Maia Ruth Lee

Conversation held on May 30, 2020 

How are things in Colorado?

They’re good! And strange, obviously. We're staying in Colorado Springs, in the house where Peter [Sutherland, Maia’s husband] grew up. We got here a little over a month ago, and we'll be here indefinitely. It's been a lot of transitions and sudden movements, but I think many people are probably experiencing that right now.

Definitely. You were in LA when COVID hit, right?

Yes. It was crazy, because we ended up driving from LA to Colorado in one shot—eighteen hours without stopping. So, imagine an international flight from New York to Japan, plus a couple more hours, but in a car driving non-stop on a highway with a child in the backseat.

Who did the driving?

Oh, definitely Peter. I actually just got my license in New York, but with a trip like this, I wasn’t even going to try. We were determined to get here and not stop along the way, so we started at 4:30 in the morning and got here at 11:00 at night. We made good time, in a way, but we were hung over for a couple days after.

How did Nima do with all that traveling?

He was pretty good. He's already been with us on so many road trips, so he's used to being in the backseat and peering through the front windshield, just looking around, eating snacks and playing with his toys. A lot’s happened in a short period of time, but he really seems to be handling it OK, thankfully.

So what's the setup like in Colorado?

It's pretty basic: a comfortable suburban house with a backyard and no one or nothing much around. I set up a little makeshift studio in the garage; the door opens wide to the street, and there’s a huge mountain right in front of me, which is a really nice view to have while I’m working or writing or reading.

I’m sure it’s nice to have that space set aside—to work, or even just to think and be on your own for a while each day. I think a lot of us living with partners or families have a newfound appreciation for personal space these days.

Oh, definitely. It’s all worked out really well, especially considering how swiftly we had to act when the pandemic hit. I do miss my old studio space, but we ended up having to terminate all of our leases in New York—the overhead was just too challenging to navigate. It’s a bit weird to know that we don't have a New York address right now.

What were you doing in LA before this all went down?

We were doing an apartment swap with a friend; we had some projects out there that ended up getting cancelled. So technically, we were out there for work, but we also just wanted to be on the West Coast and kind of try it out.

To see if you would potentially enjoy living there?

Yes. New York has been so great, but, as you know, it's also very tiring. Having a kid has definitely made us rethink things a bit. So that was already in our minds, but then when everything hit, we had to act quickly because we couldn't afford to keep paying our rent under the circumstances. We didn’t know what was going to happen, but we knew we couldn't rely on any type of rent strike in New York. We foresaw us getting into a sticky situation, so we just pulled the plug and shut everything down, had all our things put into storage.

Is the idea of living in LA something you’ll revisit once things settle down a bit?

I think so. Obviously, no one can predict how and when things will get better, so for now, we’re just lucky to be in a safe and stable situation.

What have you been working on in your new studio?

I'm just messing around. I haven’t made anything substantial that I would call “work” yet, but I think it's been a lot of necessary activity. It’s mostly been me reading and writing. A lot of writing, actually. So for now, there isn’t much to the studio—it’s a desk, a typewriter, and a pile of paper that has scribblings on it.

Is it anything that's intended for eventual publication, or are you just writing as a process in itself?

It’s more of a process. A large part of what I’m doing right now, both in and out of the studio, is just processing an identity shift. I think this has been a very confusing personal time for everybody, myself included, and part of me just wants to document that. I don't know if it’s anything that will result in showable work, but I'm doing it.

How much of that identity shift comes down to location? I feel like New York can’t help but become central to one’s identity while they’re living here. I can imagine how it’d be tough, even traumatic, to have that withdrawn so abruptly.

Right. I have to say, it's been really bizarre. I fell into a big funk when we first got here, actually. I’d been living in New York for nine years, and I’d gone there straight from living in Asia my whole life. That's all I knew, all I understood and was familiar with. So to leave New York—and to realize how different it is from the rest of America—has been difficult.

A big part of it is that when I moved to New York, I was transplanted straight into an artist community where there was support, where there was representation, where there was a voice for me to have. I think no longer having that, and then coming to the middle of nowhere, where I don't have a community, was really confusing for a second. What I realized is that here, I'm viewed as an Asian American. That is not something that I’d thought about while I was in New York, because while I identified as part of a larger Asian diasporic community, I always thought of myself in New York as a Korean transplant, a Nepali transplant, a foreigner. I have my citizenship, but still, even being part of the Whitney Biennial as an American artist, I didn't really consider myself American in any way. But coming here, that's all completely shifted: I'm out of the bubble, negotiating this newfound identity where this is what I'm viewed as and this is what I'm reckoning with.

