COVID-19 Artist Stories: Susie Lee

To be completely frank, when I’m in a really dark, despairing, and desperate place, creativity and art-making don’t matter to me. And in desperate places and desperate times, I know creativity and art don’t matter to others also. Before I actually traveled back to North Dakota in the fracking fields, I thought creating performances or art exhibitions there was a great idea for the oil workers. I was severely humbled when I arrived. They just desperately needed money and a body that didn’t get so injured it couldn’t work.

When people are in dark and terrible spaces, creativity is the last thing one cares about.

But does this mean that art isn’t important? For me, as someone who has had the privilege and pleasure to create, the arguments for its importance are a bit off because they most often center the outside world as those who should care and consume the products of creativity and making. But while an art world needs an audience, at the most fundamental level, it’s not about the production of stuff to be consumed; it’s not an outward justification for its importance. Centered instead around the creative individual, art is important because the capacity to feel creative within an individual is the crucial litmus test to know that individual is better than surviving.

When I have the energy to be generative, and the space to safely express those creative impulses — that is the ONLY way I know, even when lots of things are still crazy, stressful, wrong, and unstable, that I’m less in a terrible and dark space. The tiniest creative spark — to be able to ask again, “What if…..” is so intertwined with some feeling of being able to thrive in that moment in life.

At a larger scale, a society in which creativity thrives is a society that has risen above taking care of minimum needs; it is a society that is not so dark, desperate, and in despair. Creativity isn’t hardy; it needs so much nurturing. For a person to have any shot at being creative, they need to be beyond dark, desperate, and despairing; they need a community to bounce ideas and work together; they need a conversation with others; they need inspiration, time, space, focus, and funds to be generative.

So right now just that first step — going beyond dark, desperate and despairing — will be really hard for so many. If there are multiple regressions of opening, then closing, many will psychologically shut down. How do we protect people from that psychological shut down, particularly when we can’t physically hold each other? How do we find community to meaningfully work through any process? I don’t know. I just know that sometimes being creative doesn’t matter. But how do we nourish and support each other if and when it does?


Susie Lee is an artist, entrepreneur, a convener of community, and a small human nurturer. A graduate of Yale, Columbia and UW with degrees in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, education, and art, she researched diabetes, taught chemistry in the NYC public schools, got into medical school, then veered off into sculpture and start-ups. Her focus is on technology and art that amplify human endeavors. She is currently a co-founder of an AI-powered storytelling start up and the executive director of an artistic child-centered organization, Thingyverse, that will create the US’s first performance festival for babies. Susie previously founded a feminist dating app that landed on the front page of The Seattle Times, and her video portraits of residents at an end of life care center and oil workers in the fracking fields have been recognized by a Stranger Genius Award, Bronson Fellowship, featured on PBS, and collected by numerous museums around the country. She embarks the second half of her life with her daughter, Hana, who firmly takes her hand on the kinds of adventures one sees in the best children’s books. Susie received Artist Trust GAP Awards in 2007, 2012, and 2019.

Learn more about Susie’s work on her website.