Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

"So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess." - Susan Cianciolo

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

"I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years." - Maia Ruth Lee

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Conversations 

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

No items found.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

The two artists on healing and making art.

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

The two artists on healing and making art.

HASSON

Conversations 

"So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess." - Susan Cianciolo

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

No items found.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee
Conversations 

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

No items found.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Pink

frost

Thistle

brown

Super talented stylist-turned-photographer Thistle Browne and stylist Heathermary Jackson — both in New Zealand during COVID-19 lockdowns — traveled to Rangitoto Island, a dormant volcano off the coast of Central Auckland, to shoot the new campaign for New Zealand jewelry designer Jasmin Sparrow. The shoot showcases Sparrow’s timeless gold and silver jewelry, and a beautiful collection of hand-beaded bras and skull caps designed with Glen Prentice. Models wore mainly vintage from Search and Destroy and Brownstone Cowboys’ collection, combined with some local, sustainable brands and New Zealand gumboots (rainboots).
Photography: Thistle Brown
Styling: Heathermary Jackson
Designers: Jasmin Sparrow and Glen Prentice
Models: Charlotte Moffatt, Nina Katungi, Obadiah Russon

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 

May 18, 2022

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

"So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess." - Susan Cianciolo

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

"I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years." - Maia Ruth Lee

Maia: Without seeing the space, sometimes it's really hard for me to come up with a work because a lot of them end up being installations and very site specific. Once I saw the museum gallery, I just was like, “Okay, now I know what to do.” And I was able to create a whole new body of work. Some of them are paintings, some of them are installations. 

There was a video that Peter made while we were in quarantine, he left a motion sensor camera around the house, he told us but we forgot. It's for hunting so whenever there's motion, it just starts. He left it around the house just for us doing mundane things: doing the dishes and cooking, eating food, playing with Nima, just being on the phone talking on the phone, really just mundane things. But it was in April of last year during a hard lockdown and it did capture this sort of sentiment, I think, that was so relatable for a lot of different people who are doing exactly that. So I included the video that Peter made. 

The show was titled “Language of Grief” and I wanted to talk about the legibility of the language, and how the abstractness of grief is so different as an experience for everyone. Everyone is experiencing grief right now on some type of level, and you know it's a universal language right now, but it's also the most abstract language. So I ended up making these paintings with sewing patterns as shapes on the canvas, and it also almost looks like some type of hieroglyph or type of language; it's big black blocks of sewing patterns showing grief as an experience that is physical, but also kind of abstract. 

And then I paired them with these letters that I had also sent to some friends, that is the legible side of grief that talks about what is happening. It's chronological, it goes through the whole past year, talking about the elections, the pandemic, missing people, the uncertainty, all of those things. 

It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was that language [of grief].

"It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was, was that language [of grief]." - Maia Ruth Lee

Susan: It looks to me like there is a language you're creating through your work, in what I've seen, I haven't seen this show yet, but what I've seen in work in the past. As you're talking about it, I'm relating it to what I've seen as far this language you're creating and who knows where it's connected to, you know?

Maia: It's always been a source of inspiration for me, my starting off point is language. Because language is expansive, but it's also very limited. In the sense that, for me, being bilingual, doesn't feel expansive. Sometimes I feel even more restricted in the sense that Korean and English are completely different languages. They have a totally different set of rules, and feeling and spirit.

I would say Korean is more of a square and English is more of a circle. And, you know, when I speak with Nima, I want to be more of a circle. I don't really want to be a square. So it's been very conflicting for me because how can I do both? How can I introduce Korean without restricting myself to a square? Maybe I can be a circle.

Susan: Yes, I feel you. I feel you're always that circle, no matter what. But I completely understand what you're saying.

Maia: Tell me about the show. I really want to be there for that.

Susan: That would be so incredible. I'll do a type of community dinner and cook, then do the prayer circle and offer healing sessions and then close with a big cafe style. So it'll be back and forth between the cooking and the type of “healing modalities.” I'm going to play back and forth with those two. And I'm coming out with a video game that's like a spiritual consciousness. 

The last two films I made were with the filmmaker Harry Hughes. This one project we've been working on, that we've been talking about for years, finally came together. And it reminds me about what you were saying with your process. I do contemplate certain things for years, then all of a sudden, it takes over where it's meant to be at the certain time without me controlling it. 

So that is the book that is coming out, it's a cookbook, but it combines a lot of other things where I have contributing writers, other artists and healers have given their own writings relating to healing and food. Lilac is a writer so she contributed a short fiction story about a girl that lives on a farm; it's a nice piece. I will also be glad to give you a copy of some recipes in there, you can follow or not, but it has a lot of things. You know, my grandmother, all the recipes she had written by hand, all the things like that, those are in there... things like that.

Maia: That's so awesome. And it's always so nice to see artists who really make space for collaborations. Collaboration is not even a word in your world, because it's just more organic and natural to bring in the community as part of your creative process. But it's really inspiring to see you always working with people you care for. And it always seems really seamless, whether that's Lilac or whether that's other artists or healers. It's always been part of who you are not just an artist, but as a person.

Susan: Thank you, Maia. That's a really big compliment. You know, this book helped me reach out a little bit differently, because it was writers, you know. And I asked the teacher that I've studied meditation with for 20 years, Peter Sonnenberg, and just said, “Please would you write something?” And he said, “Yes.” It happened naturally but it's like a little bit of a different road that I took in asking different writers. One woman, Samarra, she's a Pratt student in my class, she's an incredible poet. So she contributed, and Morgan, who is a poet, and then friend Cassie, who's an artist, so it is a good combination.  I did ask my mom and she said “No.” I like when people say no.  It's like you learn to really accept the no really well. Right?

