“No One’s Softness Has to Look the Same Way”: An Interview with Poet and Artist Lora Mathis

"Radical softness is the idea that sharing your emotions is a political move and a tactic against a society which prioritizes a lack of emotions."—Lora Mathis

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

A few months ago, seemingly out of serendipity, I came across Lora Mathis’ poetry on Tumblr. In awe and immediate admiration, I instantly had to know more about the person behind such striking words.

Lora Mathis, an incredibly talented and diverse creator, is a poet, photographer, artist, musician, and published author. They address femininity and mental illness through their works, inevitably attracting thousands of loyal followers and supporters with their indisputable flair for art. 
One of my personal favorite works of theirs is the phrase they breathed into life, which is “Radical Softness as a Weapon”. On their blog, Lora Mathis related radical softness to an Audre Lorde quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” 
However, even prior to my serendipitous discovery of the artist, one lesson I had already learned is that it’s okay to feel every emotion, to welcome its intricacies in our mind and body in order to further grow as a person. It even transcended from a lesson to a strong belief because it acted as a catalyst for my own recoveries.
So, when I discovered Lora’s work, I was truly struck by it. I thought, “Wow… Someone worded it perfectly.” It validated and amplified my belief strongly. I resonated with it.
Apparently, I’m not the only person who feels this way. There are many people like me who identified with their work. The phrase now seems to stand as a movement, especially for people grappling with mental illness. Some supporters even tattooed the phrase on their bodies as a reminder, once again proving how powerful Mathis’ work is.
Recently, I had a very fortunate opportunity to interview Lora Mathis for Lithium Magazine. Here they talked about their art, radical softness, vulnerability, and healing. 

Lithium: Who is Lora Mathis to Lora Mathis?
Lora: I see myself as a tender nerd trying their best. I am forever my 8th-grade self, awkward and filled with longing. In the past, I’ve been a self-destructive force to myself. Now I’m just trying to be my own dream boyfriend.

Lithium: I deeply admire your artwork, especially your film stills. Who or what are your major inspirations for these?
Lora: Thank you! The film still series was a way for me to incorporate my poetry into photography. It started out with previously written lines of my poetry and was a way for me to creatively promote my first book. Promoting gets so redundant and boring! I am very inspired by Nan Goldin and the moments she could freeze. Though they’re stylistically not like Cindy Sherman’s film still series, I think it’s obligatory that I include her as an inspiration, as she created a series of the same name years before. 

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: What is radical softness to you?
Lora: Radical softness is about embracing emotions and combatting the social stigma surrounding vulnerability. It’s about being forgiving with yourself for having a hard time, and recognizing that healing is not linear. It’s about not beating yourself up for being mentally ill or traumatized. Tenderness, platonic intimacy, and honest communication are all pieces of it. It is not about universal love and passivity. It does not have to be about femininity, although my softness and feminine side are linked so this comes forth in my work. It’s about trying to work against shame and viewing softness as strength.

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: How did the phrase “Radical softness as a weapon” come to be?
Lora: I came up with the phrase “radical softness as a weapon” last October when I was living in Oregon. I had moved out of the emotionally abusive environment I was raised in and was suddenly processing a lot of childhood trauma. I have had mental illnesses for years, but they really came to a head once I moved. I was having breakdowns almost every day and didn’t know how to be a person. It was rough. When I broke down, my head would tell me that I was weak; that I should suck it up. I realized that the voice in my head saying these things was one of learned stigma. The “radical softness” series was my attempt to combat the things my head was saying in a physical form. Creating images with phrases directly opposing what my head was telling me allowed me to gain some strength and be tender with myself.

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: How do you use softness as a weapon when aggression and anger take place?
Lora: The idea of weaponizing emotions is about kicking down shame which says that they are signs of weakness. The word “weapon” is meant to signify strength & fighting back. My anger and my softness aren’t always aligned. Sometimes my anger is bitter, hateful, and ugly. Softness is a place I try to come back to so that I approach conversations productively and with honest communication. I have spent most of my life being very passive and afraid, and softness has taught me to stand up for myself. It has reminded me that strength can look how I want it to look. I have had countless experiences in which what I was saying was written off because I was crying or passionate. Radical softness reminds me that if I’m emotional while speaking, it does not mean what I’m saying is invalid. It has also taught me to be further in touch with my feelings in order to understand my needs and boundaries. I think this work has allowed me to hone my anger. I haven’t become less angry through it. I’ve just become more aware of my own strength. 

