Phoebe Mau outside holding one of her art pieces and her cat, Mika

Humans of San Marcos: Phoebe Mau

By Andrea Mau
Web Content Contributor

Phoebe Mau is a current student at Texas State working on her master’s degree in integrated agricultural science. In college, she participated in the bee club where she was able to use her graphic design skills to create logos and assist in the environmental efforts of the club.

She graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and is currently working as a private horticulturist and TA (teacher’s assistant) at Texas State. Mau is also an extremely skillful artist, with her most popular series featuring macabre and naturalistic themes.    

The surreal style and incredible detail of Mau’s drawings is an instant eye-catcher, but beyond that there is a much deeper substance to her artwork. In January, I was able to sit down with Mau for exclusive insight into her drawings.

An illustration of a bottle, feathers, and chicken feet.
Cursed Objects By Phoebe Mau

Influenced by both her academic and natural environment, Mau explores in her art both the beauty and toxicity of our local community. 

Read on for a behind-the-scenes look into Mau’s locally inspired artwork, and pick up her art at Zelicks the first Sunday of every month or on her Instagram.

Andrea Mau: How has your art changed over time? In the grand scheme of things and also for this particular series? 

Phoebe Mau: Honestly, I was never really an artist. My drawing was always very task-oriented. Since I started drawing the series, at the beginning it was really inspired by the culture of San Marcos and also the beautiful surroundings.

It was about being stuck in San Marcos and how you’re surrounded by such a beautiful natural environment but you’re also surrounded by a toxic human environment. I hate the word “toxic” because it’s overused and people appropriate it for their own purposes, but what I’m talking about is how both in the transient college student scene and the local permanent resident scene, alcohol is a huge part of the culture in artisanal ways and in other regular square ways.

So that’s what my art started out being ever since the summer when I did the first drawing. The first drawing — I don’t want to say it was inspired by, but was initiated by knowing this one person who feels very stagnant in this town and a huge component of that is probably the alcohol use and the culture around it.

It can be really difficult to carve out a social niche for yourself that isn’t surrounded by substance use. It started out being more about that, and then I graduated to a more optimistic place in my drawings where they are more a celebration of nature rather than languishing in the societal or cultural sphere. 

AM: What themes do you pursue? 

An illustration of a skeleton lying in a riverbed.
Ophelia In The 78666 By Phoebe Mau

PM: San Marcos is such an interesting place because it’s one of the oldest continually inhabited locations in North America. It is so spooky in so many ways. The settlers said that there’s the gateways to hell, and of course there’s 78666.

All the caves are so creepy. I grew up above the Edward’s Aquifer in Austin so it’s always been on my mind, I guess. It is just amazing to me that there’s a whole system underground. The ground is like a sponge and there’s so many tunnels and stuff in it.

It’s really interesting how in the outside world — the noncave world — there’s this food chain based on sunlight, and underground it’s like this food chain based on the chemical energy which filters in through the openings.

It’s just really fascinating to me that these creatures just subsist in total darkness on the drippings of the outside and they can live their lives in total darkness — total isolation, and that’s just it. It’s just really freaky to think about how it’s going on underneath us at all times.

It makes you think differently about seeing pavement, and San Marcos is developing continually. It makes you think about when recharging is occurring and when recharging isn’t occurring. Especially with San Marcos changing so much.

AM: When you say charging and recharging what do you mean?

PM: The groundwater. Like when water hits the ground does it enter the ground or does it roll off the concrete and form pools? Y’know what I’m saying? So that’s what I think about a lot is the spiritual significance that people have attributed to this area and also the really unique natural ecosystem.

Those are some major themes in my drawings, and then like I said the other theme is feeling stagnant in San Macros and held back by the alcohol-centric local culture.

An illustration of a mermaid skeleton with bottles and plant life.
Bottom Feeder By Phoebe Mau

AM: What are the most memorable responses to your artwork? 

PM: The most memorable responses are when people look at it and they just totally get it. They completely react “the way I wanted them to” where they look deeply at every single detail and see all the hidden easter eggs. 

AM: How has attending Texas State impacted your artwork?

