photo by Danielle A. Scruggs
On January 16, Scapi Magazine talked with artist and business owner Jean Marie Cate about art being her lifeline, her relationship to the beautiful, inanimate world, and finding joy in the Chicago community.
Cate is the founder of Martha Mae, an Andersonville shop that carries art, art supplies, and other objects of the beautiful yet useful variety.
Two years ago, Cate and a friend invested in the now Martha Mae space to open a community art studio, but it fell flat. Instead of abandoning the space, she gravitated deeper into it.
“I want this space, you know, I wanted it,” said Cate. “I still wanted to do my own project. This time around there needs to be no compromise. I need to fill the space with what I want and my work and just really make it as me as possible and as authentic as possible, and, hopefully, people respond.”
She bought her partner out of the business and filled it with art, both her own and others’, and choice objects that reflected Cate’s idea of beauty.
Martha Mae is full of gorgeous tools and art. As an artist who curates hundreds of beautiful things, owning Martha Mae is cause for thinking about the complexity of inanimate objects. They never die, and have the capacity to both overwhelm or warm people. Humans assign value to stuff through memories, function, aesthetic, and whether or not it “sparks joy.”
“I’ve always been interested in physical objects and what people choose for themselves. I’m a little bit of a magpie, too, so beautiful things have always been very attractive to me,” said Cate
Objects can be overwhelming, but there is, Cate described, a warmth to them. To this day, her Mother has Cate’s adolescent drawings. The sibling nearest her age was still seven years older than her, and she got to know them through the things they left behind after moving out.
She used to create altars from random items that she found beautiful, and has a creative micro-focus on the physical world. Being so present in her day-to-day, Cate understood that objects play a serious role in making normal life special.
“Mostly, I’ve found joy through the shop because I get to enjoy the things and be like, oh, this is a really well-designed, amazing tool, but I don’t necessarily have to have it for myself,” said Cate. “I think it’s really nice to play a small role in people’s everyday routines–their sketching pad or if they find a pen they really like and that translates in their work.”
Martha Mae allowed Cate to create her “own universe.” A multimedia artist, she builds in different mediums, allowing her to cultivate worlds.
“When I was about 16 I realized art is the way for me to live,” said Cate. “This is the way I can communicate. This is the way I can go forward. Up until that point, I was like, holy fuck, what is this shit?”
Growing up, Cate’s parents supported her art and encouraged her to pursue what she truly loved doing. She didn’t expect success in Martha Mae, or an art career in general, but was prepared to try.
“Now I’m like, this is weird, things are going kind of well. It looks like it might be okay,” Cate said.
Art remains a form of communication for Cate. When she opened Martha Mae, she knew that success wouldn’t happen instantly. She leaned into the growth while staying true to herself. Part of this process was paying attention and reacting to community responses while honoring her vision. This ebb and flow was a macro communication that began with the objects inside Martha Mae.
After moving from a high-rise apartment in the Gold Coast to Andersonville, Cate was able to communicate more deeply with the Chicago community. She regularly meets other business owners and befriends customers, and sees familiar faces every time she hits the farmer’s market.
“When I first moved here I was like, why are people so friendly? Why are they talking to me? Even just making small talk,” said Cate. “I’m like the queen of small talk now. I’m like, what happened? It’s great.”
Someone walking into Martha Mae would be greeted by a plethora of objects to small talk about, but they’d also find the living being behind the shop’s name: Martha the dog.
“My mom is the most important person in my life, but I felt like Martha is the most…Martha’s kind of an extension of me, but she’s not me,” said Cate. “Also, one of the main reasons to open the shop was so I could bring Martha there and we could hang out all of the time, so it made sense that it’d be named Martha.”
Cate used to carry Martha around the Gold Coast in a bag, where Martha would “be like a little stone,” “this little meditating being” at the bottom. Martha, too, found fulfillment in the shop, because she’d always been a “people dog.”
“There was an unofficial dog park near where we lived and we would go and she’d see the dogs running around and just be like, where the fuck are we?” said Cate. “She’d be like, why are they running, like, why are they so uninhibited? What the fuck is going on?”
Though never interested in other pups, Matha loves humans. Curled up in a basket near the register, she gets to meet all the Chicagoans her soul could want.
When asked how Chicago frames Cate’s life as an artist and business owner, she explained simply how much she likes living here and how beautiful the seasons are.
“At the nine year mark I was like, I guess I like it here,” said Cate. “It takes me that long to get used to a place because I’m so into the daily routines and a lot of the time I have this micro focus on what’s happening in the gutters, or ‘look at that beautiful leaf’.”
Her love of details led her to both stay in Chicago and make it more beautiful by opening Martha Mae, and the Chi community is here for it.
“It’s so easy not to notice anything about your daily routines, and I’m not really like a special events kind of person or a vacation person,” said Cate. “My daily life is my life.”
Cajetan Sorich (she/her) is a Chicago writer and performance artist. Lately, she spends most of her time revising her first novel and dancing around her apartment. Caj loves writing short stories and long-form fiction as much as she loves research and reporting. Keep an eye out for her upcoming “creative non-fiction stage play” in MAKE Magazine, and you can catch her perform in VAIL at your local Chi spots.