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Susie Lee: A Means To An End, Method 4.0

Huffington Post

EdChat™ Nomad
Aug 11, 2016

I recently collaborated with Joe Freeman, an artist who explores imagined and existing landscapes. We created A Means to an End, Method 4.0, a work that documents rebuilding a tree out of harvested wood in the middle of a clearcut in Washington state. The photo captures nature's resistance to shortcuts confronted by the entrepreneur's tendency to seek shortcuts in problem-solving

(1) What is your current focus in your work? How did you arrive here?

I find spiritual harmony in places devoid of human life, like the desert or remote mountains, but I'm compelled to explore terrains that have been purged of life through the greed of human activity. I get infuriated when peoples' inability to control their negative characteristics affects others; and there is a searing decisiveness that accompanies this anger that motivates and liberates my work.

Just as instrumental music has the ability to move us emotionally with its tones, so does a photograph. The tones-- contrast and luminance--are communicated to the viewer through waves of light, as the tones in music are communicated to the listener through waves of sound. My photographs are an extension of my being, embodying the same characteristics as I do--aggressive upon first glance, but containing depth of sensitivity.

For the last two years I've been positively influenced through working with artist Buster Simpson and bio-char researcher, Kai Hoffman-Krull of Forage Media. while photographing the aftermath of clear cutting and wildfires.

Buster expands my awareness of humankind's absurd, naïve and flat out arrogance when making decisions concerning the longevity of our species. Much of Buster's work are ingenious responses to climate change, and his public artworks provoke in ways that other public art which is more decorative and devoid of much meaning, do not. I hope my work can be closer to the provocative sensibility of Buster's work.

Through my work with Kai I have become aware of Thomas DeLuca, Director of the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Washington Deluca is one of the world's foremost experts on the ecological effects of wildfire. From him I've learned that clearcutting, wildfire, and global warming are intricately linked in a self-perpetuating cycle. My work currently explores how to articulate that cycle and its effect visually.

(2) Tell us about your background. How do you think it informs your practice -- both process and final outcome? How does it influence how you see the impact of human activity?

My father and grandfather were both in the military; if it weren't for the saving grace of the camera I could very well be looking through a sniper lens. They went on to be welders in the naval shipyard, mechanics, and carpenters. I spent a lot of time with them in industrial environments -- metal shops, wood shops, land clearings for home construction sites, and auto body shops. From these experiences I took away a deep appreciation for a methodical, detail-oriented process resulting in impeccable craftsmanship.

Maybe not surprisingly, I grew up angry by nature and nurture. I got into fist fights weekly, thrived on punk rock and metal, and believed in a clear division of right and wrong--and wrong pissed me off. Yet my mom and grandmother provided a different connection through religion and spirituality. Beyond a hard exterior, there is a caring and even fragile being inside me, and I thankfully owe an awareness of that sensibility to them.

(3) Describe the process of creating A Means to an End. What surprised you?

We started with a conversation that explored theme of the exhibition, A Stand of Pine in a Tilled Field. We wanted to approach it in a couple ways- as the noun, the 'wood' aspect, but also, and maybe more importantly, as a verb -- "to miss and long for the return of".

After we tried a number of experiments involving projections onto photographs, and into corners, we were getting a bit too... 'arty'. It was back to the drawing board, but with a hard deadline, so in a last ditch effort, we returned to an earlier idea of nailing 2x4's to a stump.

The day we built was hilarious -- you were scheduled to make a television appearance to promote your company, Siren, filmed in a mansion in the middle of what seemed like nowhere. You asked me to come along so we could visit a clearcut after your segment - because you get a lot of shit done in one day.

I identified a clear cut location and a Home Depot enroute where we could buy our 2x4's. I worked while you documented the process and directed the placement of wood. It went fast. The end result speaks visually to a very basic but important principle: "You don't know what you have until it's gone."

Collaboration in making art is new to me; one compeling aspect is that collaboration prevented me from getting lost in the blackness of my thoughts by staying aware of yours. I really enjoyed working with you and am grateful you asked me to work on this piece together. A clear sense of direction (we specifically knew what we wanted to accomplish) and stress-free determination of roles (I predetermined that I would trust you to guide the placement of the 2x4's) allowed for fluidity in the creative process. Making art can actually be fun sometimes, when having the key ideas in place and not sweating over the details I knew we would figure out along the way.

However, I also became keenly aware of the value and importance that my accustomed solitary mindset has for me during the creative working process. It's through wrecking myself both emotionally and physically to make my work that I feel the deepest connection to what I'm doing and making.

(4) What is the intention of the built tree next to the other tree? Walk us through the composition.

Before we completed the work I could imagine the final image of our built tree next to the dead tree. It felt right, and it was purely a compositional intuition, but one informed by our previous conversations on walking through a landscape purged of life, and of building or adding something that wasn't really the original element. But if my rational brain tried to determine where to place our built tree, I would have become intellectually paralyzed and the lumber would have never left the car; intuition is a better motivator. Intellectual hair-splitting can bottleneck creative fluidity.

I realize now that the composition is structured around a 'trinity' relationship--the rebuilt tree, the dead tree, and the living tree standing alone in the far right off in the distance. It's a powerful image rich in metaphors of a soul, a physical being, and something in between and around those things. What does it mean to 'be' when both of the trees in the foreground are clearly not the same, yet composed of the same material? Aren't both clearly not alive, but also definitely present?

What actually is the definition of a tree? If it resides in the materiality, then we built a tree that most would say is still not a tree. If it is living, self-replicating matter, then the dead tree is no longer a tree, though most would argue that it is.

(5) What do you think is the artist's responsibility in activism? Do you think you're an activist?

I don't see myself as an activist artist, but more as an interpreter of energies emanating from the land.If there is any activist component, it is simply to find ways of effectively understanding a truth between the land and me and then convey that to an audience. Though I'm not driven by an agenda, if it inspires change, I'm pleased.

(6) What are your thoughts on clear-cutting?

To me, clear-cutting is the same as gun control. I have less of an issue with guns as objects than who is behind the trigger. The practitioner's maturity, responsibility and motives with respect to society determines whether something is good or bad. Yet the definition of "Good and bad" change, and even alternate, with the times. So I think a more productive way of looking at any action is to simply consider the effects --a limited removal of some trees that preserves a forest's natural ecosystem is very different than an industrial wipeout of a large area that may take decades to recover, if ever.

(7) What do you want the viewer to take away? What should linger in their head long after they've left their spot in front of the photograph?

I hope that viewers come away with a sense of unresolved--and perhaps unresolvable--tensions. The tension embodied by a clearcut or wildfire exists in an unresolved place -a liminal space. Occurring simultaneously, the viewer senses a place that once was, but is no longer, and is not yet what will be. Places where destruction illuminates a once harmonious past, and where creation and beauty may yet stand in the future.