Today we’d like to introduce you to Mari Toscas.
Mari, please kick things off for us by telling us about yourself and your journey so far.
There is a Beyries song, “Pursuit of Happiness,” with the lyrics: “Couldn’t go further / wearing the boots of my father.”
For me, I had built a life trudging along in the metaphorical boots of the patriarchy. In every way I was clumsily going through the motions of a life I believed would make me worthy of the attention of my father, or his father, or society. I was motivated by the urge to please my mother, which was just another way of pleasing men by proxy. What I learned is that I was working toward pleasing everyone but myself. And I knew that being my authentic self was displeasing, so I shut her up. I lived in Chicago, worked a cubicle job, took abuses in various forms in my personal and professional life, some as small as simply saying yes repeatedly to things I hated. I wore Spanx, and tightly-wound scarves, and toe-blistering heels. I was a mother of four and had a corporate career but felt that I wasn’t performing to those standards in either role – and further, I felt penalized from each camp for having one foot in and one foot out. So many roles women take, we are forced to choose sides. In every way, I was physically and spiritually imprisoning myself in a masochistic quest to be acknowledged. I felt choked, misunderstood, ashamed, and trapped in a life that had a lot of movement but no motion.
I flipped the switch when I decided to move to Phoenix. It was time for a rebirth of sorts and I literally had to burn the effigy of who I thought I was to the ground. I think you need to make a decision that you will either suffer from or relish in your wounds. And what I mean by that is: your wounds can either paralyze you, or they can point you in the direction of growth and healing. In my case, I was very outwardly together but very inwardly wounded in many different ways – my suffering prepared and soldered my spirit in ways that it couldn’t have been without that heat. It wasn’t until I migrated West that I truly felt the ability to open my wings and really coast into a rhythm that felt right. My life felt like a whole lot of buffeting against the winds and the minute I put my feet in the sand in Phoenix I felt like I was at home. I found my tribe.
As for our story on how we got started: When my twins were around six months old, and with three children under two, we fell on hard financial times. My mom would bring over boxes of diapers and say nothing. We were living a middle-class life, both my husband and I having master’s degrees, but we couldn’t even meet the basic needs of our children that we had longed to have after being told we’d never have any. I spent hours each day tethered to a breast pump to feed my twins, and, joining a few online groups, I saw first-hand the common thread of women feeling ashamed and unworthy – in this case for not being able to breastfeed their children even though they were doing such tedious yet remarkable work to pump their own milk. I decided to make handmade cards with encouraging messages and send them to women in the group to commemorate their pumping journey, marking milestones, which then turned into bodysuits for their little “pumplings.” I saw the need for baby clothing that wasn’t cutesy or cliché and that spoke to the mother’s need to feel validated. I decided to spend my last $500 on a heat press, and within a week the business took off. My designs were adult, snarky, deep, dark, bohemian. They spoke to the mother and the wounds on the thread of the motherline that women ache to heal.
The business grew fast, but at the time I still worked my day job and came home and worked all night to keep up with the business. I was so exhausted and anxiety-ridden that I miscarried my fourth child and suffered to the point of being inconsolable. Around this time, my son, and ultimately, his twin, were diagnosed with severe autism. In the past, I had been able to compartmentalize personal trauma, but once it involved my children, I realized that the façade I had built around my identity was plaster. I decided to fly to Sedona to clear my head (and unknowingly was pregnant with my daughter, my rainbow baby). That’s when I knew I would ultimately end up in Arizona.
Nothing I cared about mattered anymore. I was exhausted, physically ill from manifesting so much stress, and I couldn’t get my son to look me in the eye, to hug me, to respond to his name. I was working two jobs and still couldn’t afford therapies for him. I looked around at my life and realized none of it looked like my own. I looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I realized I had a daughter watching me now. I knew everything was at-stake. I made a decision to leave everything behind and move our six-person-family across the country to Arizona in May. And here we are.
In the words of Rania Naim: “You’re allowed to leave any story you don’t find yourself in. You’re allowed to leave any story you don’t love yourself in.”
Can you give our readers some background on your art?
Our company is mama-owned (by me!) handmade and small-batch-printed tee shop using original artwork. But I always say: We don’t sell tees, we make wearable prayers. But not bed-time, kneel-at-the-foot-of-the-bed prayers. Not the stories of our forefathers recited in rote. The private prayers. The stream-of-consciousness prayers. The stories we tell ourselves when nobody is around. The prayers where we are the protagonist. Those prayers.
Historically, physical objects are used in ritual to connect people with the divine – prayer beads, crucifixes, icons – are just a few of the tangibles. Being brought up as Greek Orthodox, I was surrounded by dark, byzantine iconography, chanting in ancient language I was unable to understand. My father gave me sideways glances if I breathed too loudly. All in all, my experience with religion was that it was something not to be touched – quite literally Orthodoxy preserves ritual exactly as it had been thousands of years ago – and held an arcane story that I was not privy to participate in. It was a relic to be preserved but not understood. A suspension of animation. A canned song in the jack-in-the-box that occasionally popped up to scare you.
For me, I find that people have a resistance to the idea that being spiritual can also be sensual, and that enjoying physical pleasures or pursuits makes you hedonistic. I believe that pleasure and soul joy is a direct path to true spirituality and my designs resonate with a very specific group of women who aren’t chaste in their views, and still yearn for a deeper connection to the feminine divine – but not the immaculate version of her – the girl in the bar, BFF, ride-or-die version of her who is accessible and raw.
