This interview is part of DREAMERS, a collaborative project with MCQ that couples aspiring artists to their heroes for a one-on-one advice session. The conversations are recorded, redacted, and can be read in their entirety on my.mcq.com.
Wednesday 12 May 2021, 12pm American EST
Lina Sun Park: I wanted to start by asking you about your career journey. Where did you start?
Maia Ruth Lee: It’s quite mysterious! I think some people are much more well planned than I am and have a ten year strategy, but I’ve never operated in that way. I didn’t have any foresight into what I wanted to do. I wanted to try out everything and see what felt right. I graduated from the BFA Hongik University in Seoul, and everything has happened really organically since then. I returned to Nepal after being in Korea for seven years, and it was like starting off fresh because Korean art education didn’t feel inspiring to me. I didn’t walk away from it being like, “I want to be an artist.” I actually walked away from it thinking, “I never want to be an artist.” That led me to wanting to teach, and I ended up being the art teacher at my old high school in Kathmandu and did that for about a year.
I met Peter [Sutherland], my partner, in Kathmandu in quite a random way. I was very drawn to his work and had seen a photograph that he’d shot for the cover of a photography magazine in Seoul, and I had remembered his name. Then I saw his name on Facebook, and I messaged him something along the lines of, “I really love your work. If you ever come to Nepal, just give me a shout.” And he immediately messaged me back and said that he had been wanting to come to Nepal for a long time. I organised a photography workshop for kids, and he came and taught it – that’s how we met. I think once that happened, my paradigm shifted. A whole new chapter opened up for me which led me to meeting Peter, us falling in love, me moving to New York, and starting my career as an artist there. My whole life, I had only lived in East Asia and Southeast Asia, so coming to the other side of the world was something I had never really imagined could be possible.
“When you have multiple roles, it’s scattered, but if you throw in motherhood, it becomes chaotic.” – Maia Ruth Lee
Lina: You moved from New York to Colorado during the pandemic. Is your day-to-day work and life quite different now?
Maia: I didn’t have a ritual in New York, which drove me crazy. It was a very scattered lifestyle, which just is the nature of the city, and you have to be open to that. Here, I appreciate that I do have a structure. It’s very simple. I drop my son off at school at 8:30am, then I come straight into my studio, and spend my whole day here until 4:30pm, working on projects, writing, reading. Then I pick Nima up and kind of do kid stuff. You know, either go to the park or sometimes I take Nima thrifting!
Lina: That’s so cute!
Maia: And he’s really good at it! He gets to pick one thing, and it’s like 25 cents, or like a dollar at most, and he always picks the coolest thing. My mother used to take me to thrift stores. There’s a lot of things that happen there. It is about observing and exploring, discovering and finding. It’s the excitement of not knowing what you’re gonna get.
Lina: Do you find it hard to balance making your art and also being a mom?
Maia: Not so much anymore. There’s always the daily: “I really wanted to get this thing done but I couldn’t.” I have to say compared to New York, it’s much easier here. I think it’s because of the simplicity of the lifestyle. We live in a small town of 7000 people. It is such a simple life, and I’ve been yearning for that for a long time. I think when you have multiple roles, it’s scattered, but if you throw in motherhood, it becomes chaotic. And along with chaos comes a lot of guilt, and that was really hard for me in New York, because I had been doing so much. They were all things that I wanted to do and that were really important to me, but simultaneously I felt like I was really taken out of the mode of being a mom, and really being there for Nima; witnessing his growth, being part of it, and feeling relaxed. I didn’t have that in New York, but here I do, and that gives me a lot of joy. In a big city like New York it helps if you’re kind of open and go with the flow. That’s just how things operate there. You have no idea what to expect that day, or who you’re going to bump into, and what projects are going to come out of that – things just come towards you in a really amazing and magical way.
“The way I approach a different medium usually comes out of curiosity; something that I’ve always wanted to try and do, but that I have no knowledge of or skill set in.” – Maia Ruth Lee
Lina: Do you feel that moving to Colorado has changed your creative practice?
Maia: I can focus better, which I think helps my creative process. I’ve been writing a lot, and that’s something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time now. I really want to bring more writing into my visual art practice.
Lina: You’ve made a lot of different things like jewellery, pipes and pottery, film and more. I’m wondering if you have any advice for people that are interested in different media, but wonder how to make it into a cohesive concept?
Maia: The way I approach a different medium usually comes out of curiosity; something that I’ve always wanted to try and do, but that I have no knowledge of or skill set in. For those types of projects, the biggest thing is collaborating with someone who is skilled at something that you’re not skilled at. Just go for it and find someone who you can trust and who you would want to collaborate with or learn from. But also keep in mind that you should bring something to the table. You can still do an apprenticeship and learn thoroughly, but I think it becomes really fun when you’re also challenging the other person to look outside of the box, and then from that comes something very unique or interesting. Having fun is another one. If you’re able to have fun in that process, I think there is no failure. There are no failed attempts at trying something new.
Lina: When you try something new like that, I feel like that always inspires or informs whatever your main practice is.
Maia: Totally. As artists, we have so many different types of gears going on, and I think if you’re able to think about it as a full machine, you’re kind of lubricating different parts of that machine. Whether you’re making jewellery or pottery, or music or photography or film, it’s still you.
