A Prayer For Mikey Rae
Some years ago, while visiting Austin, Texas, I posted to Facebook in search of any Santa Fe friends who wanted to hang out. Santa Fe people are great at traipsing the globe, finding other Santa Feans and only hanging out with each other, and I’m no different. I thought it was a lost cause, but within minutes, I received a text from Mikey Rae, an old friend from my halcyon days hanging around teen art center Warehouse 21:
“Alex,” it read, “I’m here in Austin, I’ll see you! We simply must have coffee together.”
Rae died on Nov. 23 in Santa Fe. He was 36 and leaves behind a grieving family, countless friends and collaborators and his beloved dog, Snoopy, not to mention a broad range of accomplishments in music, performance and visual arts.
I’ve been thinking about that Austin night a lot lately. It’s impossible to measure the impact of Rae’s death on the Santa Fe community. And someplace within the reminiscing and speeches, the crying and hugs and the old friends flying in to attend the memorial at Meow Wolf that more accurately resembled the parking lot at a Warehouse 21 punk show circa 1999, it suddenly and weirdly hit me how quickly Rae responded to my Facebook post on that summer night in Texas; how immediately he was ready to make time for someone he didn’t even know that well yet.
As Rae’s brother Andrew told me some days after his death, “Mikey always wanted to share art. He wanted to collaborate.”
I don’t know if you can call a Texas coffee date an artistic collaboration, but the conversation that night was meaningful. We laughed a lot. I’ve been holding it close.
While it’s easy to find oneself bogged down in details, you’ll find the real reason so many are hurting so badly—the real reason a sea of people packed Meow Wolf—in how Rae lived, not how he died.
“What he reminded me of most was my inner-child,” his close friend Hannie Lyles tells SFR. She’s talking about that piece of yourself you let fade away over time—Rae was still in touch with his, he still embodied it, friends and family say, and it drove most everything he did.
Rae was born in Santa Fe in 1986 at St. Vincent’s Hospital—as puro Santa Fe as you can get, really. He attended Wood Gormley Elementary, Capshaw Junior High and Santa Fe High. He later graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, with degrees in art and English. Before all that, though, he was a young goofball with an encouraging family and a pair of close brothers, Andrew and Christopher. As the legend goes, the family had a music room that housed various instruments, even a drum kit.
“It was kind of a strategy,” Rae’s father, Steven, says, “so all the musicians would come over here and play and we could keep an eye on them.”
“It was always something we did together, whether it was drawing or games or music,” adds brother Andrew. “And my mom and dad were really supportive of us and our interests.”
Indeed, you’ll rarely find parents who provide a full-on music room for their kids, let alone one with a very noisy drum kit. Rae would also become a guitarist, singer and lyricist.
“I think we only ran off one neighbor,” Rae’s mother, Susan, says with a laugh. “I think most of the neighbors loved the kids being around here.”
Rae was deeply into reading from an early age, according to the family. He was, they say, the kind of 6 year old who’d toddle down the street toward the school bus stop with his brothers, his nose in Jurassic Park.
“A neighbor called one day to say, ‘He can’t possibly be reading that,’” Susan says. “I just told her, ‘That’s the second time he’s read it, and he knows every word in that book.’ He was very smart, very sensitive; he felt things deeply, and whether it was his love for family or friends or his passion for his art, he always felt very deeply whatever he was holding close. I remember him feeling that from a young age.”
That knack for art, music, words and sensitivity played a pivotal role in early music projects, particularly bands like Rok On Robot! and The Big Boo. (Full disclosure: My brother was a member of those projects; they’re phenomenally good—conflict of interest or not). The latter act, which also included beat-maker Adam Koroghlian, became a Santa Fe mainstay almost immediately, which led to a tour in California and a 2004 blurb in Teen Vogue. The band broke up shortly thereafter, however, with Rae heading off to college and co-founding member Zac Scheinbaum moving to Boston to do the same. Scheinbaum, a lifelong friend of Rae’s, says he’ll remember him as “someone who had a lot to teach me.”
“Our first interaction was in kindergarten, and we never left each other’s sides,” Scheinbaum says. “He also lived, like, 10 houses away from me then. I remember my parents wanted to move when I was 12 and I freaked out because I was worried we wouldn’t be friends anymore, and it wasn’t even out of town. That didn’t happen at all. I’d always see him over Christmas break, or when he moved to New York City and I lived there, he had his own life, his own stuff going on, but we’d still see each other.”
Scheinbaum says his friend was “a creative genius.”
“It’ll make me smile to think of Mike,” he continues. “It’ll also make me cry. It breaks my heart that we can never make music again or draw comics, but it makes me happy for all the nights we got to do that. Because of the music, too, I can still hear his voice.”
Rae widened his artistic impact post-college in tandem with the rise of Meow Wolf. Working with the then-fledgling experiential arts company, he developed his Legit Concerns persona and style, a moniker under which he would create a striking, illustrative style that almost always included quotes encouraging viewers to do things like “be cool,” or “floss.” With that work, Rae released two books through Meow Wolf, and a third was reportedly in the works, though it is unknown how or whether that will be released. In a 2019 interview with SFR, Rae explained his Legit Concerns ethos, saying that, “If you ask them to draw, some people become terrified, and it’s something I think everyone should have permission to do.”
Friend and sometimes-collaborator Jesse Malmed expands on that point, saying, “There’s a way that his looseness and his sort of mode of making things found their way through; it was very intentional, what he was doing, and it was modeled like...improvisation. I’m a big believer in improvisation. He would say, ‘practice, not perfect.’”
Rae adopted that mindset across a series of murals still on display at Meow Wolf. Through them, viewers can see a certain level of confidence and identity. Rae spent years formulating his signature style, and when he finally landed on its core tenets, his output became prolific. Still, it was common to see him working on bits and pieces of those murals long after they were technically completed. According to Lyles, he had recently been creating a new piece for the employee bathroom at Meow Wolf, and was sending photos and videos of his progress.
“He needed to do more,” she says. “It was endless.”
That might be the best way to categorize the levels of love and the outpouring of grief within the disparate communities that adopted Rae over the years. I’m not sure we fully appreciated the scope of what he was laying down, nor do I think anyone fully grasped the level at which he was operating. But his efforts as an artist and a person clearly meant a lot to more people than seems possible. I even heard about a mass held in Lisbon, Portugal, in Rae’s honor.
“He had a lot going on and a lot to look forward to,” Rae’s mom tells SFR, “and that’s giving us peace. I hope everyone can hold that in their hearts and lift up gratitude.”
As for our fateful Austin coffee, it’s an evening I won’t soon forget.
“How do you live with the sweatiness of this town, Mikey?” I asked, practically whining.
“It’s OK, man, it’s OK,” he said, laughing at my childishness. “You’ve just gotta put a spare outfit in your bag so you can change when you get where you’re going.”