Mei Ratz: “Hang Onto Your Sails.”

Visual Interviews are conducted long-distance, via disposable camera and a box of ephemera. I’m pleased to introduce you to Mei Ratz, a photographer and desginer from Portland, Oregon.

How did you get to where you are right now?
This story sometimes propels me and sometimes it seems like it was such a lifetime ago I can barely retrieve it. Thank you for asking for it, thank you for recognizing the importance of how we travel through and get to this moment. It’s a gift to ask.
I have always been an athlete and when I was swimming at Colorado State for the Rams it seemed like what I was meant and supposed to be doing, and I bet it was!… for a little while. After some circumstances and interesting turns in the journey, I was walking away from my coach’s office where I had just said the words “Well, I guess it is time for me to walk away,” down a long cement hallway, and thinking “uh oh…what now?! Who am I?!” I laid in bed with the lights off for a long time and cried about the paralyzing dilemma of being able to choose ANYTHING else to do with my life. I ended up making a list entitled: Scariest Things I Could Do With My Life and I started writing numbers and scary things to follow them. I wrote things like “Bike across Nepal” or “Live in the Maldives and learn to scuba dive” and I also wrote at the very bottom (the very scariest of all…) “Go to art school.” I had never taken an art class, I had never even thought I was creative my entire life. I was a jock to knew how to follow a water polo match, how to fit all my hair into a swim cap, what I could and could not do inside NCAA rules, I knew how to workout until I wanted to puke and talk myself into more, I was an athlete and on a pre-med track… I was not a creative.

So, I picked the scariest thing on the list and started shooting photos for a portfolio. After turning in my portfolio to a few schools, I got in! I picked the Pacific Northwest College of Art sight unseen and planned to walk through the doors and give it a shot.

That was almost 6 years ago and art school and the fantastically terrifying things I learned about myself there… have changed me and saved me. I am a working artist, I know what bristol board and Dadaism is, I have met some of my closest friends here and I move in my world in ways I couldn’t have imagined because of the opportunities I have had and I am still an athlete. I know that I have had a HUGELY privileged ride and I know that a lot of people might not have the support, resources or time that I had… but I do think that the leap, that could have been a incredible crash and burn, was one of the best things I have ever done.




You’re someone who, to me, lives her life with a lot of intention. Have you always been that way? How do practice intentionality?
What a compliment!! Thank you!! Honestly, I learned it from my mom. My dad died in a climbing accident when I was 15 and a love of my life died in a car accident when I was 20. During those moments of horrific grief I watched my mom be so graceful and honest. She was real with the pain and the hurt of missing her love but she was also so honest with how much it made her appreciate every moment she had had and the ones she was living right then. She still lives her life with the most beautiful grace and intention that I feel constantly lucky to know her. She takes care of her chosen tribe of people, she takes care of people who she believes in, she makes hard decisions for the betterment of her mind and soul, she continues to battle demons to learn the lessons they are going to help her learn and she is also hilarious… I mean, come’on! She rocks! I have learned from her that life is fragile but it is also this incredible testing ground for all our big ideas and hopes, so we should tread lightly and take care but also fly in the most daring directions. I love ya, mom.

You did your thesis last year on the city of Detroit. What did you do and how did it change the way you saw the world?
My thesis!! I LOVE my thesis!! I made an interactive, digital map of the intangible community of the city of Detroit. Pretty much it is a unconventional map that uses data and motion to display things society can’t quantify or feels uncomfortable measuring. It was born from three things: 1. I heard in the national narrative that Detroit was a dying city and I thought..SCREW THAT! 2. I love systems, teams and how they are motivated or depressed. 3. The world we live in likes to measure things on metrics, on “facts”, on numbers and excel spreadsheets… and while I understand that is one useful way to gain knowledge and motivate a system, I don’t think it tells the whole story or gives a sturdy platform for members of a system to be heard or supported. When we graduate from college we are asked “what did you major in?” instead of “what moved you to action while you were there?!” and that is a missed opportunity to really see the inner workings of the most powerful part of the person’s motivations. Don’t you think?! In cities we hear things like “How many things are there to do?” or “how many people is this building occupied by?” to gage city health and predict success but what we should be really asking is about WHY people have chosen to fight for this place they live, WHY do they support this city with their money, time and effort?, WHAT are the intangible things that aren’t measured in Xxcel spreadsheets or used in Power Points? WHAT is it in the city that makes it important to its people? And we should also ask the hard questions like “How is systemic racism perpetuated in this city without anyone knowing?” or “Where are the resources going in this city that speak volumes about the wealth disparity?”

So, I made a map that mapped the pulse of the city and I used data and “measurable” things to convey the intangible grit and courage of the city of Detroit.

Because while the concrete of any situation could be faulty and crumbling… the intangible and sometimes ignored, might be the driving engine for survival and happiness.

From my thesis I have gotten 3 things: 1. Humbled. 2. A fierce love for the city of Detroit…if anyone wants to hire me there I will take the job in a hot minute. 3. I came home braver!

What do you surround yourself with?
I surround myself with:
people who challenge me to be better, support and love me.
rocks I have collected.
love notes (sent and received…I love sending mail)
silver bangles and rings from the wind river indian reservation in Wyoming.
honest, witty, and kind women who are their own force and the people who dare to love them.
air plants
snacks (I will always have something for you in my fridge if you come over…I swear)
a good gym.
a plan to adventure in the next 15 days.
a “YES” answer for when you need me to give you a pep talk or go on a photo adventure.
my phone (it takes photos AND is my outlet for telling people they matter… it’s important)

How do you take care of yourself?
The list above and also…
I fight my negative self talk about the world with random acts of kindness (one of my favorites is laying pennies heads up on the side walk for someone else to find…)
I fight my negative self body talk with a big glass of water, a look in the mirror with a quick pep talk of “Hey! Body! Thanks for doing what’yer’doing!” and a workout (if I have time, otherwise my favorite sweatshirt).
I fight my negative self career talk with a quick trip to my favorite blogs, go on a coffee date, or read/watch/look at something that moves me to remind myself that good people are rocking the world and even if today isn’t my day to rock…someone else is holding up the rocking game and will carry on until I’m feeling more steady.
I fight my need to fix everything and help everyone by reminding myself to take a breath and walk a little slower, things will catch up and calm down…for everyone and everything.
I fight my worry by remembering “the ocean can only sink a boat if the boat has a hole” in other words, it can’t sink you if you don’t let it.
And also Icelandic chocolate from Whole Foods…there is two bars in there and it is amazing…try before you deny!

What are you hoping to learn in the next few years?
How to balance my need to have a sprinting pace of life/work with the people in my life who are not moving at that pace but whom I love more than the stars.
How to pack my carry-on lighter.
How to not be so hard on myself.
How to use a curling iron… srsly.
How to navigate at least 5 other places with just a mental map.
How to play the fiddle.
Your mantra?
Just because I can do anything, doesn’t mean I have to be everything. Try, fall, forgive, try again, learn, surge forward.

Mei Ratz, interviewed August 2014. Website | Blog | Instagram | Twitter