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Creative Community: Mary Mathis
On freelancing, creating opportunities for yourself, and thinking about community in new ways.
I found myself feeling creatively stagnant my junior year of college.
The first two years of school were not the adventure I had always dreamt of. Battling anxiety issues and a lot of insecurity, I retreated into myself, passing up opportunity to put myself out into the community. I couldn’t find the courage to join any clubs or organizations. That was, until I heard of Fool’s Magazine.
This delightful literary magazine is an undergraduate student group founded on the University of Iowa campus. The writing and visual art are innovative and bright, explorative and confident. For a place like Iowa City, a haven of Midwestern creativity, an energetic and interesting enterprise like Fool’s makes sense to find lying in wait around campus. One would assume the magazine has been a long time staple at Iowa, but in fact, it was only founded in 2016.
It was founded by a group of young creatives aching for a refreshing outlet, led by Mary Mathis.
If you spent any amount of time in eastern Iowa in the last 25 years like me, you might recognize the Mathis name. Mary’s mom, Liz, was a news anchor on KCRG TV-9, and went on to serve in the Iowa senate for twelve years. Her father, Mark, works in advertising. Storytelling runs in the Mathis blood.
When I attended a meeting of Fool’s Magazine in a small classroom in the Adler Journalism Building, I was on a search to find creative community. I hoped to spark a connection with anyone that would bring me deeper into the world. I eventually decided not to get involved with the magazine, for personal reasons that seem pretty laughable today, but during my short time in the presence of Mary and her dear friends, I had my first glimpse into the power that forms when a creative community comes together and boldly produces art without fear.
Ask Boldly, Receive Greatly
To Mary, the genesis of Fool’s Magazine was simple.
“I realized I needed to find a way to get my creative work out there. After that, I was like, you know what, I have really cool friends. I love magazines. Why don’t we just start it?”
Mary, who works as a freelance fact checker, audio producer, and photographer, feels no unease when going after what she wants. She began her photography business as a 16-year-old in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She met with photo editors in New York City as a 19-year-old. The University of Iowa gave her funding to attend photo workshops simply because she was the only one asking.
“I literally had blind confidence in myself,” she said. “ I had to tell myself to just be brave and go for it. The only things I’ve ever gotten are things I’ve asked for. You can’t get anything if you don’t ask for it.”
Mary and her friends saw an opportunity when they wondered why the university didn’t have a literary magazine. She met with then Director of University of Iowa School of Journalism and Mass Communication David Ryfe and laid it out for him. A literary magazine would look great for the school, she told him matter-of-factly as she handed him a polished, mocked up version of what the team envisioned for the magazine.
Ryfe agreed to give the group $1,500 as long as the Magid Center for Writing matched the amount. Magid’s administrative team took little convincing. Fool’s Magazine was born.
Finesse is a Journalist’s Best Friend
After listening to Mary brilliantly curate ideas from a room of underclassmen that first Fool’s Magazine meeting I attended, I followed her on social media. She’s a truly talented photographer; her photos leave me speechless, effervescent shades of color, a genuine care between photographer and subject. It’s a pleasure to take in.
As her career scrolled by on my social feeds, I noticed how many different forms her artistic drive seemed to take. It was so obvious to me at the time that Mary was full of adventure and hungry to experience the world; to her, it’s simply a second nature.
“I am a pro at being like, ‘hm, how can I best take advantage of this situation?’” Mary told me.
It’s an respectable — and useful — trait that she hopes more young people develop.
“It’s such a privilege for young people because people want to give young people the opportunities to do these things,” she said. “I think they see themselves in it. If you’re in the right place at the right time and someone says, ‘we need someone to do something,’ speak up and say you want to do it.”
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The difference between a stagnant career and an ever-expanding, exciting career often relies on these moments of opportunity. Those who upskill on the job are able to advance more quickly, aim higher for bigger job titles and higher pay. It’s certainly proven true for Mary, who has been able to expand her skillset in ways she’d never imagined when she started journalism school.
As a photo editor at NPR, Mary walked up to the video manager at Tiny Desk Concerts — a video series of live concerts hosted by NPR Music — and let her know that if she ever needed videographers for a concert, Mary would be interested. They came and got her the next time they needed someone, and the experience eventually led Mary to her next job at Minnesota Public Radio. She’s looked for ways to improve her craft and grow as an artist at every opportunity she’s had.