Maia: Yeah, you just have to give up and say I can't really do anything about that. It just lets you let go of that control aspect of this one thing that you have your mind set on, it just doesn't have to be that way for everything.

Susan: I really do pray and dream that I might see you soon.

Maia:  I'm going to be so happy to see you, I'll probably cry when I see you. We've talked for like, almost an hour. I feel like we've talked about so many wonderful things.

Susan: Right. I feel that too. It was really natural and effortless. So grateful to see you. Always. I love you. 

Maia: I love you so much to thanks for everything. Good luck for the rest of your exhibition preparations. And I'll be thinking of you and I'll be sending you love. And you're going to get a letter from me soon. 

Susan: I'm excited. I'm sending you the same love and support with everything.

Maia: Thank you, Susan. Take care. I'll talk to you soon. Okay, bye

Susan: Bye.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 
May 18, 2022

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

Maia: Without seeing the space, sometimes it's really hard for me to come up with a work because a lot of them end up being installations and very site specific. Once I saw the museum gallery, I just was like, “Okay, now I know what to do.” And I was able to create a whole new body of work. Some of them are paintings, some of them are installations. 

There was a video that Peter made while we were in quarantine, he left a motion sensor camera around the house, he told us but we forgot. It's for hunting so whenever there's motion, it just starts. He left it around the house just for us doing mundane things: doing the dishes and cooking, eating food, playing with Nima, just being on the phone talking on the phone, really just mundane things. But it was in April of last year during a hard lockdown and it did capture this sort of sentiment, I think, that was so relatable for a lot of different people who are doing exactly that. So I included the video that Peter made. 

The show was titled “Language of Grief” and I wanted to talk about the legibility of the language, and how the abstractness of grief is so different as an experience for everyone. Everyone is experiencing grief right now on some type of level, and you know it's a universal language right now, but it's also the most abstract language. So I ended up making these paintings with sewing patterns as shapes on the canvas, and it also almost looks like some type of hieroglyph or type of language; it's big black blocks of sewing patterns showing grief as an experience that is physical, but also kind of abstract. 

And then I paired them with these letters that I had also sent to some friends, that is the legible side of grief that talks about what is happening. It's chronological, it goes through the whole past year, talking about the elections, the pandemic, missing people, the uncertainty, all of those things. 

It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was that language [of grief].

"It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was, was that language [of grief]." - Maia Ruth Lee

Susan: It looks to me like there is a language you're creating through your work, in what I've seen, I haven't seen this show yet, but what I've seen in work in the past. As you're talking about it, I'm relating it to what I've seen as far this language you're creating and who knows where it's connected to, you know?

Maia: It's always been a source of inspiration for me, my starting off point is language. Because language is expansive, but it's also very limited. In the sense that, for me, being bilingual, doesn't feel expansive. Sometimes I feel even more restricted in the sense that Korean and English are completely different languages. They have a totally different set of rules, and feeling and spirit.

I would say Korean is more of a square and English is more of a circle. And, you know, when I speak with Nima, I want to be more of a circle. I don't really want to be a square. So it's been very conflicting for me because how can I do both? How can I introduce Korean without restricting myself to a square? Maybe I can be a circle.

Susan: Yes, I feel you. I feel you're always that circle, no matter what. But I completely understand what you're saying.

Maia: Tell me about the show. I really want to be there for that.

Susan: That would be so incredible. I'll do a type of community dinner and cook, then do the prayer circle and offer healing sessions and then close with a big cafe style. So it'll be back and forth between the cooking and the type of “healing modalities.” I'm going to play back and forth with those two. And I'm coming out with a video game that's like a spiritual consciousness. 

The last two films I made were with the filmmaker Harry Hughes. This one project we've been working on, that we've been talking about for years, finally came together. And it reminds me about what you were saying with your process. I do contemplate certain things for years, then all of a sudden, it takes over where it's meant to be at the certain time without me controlling it. 

So that is the book that is coming out, it's a cookbook, but it combines a lot of other things where I have contributing writers, other artists and healers have given their own writings relating to healing and food. Lilac is a writer so she contributed a short fiction story about a girl that lives on a farm; it's a nice piece. I will also be glad to give you a copy of some recipes in there, you can follow or not, but it has a lot of things. You know, my grandmother, all the recipes she had written by hand, all the things like that, those are in there... things like that.

Maia: That's so awesome. And it's always so nice to see artists who really make space for collaborations. Collaboration is not even a word in your world, because it's just more organic and natural to bring in the community as part of your creative process. But it's really inspiring to see you always working with people you care for. And it always seems really seamless, whether that's Lilac or whether that's other artists or healers. It's always been part of who you are not just an artist, but as a person.

Susan: Thank you, Maia. That's a really big compliment. You know, this book helped me reach out a little bit differently, because it was writers, you know. And I asked the teacher that I've studied meditation with for 20 years, Peter Sonnenberg, and just said, “Please would you write something?” And he said, “Yes.” It happened naturally but it's like a little bit of a different road that I took in asking different writers. One woman, Samarra, she's a Pratt student in my class, she's an incredible poet. So she contributed, and Morgan, who is a poet, and then friend Cassie, who's an artist, so it is a good combination.  I did ask my mom and she said “No.” I like when people say no.  It's like you learn to really accept the no really well. Right?

Maia: Yeah, you just have to give up and say I can't really do anything about that. It just lets you let go of that control aspect of this one thing that you have your mind set on, it just doesn't have to be that way for everything.