Does that feel conflicting?

No, it's actually liberating, in a way, because I can put a name to this feeling. I can talk about it in a more articulate way and acknowledge the issues surrounding it, whereas before I was always just an outsider—or I viewed myself as an outsider—so there was not much to talk about, as I felt I was not part of the conversation.

At the same time, to be seen and identify as an American also comes with a certain culpability and a fair amount of responsibility. There’s a lot of baggage to reckon with.

Yes, absolutely. It comes with a weight, and the responsibility is real. Also, my son is half-Asian, so I'm thinking for him in a different way, too. How am I going to equip him? How am I going to educate him? How am I going to help him reckon with his Asian Americanness? How am I going to implement that into his life? Before, I’d never even thought about it; it was just, “We're trying to survive here in New York. Shit’s expensive, we're busy as fuck every day.” Now, with this time and space, I'm realizing that there’s so much important work that needs to be done, particularly in the close proximity of a family.

Obviously, as we’re having this conversation, the country is responding to the murder of George Floyd, and there are some very urgent, overdue conversations being had. As you’re considering how to speak to your son about the ways in which identities are earned and imposed in America, how might these conversations inform your approach?

I think as I'm unpacking the history of all of the injustices of America, which is my big homework and my responsibility, I also take on a responsibility to share that with my child. They say that children are never too young. I think what children see and hear, they absorb. They might not understand the language around it, but they're watching, they're understanding our body language, and they’re seeing how we react to these issues. So I don't think our children are ever too young to talk about racism. In whatever format or creative way that has to be customized to your child, I think you can implement that process.

Education seems to have been a central impulse in much of your work, both in and outside of the studio.

Yes, that’s something I've always been interested in. I'm not a professional educator, in the sense that I didn’t study to become one, but it’s something that's fallen into place for me. After a stint in Korea for my higher education, I returned to Nepal to teach art there for a semester. That's actually how I met Peter: I’d found his work online and invited him to come and teach a photography workshop in Kathmandu. That was really exciting, because I had never met him before. He arrived, and we created this project for ten Nepali teenagers, just made it happen out of thin air. It was really incredible.

As you were establishing this workshop in Nepal, what was it about Peter’s output that interested you?

It was really simple, which I liked. At the time, I didn't know the scope of this practice; there was actually this one specific image that got me interested in his work—a photo from his “Buck Shots” series, which is this beautiful set of photographs of deer, taken in the neighborhood where we’re staying now. One of the images from the book was published on the cover of a Korean photography magazine that I’d seen while I was studying in Seoul, and it just stuck with me.

What was the image?

It was this shot of a deer drinking out of a storm drain with a suburban backdrop. It had this sadness to it, but also strength and hope. It was this weird, bizarre duality of nature and humans and society, and it just brought a lot of emotions up for me. So later, when we happened to cross paths on Facebook, I just blatantly asked him if he wanted to come to Nepal. He was like, “Sure,” and that was it. That’s why, when people say art isn’t powerful, I always say, “Well, it changed my life.”

A lot of Peter’s work seems to be about this relationship between art and life, where he leaves room for spontaneity and is able to set out and make work without a specific premise or end goal in mind. It's more about the journey and the process.

Totally. It's really beautiful, because his process is completely natural. It's his everyday approach to life—the way he breathes, the way he interacts, the way he plays with Nima, the way he goes mountain biking. It's really just the way he sees the world, and his practice reflects that. His process is sort of the opposite of mine: I tend to sit and dwell on ideas and concepts, hash them out over and over until I find the perfect outcome. I'm actually trying to be a little bit more like Peter with my practice, because it seems so fun, so freeing.

In your work, there’s an ongoing theme of reimagining readymade forms: not only in terms of the clip art paintings, but also your glyph pieces, your “Bondage Baggage” sculptures, even reinterpreting videos documenting your father’s travels in the ‘80s. Where does that impulse come from, do you think? What’s your process like?