“I feel like one of my skills is being able to play up everything that I’ve done,” said Mary. “You have to keep proving to people that you have the talent to learn. With photography, I was the only journalism student who asked to meet with the New York Times editor who came to Iowa, and she gave me two hours of her time. She gave me my first New York Times assignment and kept giving me assignments afterwards. I was still in college at that point.”
The Business of Creativity
From the moment Mary picked up a camera, photography allowed her to tell her story without using her words.
“I think when you grow up as a young woman, your words don’t always work,” she said. “People don’t always listen to you. So I was yearning for a way to tell my own story with my own voice.”
But as she navigated her post-college life, Mary had to confront the idea that haunts the dreams of most professional creatives: her medium of choice may not be the medium that pays the bills.
Today, Mary works mostly in audio producing and fact checking. She’s less focused on making money through photography, and more focused on sustaining a life where she’s still able to pursue what lights her fire.
“Me taking a photograph for the New York Times and me taking a photograph for myself? Those are two different things. You have to do the work because you like it. Why else do anything?” she said.
Mary leaned into her freelance career in the same way she approached all of her creative work: she went searching for opportunity. She began by emailing editors at various publications, sending her past work and pitches for future projects. She counted every email as a connection made, the potential of future projects propelling her to push send as many times as possible.
Listening to Mary describe the freedom she has found by carving her niche within the freelance creative industry is refreshing. She thrives at being her own boss and has become adept at managing the financial side of her art. She uses Quickbooks to manage her finances, keeps a running spreadsheet of every contact she makes as a freelancer, and saves email templates for pitching story ideas.
The further she gets in her career, the more Mary sees freelance as the ultimate framework for living her best creative life.
“I don’t want to make a fixed income. I want to make whatever I want to make that month. I want to take on different clients this month and learn other businesses, see how other media companies are doing their work. Instead of saying, ‘okay, I have to work 40 hours a week if my rate is this,’ what if I upped that rate and worked less. I’d have more energy and would be able to workout in the middle of the day, have a lunch and take my dog for a walk, and just do these things that my brain needs.”
Creating Art Creates Community
Fool’s Magazine still endures on the University of Iowa campus. Its longevity is a direct result of the community aspect built into its foundation.
In the same vein, Mary is also fueled by the creative community that surrounds her.
“My best friend, Kenyon, just started dating someone from New York who is a creative. We all were hanging out once, and when he left, he told Kenyon, ‘I’ve never experienced being in a circle of creative people like that. You guys are effortlessly creative people. It’s so inspiring to be around your friend group,’” Mary told me. “I’ve never appreciated it like that from the outside before.”
Community means more to Mary than physical space. As a freelancer, she has the freedom to work from anywhere. At the time of our conversation, she and her partner were spending time in New Mexico, a place that fuels them both personally and creatively. They lived there for two years during the pandemic before moving to Chicago to live closer to family and friends.
Mary has actually lived all over the country — New York City, Washington D.C., Minnesota. No matter where her feet planted, she never lost her sensibility for creating art that captures a moment in time. She encourages other creatives to rid themselves of the idea that art is tied to location.
“I think the pandemic erased the idea that you have to be in New York or LA. I think maybe in an elite group of people, that’s the idea. But at the end of the day, there has to be a photographer everywhere. You can’t just have material from the east and the west, you need material from the Midwest, too. Talking about writers — the University of Iowa. That’s where writers want to be. It’s the best workshop in the world,” she said.
Mary and I chatted a lot about intention: choosing your work intentionally, surrounding yourself with good people intentionally. It’s a word we both agreed we think about constantly. It’s the foundation to the entire philosophy behind the Midwest Creative.
As she has settled in as a creative in the Midwest once again, Mary has found that the artist community we all hope for is right here, as long as we’re intentional about finding it.
“I love that it feels really accessible to create work in the Midwest,” she said. “People around you are doing it with little to no resources. There’s a bit more of a down to earth environment here. People are open to the weird stuff you want to make. If you have a band, you could be in a festival. If you have art, you could have a gallery opening in Des Moines. It’s accessible in that you can show your work and feel like, ‘oh, wow, I’m producing great work, and people are really relating to it.’ That’s really impressive to me.”
This is the first in an ongoing series of conversations with artists based in the Midwest. If you’d like to be featured in this series, or have a recommendation of an artist you’d like to read about, please shoot me an email at email@example.com
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