Susan: I really do pray and dream that I might see you soon.

Maia:  I'm going to be so happy to see you, I'll probably cry when I see you. We've talked for like, almost an hour. I feel like we've talked about so many wonderful things.

Susan: Right. I feel that too. It was really natural and effortless. So grateful to see you. Always. I love you. 

Maia: I love you so much to thanks for everything. Good luck for the rest of your exhibition preparations. And I'll be thinking of you and I'll be sending you love. And you're going to get a letter from me soon. 

Susan: I'm excited. I'm sending you the same love and support with everything.

Maia: Thank you, Susan. Take care. I'll talk to you soon. Okay, bye

Susan: Bye.

Sarah Gidick @pornforwomen

Occupation: Social Media Strategist and Writer

Holidays you celebrate? Christmas

Charities you support? Sheldrick Wildlife Trust- This organization raises orphaned wildlife (primarily elephants) that have lost their mothers to poaching. It's the world's most successful elephant rescue and rehabilitation program - something everyone can get on board with.

Businesses you support? I am a huge fan of Susanna Chow This mother-daughter duo lovingly craft the most whimsical, beautiful beaded accessories - everything is made by hand and each item is super special. Épice, created by Danish designers, is another small brand I love. Their scarves are beautiful, high quality and unique - expect loads of compliments.  For jewelry, I can't get enough of Maria Black. Her Liv hoops are the most perfect, lightweight earrings to ever exist.

Other advice?  In the spirit of sustainability and thoughtfulness, I think it's best to give things that the recipient will actually love and use. I seek out items that are well-made and often have a charming story behind them. I'm lucky to live in Paris and be able to visit a brocante (flea market) to find gifts like vintage tiaras (for your Miu Miu obsessed friend) or silver toast caddy gifted with "Poilâne," a must-have cookbook by the world-famous bread bakery. You don't need to spend a lot to make an impact -- just put some thought into it.

Wynn Hamlyn Crawshaw @wynnhamlyn

Occupation: Fashion Designer


Charities you support? Any charity that people want to support helps and is a super thoughtful gift to give someone for Christmas. I particularly like Trees that Count - Te Rahi o Tane. I like it for Christmas because at this time of year there is so much consumerism and travelling, and our carbon footprint balloons in size. It’s a good way to help mitigate that effect directly. Trees that count is a New Zealand one, but there are similar ones in all countries


Businesses to support? My favorite thing, person and brand is called Lucky Dip. It’s by my friend Tuhi and he makes shirts from reclaimed and recycled fabrics. He makes them himself, locally here in New Zealand. They are incredible

Georgina Graham  @_georginagraham_

Occupation: Make-up artist

Holidays you celebrate? We celebrate Christmas. Not for religious reasons, we are atheists as a couple, but for cultural fun because we have 5-year-old twins. We get a tree and decorate the house. We exchange gifts but we also do a lot for our community and give to charity and teach our little ones the importance of being useful and helpful in society.

Charities you support?  We get calendars from Advent of Change and we contribute money gifts to womankind worldwide. We also do an advent food box which is 25 days of collecting food to donate to a women and children's shelter near where we live as well as do a clothing and toy drive.

Businesses you support? We are supporting local community business and artisanal crafts fairs by buying from them so as to keep local and help our community and local economy.

Other sustainable ideas? We make cakes/pies /chutneys and jams to give to friends and loved ones.

Other advice? Less is more for us. We don't need anything. We do give gifts to people who work for us and our colleagues as gestures of love. We try to just give for the children or grandparents and would rather help our community.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

Sally wears Marni knitted patchwork trousers, vintage Jeremy Scott leather sunglasses from Fabulous Fannies, Halston silk shirt & hood from Arara Archive. Pony rein by Collina Strada. Kids own clothes
Sally wears vintage sunglasses Fabulous Fannies, Hillier Bartley lamé kimono and vintage blue lizard coat from Arara Archive.
Sally wears Marni knitted patchwork trousers, Balenciaga green wellies, blue PVC coat from Arara Archive
Sally wears Balenciaga fleece trousers, vintage tee & T neck from Arara Archive
Sally wears Collina Strada star hoodie, Balenciaga wellies, Korean fishing trousers and sequin scarf from Arara Archive

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

The two artists on healing and making art.

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

Maia: Without seeing the space, sometimes it's really hard for me to come up with a work because a lot of them end up being installations and very site specific. Once I saw the museum gallery, I just was like, “Okay, now I know what to do.” And I was able to create a whole new body of work. Some of them are paintings, some of them are installations. 

There was a video that Peter made while we were in quarantine, he left a motion sensor camera around the house, he told us but we forgot. It's for hunting so whenever there's motion, it just starts. He left it around the house just for us doing mundane things: doing the dishes and cooking, eating food, playing with Nima, just being on the phone talking on the phone, really just mundane things. But it was in April of last year during a hard lockdown and it did capture this sort of sentiment, I think, that was so relatable for a lot of different people who are doing exactly that. So I included the video that Peter made. 

The show was titled “Language of Grief” and I wanted to talk about the legibility of the language, and how the abstractness of grief is so different as an experience for everyone. Everyone is experiencing grief right now on some type of level, and you know it's a universal language right now, but it's also the most abstract language. So I ended up making these paintings with sewing patterns as shapes on the canvas, and it also almost looks like some type of hieroglyph or type of language; it's big black blocks of sewing patterns showing grief as an experience that is physical, but also kind of abstract. 

And then I paired them with these letters that I had also sent to some friends, that is the legible side of grief that talks about what is happening. It's chronological, it goes through the whole past year, talking about the elections, the pandemic, missing people, the uncertainty, all of those things. 

