I knew my climbing shoe size….I had my soul and my soles fully implanted in the wild from the beginning. I think to answer about the wildness of Wyoming and the wild affecting me as an artist I would just have to say that it taught me that sometimes things come when you least expect, sometimes you have to wait, sometimes you have to ask again, sometimes you have to bend down and look, and also that if we listen more happens then if we yell into the wind. My father was the executive director of NOLS for many years of my childhood and we were always connected to the outdoor community so I spent a lot of my childhood forming systems, picking up trash in the wilderness because he was the developer of Leave No Trace and one of the ways he taught his children the LNT principles was that he would give us one M&M for ever piece of trash we retrieved on the trail, my brother and I collected a lot of rocks and give rocks to each other at special times to this day, we say hello to mountains that we know and love when we pass them, we weren’t really formed by nature…we were just born with it….as cliché as that sounds.MC: When did you start taking pictures and/or pursuing other creative activities?MR: Whew…This is a crazy story…so….I was going to school at Colorado State University and I was swimming D1 there. I had always been a swimmer (18 years competitively up to that point) and I was on track with a pre-med major. I had never thought I was creative in my life, I grew up with a best friend who was so bursting with creativity that I just figured I wasn’t creative in the least and I was just a jock and that was that. So, I never took an art class, I never picked up a camera…that just wasn’t my thing. But when I was at CSU and some changes were made to my scholarship that were going to make it hard for me to come back financially…I made the choice to walk away. Which was terrifying. Because I was walking away from every identity I had ever formed for myself. I had never been anything other than a swimmer, and I had already had this plan for my life. I have a vivid memory of sitting in a class and writing down “the scariest things I could do with my life…” and then listing every single scary possibility I could think of. I listed things from riding my bike in Nepal to scuba diving in the Cayman Islands to finishing my dad’s life list…and finally I wrote “Go to art school”…ah!And that seemed the scariest.So, I explained that to my mom. And she bought me a camera the next day and had it sent to me. I started shooting, I made a portfolio and I sent it to some schools and got in to all of them! I couldn’t believe it! This was either some cosmic joke or I better go! I ended up picking PNCA in Portland randomly because I had never been there and sent them a “yes! I’m coming!”… and since then I have been shooting photos…5 years long.I shoot weddings, I shoot food, I shoot with families, I shoot with kids, I shoot with businesses, I shoot with models, I shoot glamour shots, I shoot fine art, I shoot my own life, I shoot with magazines, I shoot for fun, I shoot with non-profits in Kenya in the bush, I shoot for design….I found myself with a camera. My camera is an extension of my conversation and my hope for the world. I want the world to know that they are loved and that I think they are gorgeous and that I see them…I want the world to know that someone sees how wonderful they are. I feel very much at home with a camera in my hand.I will be graduating from PNCA’s Communication Design program in May of next year but my portfolio is a reflection of my flight to art school. It’s filled with photos and it’s also filled with strategies. I am a design strategist who is a visual poet.MC: How did you end up in Portland? What do you like about it here?MR: What do I like about Portland…Well…1. The food – I had to buy about 6 new pairs of pants when I moved here because the sizes I had before were just not hospitable to the amount of truffle fries and doughnuts I was in taking. Ha! Whenever anyone visits us it’s a little like we try to kill them with goodness…we can’t help it!Good design plus good food will get me every time. Have you ever been to The Picnic House?! Amazing.2. I love the love of good design and art. I love it. I got here and thought it was a little contrived but that was just because I didn’t see. I didn’t take natures advice and really bend down and look. It’s amazing here. This design and art community is very caring and kind. It comes off as intense but it’s only because everyone cares!3. I love how fuzzy everything is here. The trees, the stuff growing in the nooks of my car windows, the sidewalks…seriously everything. So fuzzy. It’s like a manifestation of Doctor Seuss out there.4. I love the families. I think the families here are something amazing. There is a lot of care put into kids, into conversations, into time spent and into the community that is here.MC: What do you enjoy about being in mountains and in nature? What do you enjoy about climbing/hiking? Does climbing/hiking stimulate and influence your creative mind or artistic process?MR: I feel like I could go on forever and I could start to sound like a John Muir quote at any moment…haha but…I think I love the mountains because they set rules and they teach lessons. Nature can be beautiful and wonderful but it can also rain down and swallow up. It teaches how to be prepared and how to think ahead, it teaches how to let go and how to be thankful but also how to wonder and how to be in awe. It’s a scary place but also a place that grounds us.I always have the best brainstorms or break through when I take the time to go out on a hike to quiet my mind a little bit. Being in the city and the cycles that the city brings in can be a little intense and when I take space it’s amazing what thoughts and ideas take precedence. Last time I was out on a hike I figured out how to take double exposures! Blew my mind…I pretty much ran back to the trailhead.Climbing doesn’t really stimulate my creative mind because I’m usually thinking about how I can just get to the top of the project and have a Clif bar. It’s all about the snack motivation on that one.MC: When did you start doing the "double-exposure" nature/portrait images? Tell me about those...MR: The Double-ex’s … so I was inspired by Sara Byrne’s work … she does incredible things with double ex’s and I was also inspired by a French artist who goes by JR who does large scale portraits in black and white. I was also about to head into a project where the theme was “Escape” and I chose to use double-ex’s and ask my subjects what there “escape” was when life got scary. I didn’t quite know what I was expecting as answers but I mostly got “nature”…which caught me by surprise and also turned into such a gorgeous result.The double exposure is done in camera in my Nikon D700 with the Multiple Exposure Setting. I shoot the subject in profile and then the “escape” or texture as the second shot. It’s always a little bit of a surprise because I can’t see the second shot being imposed onto the first as I shoot…so it’s always a little bit of a guess.I printed them 60’’x80’’ on butcher paper so they are large but also transparent. Right now they are hanging in my hometown in Wyoming actually. They are gorgeous and I am so extremely proud of them. I really feel like they are so emotional and draw out just the right emotion that I wanted from the subject and the connection to the natural texture.MC: Do you ever find it hard to reconcile the deeply personal act of art making with making money and turning your passion into a living?MR: Isn’t that just the constant inner battle? Ha! I mean, yes…and no.I’ve found that I want to make art that involves people and the connections between and within us. I want to be known as an honest but also “always testing new waters” photographer and designer. I want to be out there being apart of the difference making system and to do that I think the key is to have a strong “this is who I am as an artist” and then the “living” follows.MC: What's your ideal photography job?MR: The moment of truth: Well…I think I have two ideal paths, one is photo based and one is design based…is that allowed? I mean…I’m doing it.1. I work for a company that is mission driven that I believe in whole heartedly and gives me projects that are interesting and ask me to use photos and ask me to go out and meet people and bring back photos that show them in a way that would make them go “wow, look how gorgeous I am!”2. I am a facilitator between creatives and businesses who need creatives to work more effectively (I would argue this is everywhere…but that is a different question/conversation for a different breakfast)…I would be the conduit between those two parties and would help them find each other and help them hear each other so that problems can be solved and systems can be formed in more sustainable and resilient ways.MC: Tell me anything that you want the readers to know...MR: There is always room for courage and honesty out there…that market isn’t saturated.Check out all of Mei's work + more of her thoughts. Thanks for your time Mei and keep up the inspiring work!