Lithium: Your artwork also portrays honesty, nudity, self-love and body positivity. Were you ever scared people you know in real life might see you naked and take it badly?
Lora: I was afraid employers would Google me and see nudes, but no one’s said anything yet. Honestly, I feel a lot more vulnerable knowing my friends and employers have insight into my trauma and my mental instability than I do about my boobs. 

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: As an artist myself, I sometimes find it scary to put my honest feelings about my works online and sharing them with a lot of people. How do you get the courage to be open about your vulnerability with a big audience, as well as your family?
Lora: Being vulnerable to me has been a way of survival. I put my honest feelings online because they were eating me up and I needed to get them out of me. Releasing the thoughts in a public sphere was very cathartic for me and allowed my circling thoughts to stop. I have a lot of fear around being honest. It’s not easy and forces me to confront ugly or painful pieces of myself. But the intention of creating, for me, is to rip myself open and tell the truth. The truth often hurts, but once you lay it out on a table for others to see, it becomes a thing outside of you. Sometimes that means it can’t hurt you anymore. 

Lithium: How does it feel to have a great amount of caring, supportive, and loyal followers?
Lora: I am so grateful for anyone who cares about my work, who has supported me, validated me, and reached out to me. It means so much. I can’t fully wrap my head around it.. All I know is that I’m incredibly lucky and so thankful.

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: How do we unlearn the shame surrounding our emotions?
Lora: One way is to be open and honest with each other; to not hide the things we are told are weaknesses. To tell the truth about our pain and our struggle. To make others aware. And to listen to each other when we share. To attempt to create an environment of listening and understanding.

Lithium: How do tenderness and vulnerability empower you?
Lora: Softness allows me to embrace pieces of myself I previously tried to push out. It has allowed me to grow into myself more, to confront hard emotions, and to push myself further. I am not a perfect, transcended person. I still struggle with being tender and sometimes feel ashamed of my emotions, but these are not huge everyday themes in my life. The shaming thoughts are quieter now.

Lithium: What is healing to Lora Mathis?
Lora: Healing to me is a challenge. It is hard work and a lot of dedication. My healing has been about facing painful experiences and feelings. It has been picking myself apart and seeing how trauma has influenced my personality. It has been about challenging myself and forgiving myself. It is ongoing. It has been messy. It has gone from very loud to very quiet; from taking up space in rooms and wanting to be seen, to being a gentle thing I cultivate alone. It is the process of caring for the surviving child in me (an idea I got from my friend) and forgiving myself. It is changing. But I am always working towards healing, and this means consistently working on myself.

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: Do you have upcoming projects?
Lora: Yes, I do! I am putting out my second poetry collection, “instinct to ruin” in the next month. It deals heavily with healing, trauma, and radical softness. I am also still working on my film still series and hope to put a book out with those in the future.

Image via Lora Mathis (used with permission)

Lithium: Before I end this interview, I just want to thank you for existing and tell you that I really admire you. Do you have any other advice about how to embrace and celebrate one’s emotionality and softness?
Lora: Thank you, thank you, thank you. No one’s softness has to look the same way. I view it as a fluid thing and one which you can tweak to fit your needs. Also, don’t let anyone tell you that you have to be kind and sweet to everyone and that to not be is also to not be “radically soft”. Standing up for yourself is a sign of strength and being in touch with your boundaries and needs. 

Lora Mathis has been featured in "Hooligan Magazine", "Pulp Culture Magazine", "Upworthy", "The Fem Lit Mag", "Words Dance", and "Vagabond City Lit". They have published a book, The Women Widowed To Themselves. You can connect with them through their Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr and Etsy!
Thank you, Lora!

Interview by Samantha Fabian

1 comment

  1. Such a great and insightful interview, love the visuals as well.