It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was that language [of grief].

"It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was, was that language [of grief]." - Maia Ruth Lee

Susan: It looks to me like there is a language you're creating through your work, in what I've seen, I haven't seen this show yet, but what I've seen in work in the past. As you're talking about it, I'm relating it to what I've seen as far this language you're creating and who knows where it's connected to, you know?

Maia: It's always been a source of inspiration for me, my starting off point is language. Because language is expansive, but it's also very limited. In the sense that, for me, being bilingual, doesn't feel expansive. Sometimes I feel even more restricted in the sense that Korean and English are completely different languages. They have a totally different set of rules, and feeling and spirit.

I would say Korean is more of a square and English is more of a circle. And, you know, when I speak with Nima, I want to be more of a circle. I don't really want to be a square. So it's been very conflicting for me because how can I do both? How can I introduce Korean without restricting myself to a square? Maybe I can be a circle.

Susan: Yes, I feel you. I feel you're always that circle, no matter what. But I completely understand what you're saying.

Maia: Tell me about the show. I really want to be there for that.

Susan: That would be so incredible. I'll do a type of community dinner and cook, then do the prayer circle and offer healing sessions and then close with a big cafe style. So it'll be back and forth between the cooking and the type of “healing modalities.” I'm going to play back and forth with those two. And I'm coming out with a video game that's like a spiritual consciousness. 

The last two films I made were with the filmmaker Harry Hughes. This one project we've been working on, that we've been talking about for years, finally came together. And it reminds me about what you were saying with your process. I do contemplate certain things for years, then all of a sudden, it takes over where it's meant to be at the certain time without me controlling it. 

So that is the book that is coming out, it's a cookbook, but it combines a lot of other things where I have contributing writers, other artists and healers have given their own writings relating to healing and food. Lilac is a writer so she contributed a short fiction story about a girl that lives on a farm; it's a nice piece. I will also be glad to give you a copy of some recipes in there, you can follow or not, but it has a lot of things. You know, my grandmother, all the recipes she had written by hand, all the things like that, those are in there... things like that.

Maia: That's so awesome. And it's always so nice to see artists who really make space for collaborations. Collaboration is not even a word in your world, because it's just more organic and natural to bring in the community as part of your creative process. But it's really inspiring to see you always working with people you care for. And it always seems really seamless, whether that's Lilac or whether that's other artists or healers. It's always been part of who you are not just an artist, but as a person.

Susan: Thank you, Maia. That's a really big compliment. You know, this book helped me reach out a little bit differently, because it was writers, you know. And I asked the teacher that I've studied meditation with for 20 years, Peter Sonnenberg, and just said, “Please would you write something?” And he said, “Yes.” It happened naturally but it's like a little bit of a different road that I took in asking different writers. One woman, Samarra, she's a Pratt student in my class, she's an incredible poet. So she contributed, and Morgan, who is a poet, and then friend Cassie, who's an artist, so it is a good combination.  I did ask my mom and she said “No.” I like when people say no.  It's like you learn to really accept the no really well. Right?

Maia: Yeah, you just have to give up and say I can't really do anything about that. It just lets you let go of that control aspect of this one thing that you have your mind set on, it just doesn't have to be that way for everything.

Susan: I really do pray and dream that I might see you soon.

Maia:  I'm going to be so happy to see you, I'll probably cry when I see you. We've talked for like, almost an hour. I feel like we've talked about so many wonderful things.

Susan: Right. I feel that too. It was really natural and effortless. So grateful to see you. Always. I love you. 

Maia: I love you so much to thanks for everything. Good luck for the rest of your exhibition preparations. And I'll be thinking of you and I'll be sending you love. And you're going to get a letter from me soon. 

Susan: I'm excited. I'm sending you the same love and support with everything.

Maia: Thank you, Susan. Take care. I'll talk to you soon. Okay, bye

Susan: Bye.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 
May 18, 2022

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

Maia: Without seeing the space, sometimes it's really hard for me to come up with a work because a lot of them end up being installations and very site specific. Once I saw the museum gallery, I just was like, “Okay, now I know what to do.” And I was able to create a whole new body of work. Some of them are paintings, some of them are installations. 

There was a video that Peter made while we were in quarantine, he left a motion sensor camera around the house, he told us but we forgot. It's for hunting so whenever there's motion, it just starts. He left it around the house just for us doing mundane things: doing the dishes and cooking, eating food, playing with Nima, just being on the phone talking on the phone, really just mundane things. But it was in April of last year during a hard lockdown and it did capture this sort of sentiment, I think, that was so relatable for a lot of different people who are doing exactly that. So I included the video that Peter made. 

The show was titled “Language of Grief” and I wanted to talk about the legibility of the language, and how the abstractness of grief is so different as an experience for everyone. Everyone is experiencing grief right now on some type of level, and you know it's a universal language right now, but it's also the most abstract language. So I ended up making these paintings with sewing patterns as shapes on the canvas, and it also almost looks like some type of hieroglyph or type of language; it's big black blocks of sewing patterns showing grief as an experience that is physical, but also kind of abstract. 

And then I paired them with these letters that I had also sent to some friends, that is the legible side of grief that talks about what is happening. It's chronological, it goes through the whole past year, talking about the elections, the pandemic, missing people, the uncertainty, all of those things. 

It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was that language [of grief].

"It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was, was that language [of grief]." - Maia Ruth Lee

Susan: It looks to me like there is a language you're creating through your work, in what I've seen, I haven't seen this show yet, but what I've seen in work in the past. As you're talking about it, I'm relating it to what I've seen as far this language you're creating and who knows where it's connected to, you know?

