Interview by Sandra Davidson | Truth +Tamale Photos by Alex Morelli
Mary Carter Taub believes in making art for all people. Based in Chapel Hill, her work has appeared on buses, university campuses, airports, train stations, and public locations that allow folks from all walks of life to experience art. She is one of two recipients of the 2018 Mary B. Regan Artist Residency Award, a North Carolina Arts Council grant designed to support innovative art projects that impact communities. Mary is using the grant for Truth + Tamales, a project that takes a new approach to building a more inclusive and culturally connected Chapel Hill. The next session is slated for Wed., March 13.
Why don’t you begin by talking about your connection to North Carolina?
I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. When I was in kindergarten, my family moved to Puerto Rico, [where we lived] until I was 10 years old. I went to undergraduate in Raleigh at Meredith College, and then I went straight to graduate school in New York City and lived there and on the West Coast for almost 20 years. I moved back here 10 years ago, and I’ve been in Chapel Hill since.
Will you talk about your journey to becoming an artist?
Since I was a young age, I used to always shape space. I was never interested in Barbie dolls, but I was interested in Barbie’s car, Barbie’s house, and Barbie’s accessories. I would take them in our hallway upstairs, [and] I would create these little worlds. Looking back, I was creating site-based work on a very small scale. For a while, I thought I would be a fashion designer. My father was an apparel executive, so that was actually what I knew as a career. My mom would always paint and draw. Visual arts were always very present in our house. And the day I went to college — on the very first day — I actually declared my major Fine Arts. I just knew.
You do site-based work, can you explain what that means?
One of the things that is really important to me is this idea of inclusiveness; not just in terms of community, but also inclusiveness of space. Nothing excites me more than walking into a really dull space, a space that you probably wouldn’t notice ordinarily. I can come in and help re-contextualize that [space] and give it meaning to people who may think they’re not even interested in art, who are passing through the space routinely. A lot of my work ends up in airports, buses, and transits – not typical art spaces where you would intentionally set out to view art. Being able to connect with a wide audience of people really excites me. Not that I’m opposed to galleries or art museums, but when you visit an art museum or gallery you’re being very intentional or purposeful about going to look at art versus living your everyday life in a parking lot, walking down a hallway, going into a public bathroom. Those are the things that kind of excite me.
Will you describe your work?
One thing that runs through my work is this love of color – really bright colors. People would probably say garish colors, “off the shelf” colors. I actually attribute that to living in Puerto Rico at a very impressionable age [where] there was a lot of highly concentrated brilliant, bright colors. I think that really struck a chord.
I tend to work with very accessible materials. I mine materials from everyday life – it could be stickers that are on fruit or vegetables that you buy at the grocery store…mesh bags…cereal boxes. I’m always on the lookout and trying to be efficient in the way I’m navigating my life and pulling these materials to shape space.
That’s a great segue to Truth + Tamales, the project you received the Mary B. Regan Community Artist Residency Grant for; what is it and why did you feel like there was a need for it here?
Truth + Tamales is a community-based art project and social practice whereby I am collaborating directly with two other co-leaders: Barbie Garayúa Tudryn, who is a bilingual counselor, and José Nambo who is a bilingual school teacher. The mission of the project is that we bring together native Spanish speakers [and] native English speakers in our community– so Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Orange County. We practice what I like to call a “stranger to neighbor” model. You come in for the evening and you may not know each other. You’re probably not going to leave as BFFs, but you will have gone through this wonderful evening together making art, doing social-emotional work, fellowship, and making and eating tamales.
This is a really stressed out time for a lot of people around our nation, and it really came about [after] talking with my project partners about [how] here in Chapel Hill a lot of our families feel tenseness. It was like, “What can we do that makes people feel good, that really drives home that no matter what seems divisive at the time…we’re actually all bound by similarities even if it doesn’t seem that way?” One of those things is focusing on common values.
We have about 30 participants, and we meet once a month [at The ArtCenter] You come in, we introduce ourselves, we have an icebreaker, we talk about common values that bind us, and we actually then go and write down one or two values that really resonate. Then we hold onto those and we segue into the art making part of the evening. Then we segue into the tamale part of the evening which involves local tamaleras. We first get a very quick history on the ancient food traditions of tamales. They share their history and what tamales meant to them growing up, and we all make tamales together. We give those to people to take home to steam themselves, and then cooking-show style out comes a big pot full of tamales, and we eat them. The rest of the evening is the socializing piece – connecting with each other.
When push comes to shove, and we need to support one another in our community, it’s a lot easier to do if you’ve already established connections. So that’s the idea behind this – this idea of trying to bridge any gaps that are here in our community and really strengthen these relationships [with] people maybe you’d ordinarily pass in a parking lot, or in the grocery store, or on the sidewalk, or on the street…now you can put an experience to the face. The mission is to be a tiny change agent towards a more inclusive culture and community right here in our quadrant of the universe. We’re all connected, and if one person is suffering, we’re all suffering. I do believe that. You have a good experience, you share that with the next person, and it grows exponentially. That’s the way the world works.
Do you feel like you have successfully engaged people who wouldn’t normally come to The ArtCenter?
Absolutely. Part of The ArtCenter’s interest is that we were able to tap into our Latino community, and they’ve been a great partner and supporter. The ArtCenter is deeply rooted in the local community and is a natural fit for Truth + Tamales whose mission is focused cross-pollinating and building a more inclusive culture.
Will you talk a bit about your collaborators on Truth + Tamales?
This project could not happen without them. I met Barbie and José at Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe School six years ago when my kids attended. Both are very well respected and much loved in our community, and their involvement adds a layer of validation with our local community. Barbie leads our social-emotional work, José leads our tamale work, and I lead the art making. Together we lead a social practice that is so much bigger than any one of us. It takes a lot of hands and hearts to run Truth + Tamales! Community collaborators include local tamaleras, bilingual facilitators and administrators, community residents, and local organizations like The ArtsCenter, Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe School, and El Centro Hispano.
Will you talk about what receiving the Mary B. Regan Award meant to you?
Receiving the Mary B. Regan Residency Grant meant the project happened. I actually applied the previous year, and we didn’t get it, and this project was on hold. We ended up doing a very scaled down version — no tamales — and it was a very shoestring project. This project is happening because of the grant, and it’s employing eight people. It takes a lot of people to make this happen, and everyone needs to be compensated.
I understand the tamales component of the event title, but where does truth fit in?
The truth piece is [based on] this idea that at the end of the day we all want to be seen and be heard, and that means speaking your truth. Sometimes sharing your truth is too risky. A lot of people would argue right now it’s a little bit risky to be yourself. We are creating a safe, warm space, and whoever you are, you’re welcomed. Sharing your values – that’s your truth.
What makes this community and North Carolina a good place to do your work?
The support I would say is the biggest thing. I lived in New York for 10 years and on the West Coast for about the same amount of time, and the thing that struck me the most moving here is how supportive people were. When I first moved here, I was looking for a studio and I got directed from person to person until I found a space. People just want to see you succeed. I think that’s part of being in a smaller community – everyone is connected, and it takes a village to make things happen and everyone knows his or her time is going to come at some point, and someone will have your back. Being here has been really great, and I’m always really impressed [by] how much support for the arts there is [in] our state and specifically here in Chapel Hill. It’s pretty spectacular.
Why does public funding for the arts matter?
The job creation piece is huge. I think from a practical standpoint you have a space that is going to exist for utilitarian, functional, practical reasons – why not aestheticize it? Why not make it something beautiful and attractive? With just a little more effort it goes from 0 to 100 in terms of registering on someone’s awareness.