PM: The way the university has safeguarded the river, because otherwise it would have been lent out to industrial sources. I’ve learned about all the invasive species which are featured in my drawings through the university.

So it was their educational efforts I guess which allowed me to create these drawings, and actually through people I met in the geography department who gave me all these resources like these PDFs over the river.

Those inspired me really heavily, and then I’ve also spent a lot of time perusing Alkek. For example, recently I went to the library for something and I ended up in the San Marcos history section and I read about the people — the remains that they found. 

AM: Remains — like human remains? 

PM: The old human remains, yeah. I think it was like over 500 years old or something? The thing I was reading about was this burial site where there were three bodies — three separate bodies; two women and a man.

They were all buried there at different times: so say the woman was buried there, and then 30 years later the man is buried there, and 20 years later another woman is buried there. So it was used as an intentional burial site and they found all these things around them that they believe were a part of their burial rights.

There were these dog mandibles. That’s the kind of thing that inspires me; just people’s relationship with the river and the natural beauty and uniqueness of the river itself.   

AM: Has any other art inspired you? 

PM: Yes, I’m really inspired by detailed work. I used to be an art history TA and so I’ve always been interested in art history. I was always really inspired by Hieronymus Bosch and his giant triptychs with insane scenes of debauchery and hellscape.

You can see in a lot of my drawings that I play heavily on the 78666 portal-to-hell and Purgatory-Creek sort of symbology. Then there’s this other artist who I’m really inspired by at Texas State. It was so strange going to the art building and seeing her art and seeing how we were literally drawing the same things at the same time.

Her name is Anissa Cavazos. So I’m really inspired by her art and you guys should check her out. 

An illustration of a skeleton cowgirl lying on a riverbed with a skeleton coyote.
A Trip To Mars With My Best Friend by Phoebe Mau. Image courtesy of Phoebe Mau.

AM: What’s your favorite artwork of yours and why? 

PM: My favorite is A Trip to Mars With My Best Friend. That one is this skeleton cowgirl submerged in the river, entangled in the roots of a bald cypress tree. Cypress trees are sometimes considered to be a symbol of death, but that’s not necessarily the case here.

So it’s the cowgirl submerged at the bottom of the riverbed, and then you have a bunch of catfish swimming around, and then you also have hovering above the submerged cowgirl this coyote skeleton as a sort of woman’s best friend.

You can see she’s [the submerged cowgirl’s] missing both her arms. One arm is floating up to the surface and then the other arm is grasped in the coyote’s mouth. It’s sort of a question of do your friends help you or do you help yourself?

Like, did the coyote take her arm or are they bringing it back? So it sort of is like an open story. Then with the arm floating up there’s also a bottle that says “alone on mars” as a play on Lone Star.

There’s a lot of other symbology in the drawing, like on the boots they have galactic patterns on them. Then there’s a bunch of galactic patterns in the sky. So yeah, that’s my favorite one because I don’t really think about personal relationships as much in my drawings and this one does bring that more to light.

AM: What is the symbolism behind the dragonflies of this drawing?

PM: It’s supposed to be a difference between underwater and then the big old world. It’s sort of just providing contrast between this ambiguous relationship and the different relationships displayed out here [the top of the drawing].

So if you look at the owl eating the snake and the snake is eating the rat it’s just like a food chain relationship and then these dragonflies are all flying around in perfect synchrony. So it’s just different relationships in contrast to woman’s best friend.

AM: How does your job relate to or influence your art? 

PM: I would say rather than work influencing my art it’s more parallel to it. I’m a private horticulturalist so I take care of people’s plants, and just like drawing it can be very therapeutic and soothing.

Some of the tasks are super detail-oriented like when you’re picking pests off a super expensive orchid you have to be really careful. So it’s more of a similar type of work that parallels my art than contributes.

AM: What is your dream project?

PM: Maybe my dream project is something which is super detailed but a painting. Like with paintings it feels like I can’t stop and start as freely and it’s more of a time commitment. My dream painting maybe would be me being able to do a work that captures the beautiful color of the river.

AM: What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

PM: I don’t think anyone ever told me this but you are in control of your life and whatever you want, you just have to do it now. 

Featured image by Andrea Mau.

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