Maia: It's always been a source of inspiration for me, my starting off point is language. Because language is expansive, but it's also very limited. In the sense that, for me, being bilingual, doesn't feel expansive. Sometimes I feel even more restricted in the sense that Korean and English are completely different languages. They have a totally different set of rules, and feeling and spirit.

I would say Korean is more of a square and English is more of a circle. And, you know, when I speak with Nima, I want to be more of a circle. I don't really want to be a square. So it's been very conflicting for me because how can I do both? How can I introduce Korean without restricting myself to a square? Maybe I can be a circle.

Susan: Yes, I feel you. I feel you're always that circle, no matter what. But I completely understand what you're saying.

Maia: Tell me about the show. I really want to be there for that.

Susan: That would be so incredible. I'll do a type of community dinner and cook, then do the prayer circle and offer healing sessions and then close with a big cafe style. So it'll be back and forth between the cooking and the type of “healing modalities.” I'm going to play back and forth with those two. And I'm coming out with a video game that's like a spiritual consciousness. 

The last two films I made were with the filmmaker Harry Hughes. This one project we've been working on, that we've been talking about for years, finally came together. And it reminds me about what you were saying with your process. I do contemplate certain things for years, then all of a sudden, it takes over where it's meant to be at the certain time without me controlling it. 

So that is the book that is coming out, it's a cookbook, but it combines a lot of other things where I have contributing writers, other artists and healers have given their own writings relating to healing and food. Lilac is a writer so she contributed a short fiction story about a girl that lives on a farm; it's a nice piece. I will also be glad to give you a copy of some recipes in there, you can follow or not, but it has a lot of things. You know, my grandmother, all the recipes she had written by hand, all the things like that, those are in there... things like that.

Maia: That's so awesome. And it's always so nice to see artists who really make space for collaborations. Collaboration is not even a word in your world, because it's just more organic and natural to bring in the community as part of your creative process. But it's really inspiring to see you always working with people you care for. And it always seems really seamless, whether that's Lilac or whether that's other artists or healers. It's always been part of who you are not just an artist, but as a person.

Susan: Thank you, Maia. That's a really big compliment. You know, this book helped me reach out a little bit differently, because it was writers, you know. And I asked the teacher that I've studied meditation with for 20 years, Peter Sonnenberg, and just said, “Please would you write something?” And he said, “Yes.” It happened naturally but it's like a little bit of a different road that I took in asking different writers. One woman, Samarra, she's a Pratt student in my class, she's an incredible poet. So she contributed, and Morgan, who is a poet, and then friend Cassie, who's an artist, so it is a good combination.  I did ask my mom and she said “No.” I like when people say no.  It's like you learn to really accept the no really well. Right?

Maia: Yeah, you just have to give up and say I can't really do anything about that. It just lets you let go of that control aspect of this one thing that you have your mind set on, it just doesn't have to be that way for everything.

Susan: I really do pray and dream that I might see you soon.

Maia:  I'm going to be so happy to see you, I'll probably cry when I see you. We've talked for like, almost an hour. I feel like we've talked about so many wonderful things.

Susan: Right. I feel that too. It was really natural and effortless. So grateful to see you. Always. I love you. 

Maia: I love you so much to thanks for everything. Good luck for the rest of your exhibition preparations. And I'll be thinking of you and I'll be sending you love. And you're going to get a letter from me soon. 

Susan: I'm excited. I'm sending you the same love and support with everything.

Maia: Thank you, Susan. Take care. I'll talk to you soon. Okay, bye

Susan: Bye.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 
May 18, 2022

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

Susan Cianciolo & Maia Ruth Lee

Conversations 

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg

Video Intro and Edit: Emily Spiegelman-Noel

Music: Jesse Kennedy

Friends Susan Cianciolo and Maia Ruth Lee catch up and discuss letter writing, parenting and expression and their process of making art during the pandemic.

Susan: I haven't seen your beautiful face for so long.

Maia: No, I can't remember the last time we spoke. Susan, how are you? Thanks for your letters. It really was so wonderful to keep in touch with you. And it was very emotional. 

Susan: I was crying every time I opened your letters, you really give so much. I was really grateful.

Maia: Thank you. I felt like it was the one way to keep in touch, to communicate. And I really couldn't do much else. It felt a little overwhelming to be in touch with people over the phone or text or DMs. And, you know, letter writing felt like I could jot down my current thoughts with some time and intention. 

Susan: Yes, I feel that. The mail service became a really useful tool. I'm still using it a lot. I owe you a letter, I think. 

Maia:  No, I actually owe you a letter! You sent me a little drawing with a little pendant that was maybe Lilac’s that you stuck on the back. I have it in front of my sink as I do my dishes. We're always looking at it.

[Maia asks how Susan’s 13-year-old daughter Lilac is]

Susan: She's been really good. She changed to a new school since we moved here, and yeah, she really loves it. And she's just an amazing person. I feel blessed that she picked me because that was a big decision. You know? She's very independent. And she helps me a lot. 

Maia: I mean, she's amazing. But also, you know, I've seen you in action, and you're such a wonderful mother. And it's a partnership, you definitely go off of each other.

Susan: I honestly believe as time has gone on that she's just done it herself. Honestly, she's her own kind of teacher and person. And she really has done so much just on her own to grow. You know? I don't feel like I have some big like, “Oh, I did a good job.” Really, honestly, she teaches me so much.