“Fastpacedness is such an illusion and there is such a disconnect between the reality of our lives and what is portrayed on Instagram. ” – Maia Ruth Lee
Lina: Do you have advice for young people living in this fast-paced high-output world, specifically related to Instagram? And how one might navigate that in a way that feels healthy to them and right to their creative process?
Maia: It’s such a tricky thing, and something that I’m also trying to figure out, because so much has changed in the past five years in terms of output and communication. The fastpacedness is such an illusion and there is such a disconnect between the reality of our lives and what is portrayed on Instagram. But social media is also inspiring in a lot of ways, as you get to learn about things and you get to stay in touch and see what other people are working on. My advice is to prioritise it less. The illusion shouldn’t be more important than the actual reality. Focusing on your art and what your needs are first, and, you know, Instagram – if we’re able to use it as an information tool: great.
Sometimes I get sucked into these amazing TikTok videos, and I’m just like, how did I waste so much time?! But it’s so mind blowingly creative, and it’s a whole art form. It’s almost like a peek into my son’s generation, and what are they gonna have? It’s going to be this highly sophisticated view. We’re not even going to be able to understand it.
“We have a limited energy reserve for each day, and I think recognising the reserve of your energy is also important. Treating every day as the same is not really realistic.” – Maia Ruth Lee
Lina: Social media is always changing so much, too. I feel like its role has changed so much within the pandemic, just the way I use it myself. But yes, it can get stressful! Do you have any thoughts on managing stress or pressure generally speaking?
Maia: I feel like stress has always been the main thing that I battle with. How I manage stress is that I don’t deal with stress. I distract myself by keeping busy. That was always sort of my pattern, which doesn’t work because the stress doesn’t just go away; it accumulates. And it actually does harm to you in the long run, you know? Leaving the rat race helped me with my stress tremendously. And the rat race being sort of this hamster wheel of constant productivity, constant output, constant socialising. As I’m getting older, I’m realising that I really need physical space. Whether that’s one or two hours out of the day – it doesn’t even matter what I do, or how I spend those two hours – I just need to be alone, not talk to anyone, not see anyone, no noise, just complete silence. And maybe that’s my mode of meditation without meditating, but that gives me a lot of equilibrium.
Lina: I feel I’m like that, too. I just need to have some quiet alone time to feel like I can go out and do things again.
Maia: We have a limited energy reserve for each day, and I think recognising the reserve of your energy is also important. Treating every day as the same is not really realistic. Because some days you wake up and you’re just like: I have no energy to do anything, and on other days you’re able to accomplish five different tasks without problem. I think understanding that and not spreading yourself too thin is maybe the biggest challenge for people who live in cities.
“New York is public facing. You leave your apartment and you’re exposed. There’s an element of excitement about that, but also a sense of drainage.” – Maia Ruth Lee
Lina: That’s so important, especially with artists or people that work in a studio without strict parameters. To me, it feels like within the span of one month, there’s like four seasons where your body feels differently. And you really can’t just wake up and follow the same crazy schedule every day of the month.
Maia: I think we, as humans, have been conditioned into that state. That’s why, you know, a lot of mental health conditions are overlooked because everything’s normalised. We’re all normalised into this routine, or this structure that was given to us. And for us to find our own, obviously, is a privilege, but it’s important to try and do. This is all stuff that’s new to me because, living in New York, I really had no boundaries. Nothing was off limits. Everything was out there. Even my work was so public facing. New York is public facing. You leave your apartment and you’re exposed. There’s an element of excitement about that, but also a sense of drainage. I think that from this pandemic a lot of people have realised the difference: how our bodies feel when we are contained indoors and away from other people’s energies. I think boundaries are going to be a new thing. A lot more people are going to be able to say, “I’m going to leave the situation”, or “I don’t need to go to five openings today.” That’s how it should be.
Lina: Definitely. As an Asian American artist, is there anything that you would want to share with fellow Asian American artists?
Maia: As an artist, for me, it was really important to meet and have discourse with other Asian American artists. It felt very empowering to be in conversation and ask each other questions about intimate things, political things. The different experiences that everyone has had, and understanding that everyone’s experience is completely different. That was a big eye opening thing for me. And it still is, I’m still learning a lot from those groups. I think finding your group is really important for Asian American artists, or whatever group you identify with.
“Because of the times we’re in, and the speed at which everything is produced and made, we’re all focused on the bloom. If it blooms, you’re lucky, but that shouldn’t be the main focus of the route. ” – Maia Ruth Lee
Lina: Do you have any further advice that you would want to impart to any young creative today?
Maia: There’s a quote – I think Margaret Atwood said this recently on a podcast – which I don’t recall literally, but is along the lines of: try to be like the root of the tree instead of the flowers, leaves or branches. That’s stuck with me, because I’ve always had this DIY mentality of starting from the bottom, the root. I think that’s really important as a creative, to figure out what your resources are and start from scratch. And when you’re able to do that, I think you can find a very stable foundation for your creative work to blossom afterwards. Because of the times we’re in, and the speed at which everything is produced and made, we’re all focused on the bloom. If it blooms, you’re lucky, but that shouldn’t be the main focus of the route. And understanding that sometimes it’s just not given to you – it’s not easy. You just have to figure out what it is that really gets you excited. It’s as simple as that. And, you know, if you’re having fun in that process, then that’s a bonus.
Interested in learning more? You can find all the interviews from the DREAMER series here.