I find the elements first, then I’ll chew on the idea for a long time before I figure out how to use them. I sat on the idea for the “Bondage Baggage” pieces for probably six years before I showed them; I had a prototype in my studio for so long, not knowing what it was or what I was going to do with it. It was a similar process with the steel glyphs. My studio in Gowanus was right next to a metal shop; I went in once to get something built and found a pile of discarded scrap metal. They were garbage anyway, so the guys were like, “Go ahead, take them.” I brought these pieces to my studio and I sat with them for a while, not knowing what I was going to do with them, until it occurred to me: “Oh, maybe I should combine them into new forms.” Instantly, it reminded me of language, and the series took shape from there.

Are you discovering forms in Colorado that you’ve found interesting or inspiring?

Not yet, but only because I'm being really stubborn right now about quarantining. I'm not really venturing out. I'm going more inwards, I guess. It’s like, “Okay, what can I do with this time? What do I have in front of me? I have books, I have my typewriter. This is what I'm going to work on.”

Does it feel safe to access the nature in your surrounding area?

It does. This area is really, truly suburban, in the sense that there's not that many people around. So, for example, today Peter took Nima to a reservoir to go fishing. Peter’s already so familiar with the area, so he has this sense of freedom and ease about being here—whereas I really don't know this place, so it’s a different thing.

It sounds like for Peter, returning home has been a welcome opportunity to reset. Do you feel like you’ve been able to do that as well?

In a strained way, yes. I'm straining myself to reset. He and I deal with things quite differently. I strain myself from fun, in a way. I’m always thinking, “I’ve got to be productive. I have to do this. I have to do that. I have to read a book. I have to write.” I’m trying to let go of those things during the pandemic, for sure. Peter naturally knows how to have a good time, and I really respect that. He’s also sharing that directly with Nima, which I really, really appreciate. Being around that is helpful. I'm catching up to what fun is.

Where do you think that difference comes from?

It definitely comes from our respective backgrounds. With my parents being Korean transplants in Nepal, and being very strict, there was always a sense of restriction, of having to behave. It wasn't about going out and having fun. It was about discipline and learning.

Was that a technique of adaptation on their part? A response to a new culture, a new climate?

I think so. They were in their 30s when they brought me and my brother over to Nepal from Korea, and to do what they needed to do, they ended up learning three new languages which they now speak fluently. They definitely underwent a lot of changes, and I can't really imagine the inner hardships they went through that they didn't share with us. But we were also very isolated in that community, socially speaking. On top of that, we were all getting sick pretty often—I remember getting malaria as a kid and going to the hospital—and that ended up restricting us even more from venturing out. I want to say that was about being careful, but I think part of it was also lack of trust, lack of familiarity with a new environment and culture.

Given your more recent experiences of moving to the US and having Nima, do you see any parallels between their story and your own, any newfound points of empathy?

Actually, yes. Coming to New York, I found a lot of new respect for them, just knowing that they did it from scratch without anyone's help. I came into Peter’s world, his community, which was already there waiting for me. That was a huge privilege, especially knowing that my parents hadn’t had any of those reference points. They learned all the basic knowledge themselves: where to go to get water, where to go to get food, where to find places to rent. Everything was on their own. I think the restraining part comes from that, too, because there was a sense of just hunkering down and figuring it out.

How did they feel about your decision to emigrate on your own? Was there any projection on their part of their own experiences?

I have to say, they were fully accepting of my decision. In their minds, America’s still the Land of Opportunity. So, they were all for it—but I remember the first time they visited, they were like, “Oh my God.” (laughs) I remember us trying to take the train, and my mom was like, “What is wrong with this train station? Conditions in Nepal are better than here!” And New York is such a big city, with so many different kinds of people. They were a little shocked by it all when they first came to see me.

Are they still living in Nepal?

Yes, they’re in Nepal.

So after growing up in Nepal, you eventually moved back to South Korea.

Yes, I went back for university, where I studied fine art, specifically painting. In Korea, the art education system is a bit backwards, in the sense that everything’s very subdivided: you can't make sculpture if you're in painting, and vice versa. On top of that, if you were in painting, you were encouraged only to paint with oil on canvas in a photorealist style. It was very strict, which again reinforces this notion of this restriction.

I know that when you were younger, it was actually your dad who first suggested art as a potential career path for you. I wonder what his—and your—impression of a “professional artist” might have been at that point, and how those expectations were confirmed or challenged by your curriculum at university.