Maia: Yeah, and when I've watched you with Lilac in the past, I feel like one thing that really stood out to me, that I’m still trying to implement for myself, is that she is independent; I feel like you also give her the space to be independent and be herself. And I think that that was a huge thing for me to see. We're just kind of here for them to be able to do their thing. 

Susan:  Yeah, I'm just the handler. Although she handles herself.

Maia: I mean, she's always been such a strong person. I feel like even when I met her, I think she was around eight or nine when I first met her. And I was blown away, just by her attitude. She was just so confident. And I think maybe that’s something she was born with? And sometimes I see that in Nima, the confidence is so different to the confidence I ever had.

Susan: Yes, totally. That's, that's what I mean. Isn’t that wild.

Maia: It's really special that I learned from too, and sort of, you know, I love when children can be so forward and open and honest. Nima [Maia’s young son] calls me out all the time: “Mommy, you really hurt my feelings when you said XYZ,” and I have to kind of take a break and think, “Oh, I'm really sorry. I'm really sorry I’ve hurt your feelings.”

Susan: That's amazing. Just the communication.

Maia: Yeah, because I don't think I was ever allowed to even say that to my mother.

Susan: Yeah, it's the same for me.

Maia: And it's in a way kind of healing to see that they're able to express themselves openly, without fear or judgment. And, you know, it opens me up to be a little bit more like that.

Susan: That's exactly what I mean. It's totally great to have every emotion out there, you know? And that's a whole different thing; and it's good to be called out. 

Maia: Absolutely, because we get stuck in our own cycles or our own sort of habits without really knowing. When I'm so attached to the phone -- it's something that I'm really trying to work on -- and Nima just grabs the phone out of my hand and says, “No more,” and for a moment I’m just embarrassed.

Susan: There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing.

"There's a lot to be embarrassed about, I can testify to that. But it's great to come to terms with every single thing that is so imperfect about every situation. Just being with those feelings of not feeling good enough or when it comes to being a parent, it's just impossible for me to do the right thing, like, maybe doing all the wrong things is the right thing." - Susan Cianciolo

Maia: Absolutely. I think we're all figuring it out. I don't think it ever ends. I don't think any parent ever understands completely what they're doing ... How has it been for you since you left this, I guess, more of an urban setting, going to this beautiful home and kind of a sanctuary in the South Bronx. Is it the South Bronx?

Susan: It’s north, pretty north. I don't know if this is always a good thing, but I offered [Lilac] the decision together — growing up, she'd always tell me, “You're the parent, you have to make the decision” —  but she had to change schools and there's a lot of choices for both of us, but we just decided together and we would never go back. Just being here is kind of like a sanctuary with rare birds. And it's very different and not seeing anyone, you could just not see anyone for days and days. That really shifted a lot for us, to really make this decision to make peace with each other, and that was really incredible. We were in that lockdown here and I think a lot of beautiful things came out of it. 

We both like a lot of quiet downtime. [Lilac] does all her own things while I'm making my own stuff, but there's a lot of, when you're in this place where there's no corner shop to get anything or no friend to go talk to on the corner, it's a real different kind of thing. It’s fantastic too.

Maia:  Out here, I have no friends and there's no problem with that at all. Because I feel so connected with the people I love anyway.

I really relate to what you're saying that without the daily distractions, as much as I enjoyed them, too, they were actually distractions away from Nima, away from my work, or away from my spirituality or my mental health, or all of those things. I think I've just been able to really reconnect with all of those things that are such a high priority for me. 

Normally, I wasn't able to really tend to it in the city. And it made me feel very upset, and kind of, conflicted. Because I felt like, “Oh, I'm doing all these wonderful things, and working all these on all these wonderful projects, and I'm surrounded by all these beautiful people, but why am I so miserable?”

I was kind of a little bit lost in some ways on how to amplify and hone in on things that really matter to me. I just didn't know how. I was just so spread thin.

Susan: I feel that exactly. I know exactly what you mean.  That's what I don't miss. The spread thin. 

Maia: I think the brunt of it would be kind of experienced by my husband and my son. Because they would get the shitty side of me. I would come home and be so exhausted, and so bummed out, no energy left in me. And that's what they would get. And I thought it wasn't fair, especially for my son to experience the scraps of who I am.

"So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess." - Susan Cianciolo

Susan:  That gives me the chills, I really relate to that. So much. 

Maia: I think it might be one of the main complexities of having a kid in the city or having a kid as an artist or having to deal with your career as well as being a parent. Because I think that that guilt never really goes away, however much you try and do your best. That's something that you just have to, I guess, come to terms with, but I think it makes it easier when the decisions you have to make in the day are just a couple and not 40 different decisions.

Susan: Yes, you just nailed it. That's what the changes really have been also: spiritually, mental health, like you mentioned, have definitely changed a lot. And I'm definitely a different kind of mom, too. There's this combination of being able to be there more and just be relaxed, and mostly we just make jokes. All the time. That's more or less our whole existence: “Let's laugh at everything as much as we can.”

And it's not like anything changed to make us happier. But I think we just sort of realized. I just keep saying this that boredom is a great thing in some ways, how much it can bring out — so much peace or contentment, you know?

Maia: Yeah, the simplicity of having less to do. It's just Peter [Maia’s husband Peter Sutherland], myself and Nima, day in, day out. And somehow, we're just not sick of each other. We're really just having a good time with each other, just really watching Nima grow every day and noticing all the little minute things that normally we would be too busy to notice. You don't get a second chance; it comes and goes. So we're really appreciating this time … How has art making been for you lately?