Lots of my customers are recovering from abuse, trauma, religious guilt, addiction. Some have endured the unimaginable, others have children with disabilities or have suffered infant loss. Still, others fall in love with the shadow imagery, the nod to feminism and ritual, the puns and double entendre, and yet hide their purchases from their husbands “who don’t approve of skulls.” Our designs run the gamut from hand-lettered bible verses to a Goth Virgin Mary drinking a coffee with the words “The More the Mary-er.” We really embrace both ends of the spectrum. And I encourage every woman to embrace and indulge every aspect of her identity, no matter how disparate those pieces seem to be.
Do you think conditions are generally improving for artists? What more can cities and communities do to improve conditions for artists?
Artists must be warrior poets. Our job is not to simply decorate or embellish the defunct garment of what has already been – we must create a form anew. The underpinnings of how things used to be are unraveling and snapping in the heat of current events. There is a bonfire blazing, and it’s time to do more than throw our bras in and do a ritual dance. It’s time to cultivate and hone that fire to enlighten our current reality.
Vestal Virgins – priestesses of the Goddess of the Hearth, Vesta in ancient Rome – were charged with keeping the sacred fire in the temple of Vesta alight. They were privileged in their duties, but also became scapegoats for political disappointments and were punished harshly if the flame went out on their watch. I’m not sure much has changed in present-day society. Women who so closely guard their personal truths – their inner flame – are either held to unattainable and immaculate standards or are berated as being whores or witches.
My brand seeks to examine these Ws in a constructive way – often times embodying those personas in a beautiful, impassioned and accessible way. I think the majority of our retail options are homogenous, sanitized, anesthetized – devoid of messaging that could be deemed offensive; missing the more complex and kaleidoscopic facets of what it means to be a woman. And as a result, women are shadows of themselves, unable to embody or explore multiple aspects of their identities in a safe and imaginative space.
What I learned is that censorship and constraint can ironically be a useful tools when used to incubate and shape creativity. When I studied my masters in poetry, I learned that parameters and boundaries can actually be highly useful, ego-eradicating creative tools. The thrill of poetry is being able to succinctly and meticulously craft art despite and because of tight, rhythmic, and sometimes tediously narrow rules.
Patrick Watson sums it up when he sings, “You put a big bird in a small cage, and it’ll sing you a song. That we all love to sing along.”
However, there are constructive community rules – such as adherence to copyright and trademark – and censorship for the sake of preserving our feelings, homogenizing what we put out as a culture, or silencing the truths of others. I’ve found resistance to some of my designs due to the fact that they challenge acceptable cultural messaging, oftentimes pushing up against the boundaries of what is deemed politically correct. The purpose of art is to heal, to engage, to provoke thought and evoke feelings—whether or not those feelings offend is irrelevant. To compromise our artistic vision and tiptoe around hurting the feelings of those on the cultural appropriation bandwagon or PC police is doing us a disservice. We are in danger of losing the poignancy of our art due to the fear of being provocative. I have a take-no-prisoners approach to art. I will not compromise my vision to alleviate the tension caused by my truth and the truth of others. I believe we cannot grow unless we hold space for views that differ from our own. There is an rampancy of pseudo-feminists who ironically abuse other women for speaking their truths. Pay special attention to women who brandish the capital F but spend their energy wagging their fingers at others who tell the truth. These are the most dangerous wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Right now we are a generation of women who crave being heard and understood by a world we haven’t been able to participate inauthentically. And by authentically, I truly mean the good, the bad, the ugly, the shadow, the light. We ache for something that resonates with our inner voice; we seek validation in our struggles and to live life as art, to make our sacrifices valuable. That’s where having meaningful, symbolic, and beautiful clothing can contribute to that lifestyle. What better way to convey our messages than through the practical and innocuous form of a tee?
There is a call for artists to be modern-day priestesses. A lot of us are going through a rebirth of sorts – relationships, friendships, marriages, jobs – are all ending in what seems like a cataclysmic period of grief and uncertainty. Farmers purposely set their fields afire through “prescribed burns” which help prepare the soil for new crops; baby teeth fall out leaving gaping holes for adult teeth to break through; the body induces fever to activate our white blood cells to fight illness. All around us this cycle of fire, destruction, loss, and rebirth, plays out if we observe. Rather than look away from fire, we should learn to dance with it.
The Pine Torch is a brand that embodies the sacred flame in each of us. It compels us to charge forth in the darkness and light the path for others. The brand’s name is inspired by an ancient Latin poem by Cattulus, which expresses the intimate moment of a mother preparing a daughter about to go off to marriage, putting flowers in the young child-bride’s hair, and “giving her away” to a new family (at the time this was written, marriage was a separation from the family, and the daughter had to know who she was and fend for herself in her new role and family). The poem is an invocation of strength. It implores the daughter to remember who she is, to be free and authentic, stay grounded, and blaze a path of truth. The mother’s parting words to her child:
Bind thy brow with flowers //
Pound the ground with thy feet //
Shake with thy hand the pine torch
The torch itself is invocative of truth, light and regenerative power. Like the eternal flame of Vesta, each of us has a divine flame that we must protect at all costs. Some of us burn to ashes before we can be reborn – and the brand, now located in Phoenix – embodies that flame.
I believe I am an alchemist of sorts. For me, the tees we print are just a tool through which women can literally embody (via a garment) aspects of themselves they seek to explore.
I want to help you remember that part of yourself you hide – you know, the dark underbelly. The shadow. Introduce yourself to her. Look her in the eye. I’ll help you. I’ll walk with you through the dark. I’ll help you identify and summon by name, each of the traumas, microaggressions, and tiny untruths that dim our collective flame – on a global and microcosmic level. We’ll unpack them together, person by person, via iconographic artwork that transubstantiates its simple and inconspicuous tee shirt. Nobody has to know. It’ll be our secret. Our secret camouflage. Our Morse Code.
A spark is, after all, the catalyst to a raging fire.
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Light and Pine Photography (headshot)
Clothing, The Pine Torch