I was in middle school when my dad first suggested it. He was the doting father, and at one point, he said, “You're really gifted in colors and drawing and painting. I think you should do this.” I was clearly not very good at other subjects, so I think it was a way for him to reinforce my confidence. But I went along with it, all the way up to college.

The school I ended up going to is the most revered art school in Korea, so there were a lot of steps you had to take in order to be accepted. For the entrance exam, you had to recreate a bust of Greek statue on a poster-size sheet of paper using a 4B pencil. So leading up to that, my dad somehow imported four Greek busts to Nepal from Korea, expecting me to use them for practice. It was, “Okay, this is what you're doing. This is your path.” Again, it was not about having fun: I had to draw and render high-definition Greek busts every week in order for me to go out on Friday. I did that for about three straight years.

After an experience like that, it’s hard to imagine wanting to create or even be around art.

Oh, definitely. It was tough, because when you take the fun out of art, what is art? In a way, I mourn for those years, because doing that at such a young age, it couldn’t help but inform my approach to creativity. In retrospect, it was such an antithetical process for me to get through and then associate with artmaking. It made my skills strong enough to be accepted into the university, but it really did affect my ability to equate creativity with enjoyment.

At the same time, this was all tied in with this idea that I must return to Korea for my higher education. That was always a part of our family discussions for me and my brother. We spoke English from kindergarten up to high school, so it seemed only natural for us to go into an English-speaking system for college, but they were very against it. They really wanted us to go back home. They wanted us to go back to our Motherland, to be able to put down our roots, understand the language, be fluent, understand all the cultural context and assimilate. So that's what we did.

With all of these different narratives happening at once, what did the idea of “home” mean to you at that point in your life? Would going back to Korea have felt that way?

No, Nepal was more familiar to me, so I really fought that notion for a long time. I really rebelled against going back. It was like, “Dad, why are you making me do this? I want to be with my friends, I want to be able to freely express myself.” I was more comfortable speaking English, so it felt really unnatural to regress and have to re-learn how to communicate. I always spoke Korean at home, but going to school—having to write essays, understand lectures, make new friends—was a whole different thing. I was very disdainful of that decision at the time, but I have to say in hindsight that once school was over and I’d assimilated, I was able to understand where my parents came from while also having my own experience. That was empowering for me, because it wasn't just my parents’ country anymore—it was my country, too. I worked hard, overcame the cultural challenges, and made it my own. So now, looking back, I feel that entire experience—even with all of the hardship and rebellion—was such an asset. I’m still fluent in Korean, and I understand the culture better than I ever could have otherwise.

What does “home” mean to you now? Is it centered in place, or in something else?

For me, at this point in my life, home is my immediate family. Peter and Nima are my home. That’s been a wonderful thing to recognize and embrace, especially under recent circumstances: whether we're in Colorado or New York, whether we go to LA or whatever else happens, I have to be conscious and create a safe space for the three of us that’s able to adapt to these crazy times. I don't want to specify home in any other way, because that's just what makes sense at the moment. For now, it's really about keeping each other sane.

Every day is a different need, and every day is an up and down. There's inner struggle, there's trying to adapt together as a unit, but all while trying to stay positive. So how do we stay positive? How do we move forward with everything that's happening? It feels like there’s no control at all right now, but we have to find ways to be centered even in these circumstances. That's the homework for everybody.

We're all just hoping to grasp onto something that feels like a direction, which is more challenging than ever—but at the same time, it might also be something worth coming to terms with. We may have to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable, because in truth, there never have been any true directions. We’re always navigating, making decisions, and responding as best we can to what comes next.

Exactly. I think one of the big takeaways from this horrible pandemic is that everyone, maybe for the first time in their lives, is sitting down with their own thoughts. Everyone is taking a slower process and doing things out of sheer necessity. Obviously, the restriction comes at a cost, but I think as a society, we’d grown so used to quick results and quick fixes, and now everything has slowed down, and I think that just had to happen. There was a tipping point, and it’s tipped. We're in a position now where we're not just reflecting on society as a whole, but also on ourselves as individuals—what we’re doing, what we care about, what’s important in life. Honestly, the shift in identity I was talking about at the beginning of our conversation wouldn't have come if I wasn't sitting alone, thinking about it without the usual distractions. If there’s any positive outcome to be found in this difficult moment, I think it will come from experiences like these.

Photographs by Peter Sutherland