Susan: It's good.  I don't know if anything changed, really. It's not such a traditional studio setting. What changed is I work outside as well as inside. I've been experimenting over the year, just seeing how things have weathered out, the winter and now into the spring in the rain and little experiments like that.

Maia: Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, from the images I've seen of your place, it feels like you're in a cottage. Not in New York, it feels like you're out somewhere, you know, in a very special nature part of the countryside or something. It's interesting to think about how work and material changes with the space that you create them in. I think for some people, it doesn't, but I feel like for an artist like yourself who's so sensitive to your environment and to the materials, it is almost like a site-specific practice.

Susan: The whole point when we found this place was there was an inspiration from the environment, you know. I spent the last year working on a show, it's for the lumber room in Portland that opens in July. But then they postponed it a year, and then asked me to make a book. So this was the perfect little cottage to be for a whole year, and sit and make a book. It just seemed like divine timing that I was sort of dropped here. And then that's what I worked on. I'm just sort of taking it as it comes but I'm mostly just very interested in healing as a practice. 

Maia: Yeah, Susan, I think that's the one thing that I have been so inspired by, especially from you, who talked to me about it for the first time as an artist. You were talking about how healing is such an important factor in your practice. And to me, it was so reassuring to me, because it was something that I really care about, but had no idea if it was a separate thing from practice, a separate thing from art making. 

How does spirituality and art making come together? I just hadn't really seen a good example of that in my peers, or in my own practice, and I always had this sort of ambivalence towards it. But when you had mentioned it, it just was so clear to me that that was the direction that, not just myself, but so many of us should be taking. And coming here, it became sort of the center of my practice, in terms of priorities, and trying to bring the elements of healing into art making either conceptually or in a ritualistic way. 

It really just opened up my eyes. So I really want to thank you for that. You've really, really, inspired me to look after that part of myself as an artist.

Susan: That's interesting, because I see that in you. This whole time I've known you, you were doing that all along. That's wild to hear that that just came to you. But that's why I believe everything is already in us. There's nothing we have to learn or why I say that about Lilac -- she's coming here with all her intelligence and you know, there's nothing I can actually teach her. That's what I've learned in being a parent. 

While I've been here [the cottage], it gave me a chance to open it up more because at the beginning, I realized it's so quiet here, I can just meditate for 10 hours a day, you know, if I want to, because it's just that environment. But then I realized it’s a little bit extreme, I have to find a balance. It gave me a lot of answers to how much more, even though I may have said that to you, to now where I'm actually interested where I am actually going to do hands on healing work on people. I do believe that's involved in my work. 

So in this next exhibition, I'm going to have a week where I'm going to actually do healing sessions on human beings, or it could be animals, extraterrestrials, every life, plant, everything is welcome. This will be the first time, I feel this calling that maybe will become my whole practice completely, or a part of it. And I am going to do that prayer circle again, like the one you joined. I'll do that for the opening and then I'll continue with one-on-one offering sessions. It’s a new departure and a couple of other things I'm experimenting with in relation to consciousness, I guess. 

Maia: I remember the prayer circles so well. I was in a complete trance. I have to say, I'd never meditated that way before. I walked into the gallery in a lot of pain, actually. I had terrible sciatica in both legs. The baby was starting to drop. So just walking around was excruciating. I sat there and I completely fell into a trance until you came up to me and tapped me on my shoulder. It was healing for me. I actually got up and walked out with pretty much no pain. It was really crazy. I never experienced that before. And I was really channeling all the pain that I was feeling. And I couldn't hear people. And once I opened my eyes, I was shocked that the gallery was full of people.

Susan: That's such important information for me. I'm really grateful that you told me that because that was the first time I did that. I only did it one other time in Holland, and it was with casting people that I’d never met before. I did the actual prayer circle with everyone and that was profound because I got to have that experience together. 

So I'm going to do that. This will be the third time I'll do it in Portland. I was connecting to all of you, but it's really different to sit in the circle and in that harmony of all ONE.

Maia: You know, it really did something to the nervous system, it did release some type of happy medicine in my brain.

Susan: Yes. That's what I believe. That's what a lot of the book is about, that you're your own healer. You have everything inside you, too. Heal whatever it is, not that there was anything wrong, just the natural process. I do remember in that last week now being pregnant with Lilac how hard it was to sit for long periods like that in a meditation and how uncomfortable it got. Thankfully, I'm glad to know what it's like, just even to be pregnant and know all the uncomfortable, uncomfortable feelings, which, you know, it's good to just have had that experience. But the end is hard.

Maia: But it is a constant reminder for me of what our bodies can actually go through. You understand the expanse of your own power, your pure discomfort or pain, I almost feel like I went to war and came back in one piece. I've been changed, my body's changed, my personality has changed, you know, my artwork has changed because of it. I think that's one thing that I'm really grateful for, that I'm a visual artist and that is my sort of my platform or my outlet to kind to express all of these sorts of abstract feelings.

I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years.

Susan: But that's amazing. I would love to be like that. It is so conceptual.

Maia: It's very conceptual. And sometimes it can be a little bit draining because I don't know how to start. I don't know how to materialize the work. A lot of the time ideas are brewing, and then a lot of them get into action once I know that place for them to go.

Susan: Yes, totally. I like that. I love that there's such a different process. Or processes. 

"I haven't made a single drawing this pandemic, what am I going to make? And I just think I've just never been an artist, in the sense that I don't really have a sketchbook. I always admire artists like yourself, and other artists who are constantly creating and making and it's just part of your everyday lives, sketchbooks and notes and all of these things. I've just never really worked that way. And it's really hard for me to come up with a new body of work, because I sit on a single idea for years, sometimes up to six years." - Maia Ruth Lee

Maia: Without seeing the space, sometimes it's really hard for me to come up with a work because a lot of them end up being installations and very site specific. Once I saw the museum gallery, I just was like, “Okay, now I know what to do.” And I was able to create a whole new body of work. Some of them are paintings, some of them are installations. 

