How did you first encounter Ecotrust? Was there a defining moment when you knew this was the right place for you?
I met Spencer Beebe through his wife Jane, who is my gallery owner. Ecotrust seemed like a very different way of approaching the environment than other work that I’d heard about before. After talking to Jeremy Barnicle about Ecotrust’s mission, I wanted to be involved in whatever way possible. What Ecotrust is doing has real impact. I also really liked the triple-bottom-line aspect, which mirrors the relational aspect in my own work.
The Ecotrust staff recently collaborated on a set of Core Values. Is there a section or value in there that feels most resonant to you?
Honestly, it’s hard to pull one out as the most important one, because they work as a system. You can’t forget that there are humans with jobs who don’t have as much control or privilege to change their lives and directions as other people. And whenever we talk about the planet, we’re also talking about human beings, who are a vital part of the ecosystem, not just enemies of the environment.
You have an incredible body of work as an artist. It would be amazing to have some of your work in the Natural Capital Center.
Spencer is so close to the art world. That was one of the things about Ecotrust I was drawn to, just this unusual creative and aesthetic energy to Ecotrust projects. For example, the Redd building is beautiful! As a board member, I can especially contribute when we need creative inspiration and expression and be able to find very diverse voices to do that.
“Storytelling is this energy that goes through society, that goes through people. It’s an energy that gets stronger with each telling.”
How do you think your skills and experiences might help support and advance Ecotrust’s mission?
I think that one of the reasons that Spencer and Jeremy reached out was that they sought out a diversity of voices, people who generally think outside the box and think creatively about problems–but also optimistically. I really like building things into existence. And nudging things along. I say I’m professionally a nudger.
And of course, being a person of color, seeing the board actually shift toward growing sensitivity, towards inclusivity–who’s at the table, and who’s making decisions–I’m happy to represent in that way as well.
Could you talk a little about your own projects–especially any that feel particularly resonant to you now?
My first piece right out of my MFA program was called “Consummation.” It’s a video, projected onto a sculptural art form, of two strings burning. At one point, these two strings interact with each other in a way that was very analogous to two lives intertwining and intersecting. From that moment, I felt like the relational aspect was a really important touchstone in my work.
From there, the video portraits—both of the nursing home and also in the fracking fields of North Dakota—were really seminal for me. In the nursing home, I spent months with the patients, listening to their stories and trying to understand what their lives were like in this final chapter. The kind of vulnerability that they showed was profound and really moving to me.
The same thing, I think, happened in North Dakota. I would ask people about their stories, what brought them there. One of the things that was really heartbreaking was that their first question to me was often, “Why do you care? Why would anyone care about my story?” I was changed as much by the relationships, in the process of creating the final objects.
(At left: A portrait from Susie’s Fracking Fields (2013) series. Photo courtesy of Susie Lee)
Siren (a mobile dating app) was the next big one, which was relational in the most obvious sense, because it was trying to connect people. For me, it was an exploration of work outside of a typical museum structure.
Currently, I am working on the first ever in the U.S., Small Human Festival, which are contemporary performances put on by local artists for babies. Last but not least, I’m the co-founder for a storytelling start-up, which aims to help people create visual stories more easily and more quickly with help from artificial intelligence.
Who are some of your personal storytelling greats?
The first time I saw Spalding Gray on stage, I was like, “He’s just there at a table with a glass of water–why?!” And then within 15 to 20 minutes, you’re just caught up in the story, and by the end, you’re in tears. That was one of the first times I was very conscious of the power of storytelling.
The kind of stories that I heard as a child and now being able to share them with my daughter–I realize that storytelling is this energy that goes through society, that goes through people. It’s an energy that gets stronger with each telling.
About your motherhood experiences, it was cool to see that come into your work and how you present yourself. I was wondering if you could speak to some of that.
It’s very intentional. She was the surprise of my life–I’m 46, so it’s curious to start the second half of your life with a newborn.
The negative stereotypes about motherhood–like not being committed to work or not being creative–they are false. I want people to see more positive examples of motherhood, that mothers are not always overburdened, overwhelmed, or exasperated. But also not just blissed-out smiles on a baby’s head. It does take a village to get things done, and I’m not ashamed to say that I ask for help anywhere and everywhere. But in doing so, it also benefits my child. She learns very quickly to learn from others, that it’s not just her mother that she trusts and grows with.
Being the mother of a very young child, I see motherhood as a way to advance a pro-woman and pro-human environment, and I am fortunate to have the privilege to do so. So if we have a board retreat and I have to bring my child, the organization has to wrap their head around that and say, “Okay, how do we do this?” And when we talk about the future, I can point to something and think, “What we do today is going to affect her.” What are you leaving for her? How can you prepare her for whatever the new reality is?
“You have to be passionate about it to the point no one else really understands, then you know what’s really important to you.”
With so much of your work being deeply relational and connected to different forms of liberation, can you talk about how you see your work in light of Ecotrust’s three E’s: Equity, Economy, Environment?
I love the Ecotrust three E’s. The way I approach equity through my own work is accessibility. Who has access to art? Who gets to make it? Who gets to experience it? I’ve always pushed for more accessible work. When I think about the environment, I think about the space and context for which the work is presented and also the way the work is made.
And the economy is just very imprinted in our world. How do you make your money? How do you use it to support yourself? One odd liberating understanding when I was running Siren was realizing how little I needed in order to still feel like I was still thriving.
There’s a friend of mine, Mark Roth, who said that, “Meaning in life is to be irrationally passionate about something.” And I really love that. When someone says, “We’re really interested in doing this…,” I’m like, “No, no. You have to be passionate about it to the point no one else really understands, and it makes you a little bit weird, and THEN, then you know what’s really important to you.”
Top photo caption: Susie Lee holds her daughter Hana. Photo courtesy of Crosscut and KCTS9.