Maia Ruth Lee was born in Korea but spent most of her life in Nepal where her parents were missionaries. After leaving for college and a stint in Italy as a Fabrica fellow, she returned to Nepal where she met Peter Sutherland and together they published their first collaboration – a book based on their photo workshop with kids in Kathmandu called Signs & Voices.
Now based in New York, Maia is making waves her new art brand TROLL. I chatted with Maia and TROLL collaborator Aine Vonnegut in their studio as they molded tongue-shaped weed pipes out of clay. Fresh from what they described as “the most epic weekend,” I would soon realize their use of the word “epic” is anything but hyperbole.
Nepal is actually safer than say, New York City because you don't have access to crazy drugs
Dazed Digital: Maia, you were raised in Nepal. What was that like?
Maia Ruth Lee: I was out in Nepal from ages 5-18. My parents were technically Bible translators, so they are like missionaries. They translated the Bible into the Sherpa language, which they just finished this year. They've always been pretty strict. It affected me a lot growing up because I was pretty rebellious.
DD: How did you rebel?
Maia: Hanging out with stoners, like any other 13 year old. Nepal is actually safer than say, New York City because you don't have access to crazy drugs. The only thing that is dangerous is you could actually get kidnapped and murdered and no one would ever find you because it’s so remote.
DD: How did you two meet?
Aine Vonnegut: We met in the middle of nowhere – in Niland, in southern California near this place called Slab City, which is the most epic place ever. It's basically a shanty trailer town in the middle of the desert where a lot of travelers, ex-convicts, addicts, and hippies all center for the wintertime. So we met there in the middle of the desert through my boyfriend at the time and Peter [Sutherland] who are good friends.
Maia: We decided to meet in front of a supermarket and that’s when I first met Aine. When they rolled up I knew we would totally get along. We were on a full on adventure from day one.
DD: What were you doing out there?
Aine: I moved to New York [from Boston] and then a month after that I went on a month-long road trip all throughout the Southwest. I drove from Texas to L.A. camping out, taking photos and meeting new people. It was the first time I explored the Southwest and did a road trip on my own and I've been doing them every year since then for a few months at a time.
DD: When did you decided to collaborate?
Maia: About 4 months ago. We always wanted to do stuff together but the timing was always off. We were doing our own things for a while but this year we thought we should totally do it and we started brainstorming.
DD: What is TROLL?
Maia: TROLL is an art brand. We have products you can buy but they are one-off handmade things like these tongue pipes and ceramics. We also have embroidered t-shirts, embroidered hats, tie-dye stuff, enamel stuff, it’s all stuff that’s fun for us to make but we are also selling at a really reasonable price so people can actually buy it.
We like to get high, we like to make things, we like to make people happy
Aine: The whole reason we are collaborating is because it’s fun and we enjoy each other’s company and making stuff so that's what you want to embody with what you make too.
Maia: We like to get high, we like to make things, we like to make people happy and we like to see our stuff being functional and used. This whole thing is a very relaxed but we work hard.
Aine: ...But it’s easy to work hard when working is this easy. Maia is just like this mentor slash best friend type—it’s the best of both worlds.
Maia: For me it’s really important to meet good girlfriends. I feel like it’s really easy for me to hang out with boys because I have an older brother—it comes really naturally to me. It’s really hard to find good reliable girlfriends where you are like, this chick is my friend for life. To be able to share everything–it really means everything, especially in a new city or new life. For me the first couple years in New York was hard because I wanted it so bad and I knew this was the missing link in my life.
Aine: The dialogue we have is so effortless and we respect each other's work so much. We never argue, but rather we want to know what the other person has to say.
Maia: There’s no ego involved which is so easy with girls.