There was a video that Peter made while we were in quarantine, he left a motion sensor camera around the house, he told us but we forgot. It's for hunting so whenever there's motion, it just starts. He left it around the house just for us doing mundane things: doing the dishes and cooking, eating food, playing with Nima, just being on the phone talking on the phone, really just mundane things. But it was in April of last year during a hard lockdown and it did capture this sort of sentiment, I think, that was so relatable for a lot of different people who are doing exactly that. So I included the video that Peter made. 

The show was titled “Language of Grief” and I wanted to talk about the legibility of the language, and how the abstractness of grief is so different as an experience for everyone. Everyone is experiencing grief right now on some type of level, and you know it's a universal language right now, but it's also the most abstract language. So I ended up making these paintings with sewing patterns as shapes on the canvas, and it also almost looks like some type of hieroglyph or type of language; it's big black blocks of sewing patterns showing grief as an experience that is physical, but also kind of abstract. 

And then I paired them with these letters that I had also sent to some friends, that is the legible side of grief that talks about what is happening. It's chronological, it goes through the whole past year, talking about the elections, the pandemic, missing people, the uncertainty, all of those things. 

It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was that language [of grief].

"It was really healing for me to actually create those because I was really at a loss for words, I just didn't know how I could even sum up the experiences that we were all going through. And, you know, the one thing that really kind of got me inspired was, was that language [of grief]." - Maia Ruth Lee

Susan: It looks to me like there is a language you're creating through your work, in what I've seen, I haven't seen this show yet, but what I've seen in work in the past. As you're talking about it, I'm relating it to what I've seen as far this language you're creating and who knows where it's connected to, you know?

Maia: It's always been a source of inspiration for me, my starting off point is language. Because language is expansive, but it's also very limited. In the sense that, for me, being bilingual, doesn't feel expansive. Sometimes I feel even more restricted in the sense that Korean and English are completely different languages. They have a totally different set of rules, and feeling and spirit.

I would say Korean is more of a square and English is more of a circle. And, you know, when I speak with Nima, I want to be more of a circle. I don't really want to be a square. So it's been very conflicting for me because how can I do both? How can I introduce Korean without restricting myself to a square? Maybe I can be a circle.

Susan: Yes, I feel you. I feel you're always that circle, no matter what. But I completely understand what you're saying.

Maia: Tell me about the show. I really want to be there for that.

Susan: That would be so incredible. I'll do a type of community dinner and cook, then do the prayer circle and offer healing sessions and then close with a big cafe style. So it'll be back and forth between the cooking and the type of “healing modalities.” I'm going to play back and forth with those two. And I'm coming out with a video game that's like a spiritual consciousness. 

The last two films I made were with the filmmaker Harry Hughes. This one project we've been working on, that we've been talking about for years, finally came together. And it reminds me about what you were saying with your process. I do contemplate certain things for years, then all of a sudden, it takes over where it's meant to be at the certain time without me controlling it. 

So that is the book that is coming out, it's a cookbook, but it combines a lot of other things where I have contributing writers, other artists and healers have given their own writings relating to healing and food. Lilac is a writer so she contributed a short fiction story about a girl that lives on a farm; it's a nice piece. I will also be glad to give you a copy of some recipes in there, you can follow or not, but it has a lot of things. You know, my grandmother, all the recipes she had written by hand, all the things like that, those are in there... things like that.

Maia: That's so awesome. And it's always so nice to see artists who really make space for collaborations. Collaboration is not even a word in your world, because it's just more organic and natural to bring in the community as part of your creative process. But it's really inspiring to see you always working with people you care for. And it always seems really seamless, whether that's Lilac or whether that's other artists or healers. It's always been part of who you are not just an artist, but as a person.

Susan: Thank you, Maia. That's a really big compliment. You know, this book helped me reach out a little bit differently, because it was writers, you know. And I asked the teacher that I've studied meditation with for 20 years, Peter Sonnenberg, and just said, “Please would you write something?” And he said, “Yes.” It happened naturally but it's like a little bit of a different road that I took in asking different writers. One woman, Samarra, she's a Pratt student in my class, she's an incredible poet. So she contributed, and Morgan, who is a poet, and then friend Cassie, who's an artist, so it is a good combination.  I did ask my mom and she said “No.” I like when people say no.  It's like you learn to really accept the no really well. Right?

Maia: Yeah, you just have to give up and say I can't really do anything about that. It just lets you let go of that control aspect of this one thing that you have your mind set on, it just doesn't have to be that way for everything.

Susan: I really do pray and dream that I might see you soon.

Maia:  I'm going to be so happy to see you, I'll probably cry when I see you. We've talked for like, almost an hour. I feel like we've talked about so many wonderful things.

Susan: Right. I feel that too. It was really natural and effortless. So grateful to see you. Always. I love you. 

Maia: I love you so much to thanks for everything. Good luck for the rest of your exhibition preparations. And I'll be thinking of you and I'll be sending you love. And you're going to get a letter from me soon. 

Susan: I'm excited. I'm sending you the same love and support with everything.

Maia: Thank you, Susan. Take care. I'll talk to you soon. Okay, bye

Susan: Bye.

Susan Cianciolo photos: Zoe Adlersberg

Maia Ruth Lee photos: Peter Sutherland

Transcript: Zoe Adlersberg