SugarHill Works Round 2: Ciel Mahoney

Ciel Mahoney is an artist and entrepreneur who lives in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, New York City. She is a partner in SugarHill Works, a small business specializing in custom websites, scanning, and printing, which she runs in part with Jenny Burgos – who has also modeled for Dusty Rose - as well as Dan Weisser and Tan-ya Gerrodette. After our photo shoot, we spoke with Ciel about stoops, suburbia and photomontages.

Where are you from?

I was born in Minneapolis and grew up in Wisconsin and Montana (separate parents), then passed through Seattle.

The pictures of you look amazing. We hope you liked them.

It was a little embarrassing to be in front of the camera, but I think they came out well. I've worked in photography for years, & printed millions of fashion photos in the darkroom. Us photo lab rats are habitually camera-shy, but I had a lot of fun with your shoot. And after looking at so many bland fashion images, I really admire what you're doing, using "real people" to model your clothes.

What was your favorite piece from the shoot?

I actually loved the first dress I tried on, that green one - it was a pretty color. And the white one with little colored shapes on it made me feel like a happy little kid.

Tell us about what clothes you usually wear.

I don’t actually own any dresses, even though there were a lot in the shoot. I used to wear short skirts, which are kind of comfortable. Now, anyone who knows me will laugh at the idea of me in a dress... I'm totally gonna show off the pics from your shoot, for shock value! I mainly dress in a utilitarian way, and for comfort - my roommate calls me a "comfortarian". I haven’t actually bought any clothes for the last few years, because I’ve been doing the whole ‘starting a business and being totally broke’ thing.

What do you do for fun?

In theory, I work on my own photography and artwork, but in reality, now I work on managing SugarHill website projects so much that for fun I just do simple things like read, cook, go for walks, play with my cat. Building a business kind of takes over your life, and writing website code all day has made me a bit of a hermit.

What would you like to do?

I’d love to travel, a lot. I’m obsessed with India right now, but I want to go all over the world. I've decided that if the US gets too bad, I'll just outsource myself, and go work in some remote place, or be a nomad.

You told us that you like to make art with digital photo montage, often with found images. We love the image that you shared with us. Can you tell us about it?

It’s called Earthly Delights. It’s inspired by a Hieronymus Bosch painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights, which is a triptych that represents the Garden of Eden on one side, Hell on the other, and something else in between. Most art historians consider the central panel to be a warning of the peril of life's temptations. My version was a take on the weird, modern earthly delights in our somewhat sterile world of suburban subdivisions. Like, is this what we really think is an important ideal? You can see there’s some Disney imagery in there, the Magic Kingdom, yet some of the elements give a sense of trouble in paradise. This is our idea of earthly delights today: a shiny gated community.

That’s kind of the opposite of where you live.

We live in a great historical building surrounded by a community that actually still talks to each other. After we moved in, we became friends with a great guy called Azie Faison. He grew up there, and his mother still lives in the building. You should look him up. He’s a bit of an urban legend, a former drug dealer who turned his life around and became a hip-hop artist with a mission to encourage youth to follow a different path. His life story was made into a movie called ‘Paid in Full’. He knows everything about the neighborhood. A few minutes talking to him on the stoop and you’re up to speed.

No one makes you feel unwelcome?

No. Most people are friendly and used to looking out for each other. The only problem I’ve ever had is with some single men who just come right out and ask ‘are you married’ or ‘do you have kids’? It seems an odd way to get a date. I usually just say yes, and I don’t want any. It’s fine, really.

You mentioned stoops before. The Harlem stoop seems to be one of the few places left where people can really meet and talk to strangers in New York and it not be weird.

That’s true. The neighborhood is so strong and tight-knit, the stoop culture is important to that. I’m actually kind of angry right now about the changes gentrification brings. We've been flagged as a 'high crime' neighborhood, which means that armies of cops are on patrol everywhere, harassing people hanging out on the stoops, even old men with their domino games. Recently, there have been some horrible rapes in our neighborhood, and the police and the TV news have come in and put on a big show for everybody. But with the police hassling the regular guys on the street, less people are hanging out on the stoops. And that just makes the neighborhood more dangerous, because there aren’t those people looking out for each other all the time.

That seems pretty stupid.

It’s a disconnect between how different people think about ‘quality of life’ issues. The yuppies buying up brownstones and the cops see people on the stoop as some sort of disorder. It’s the opposite. They create a community, which creates safety. Some people just have an image in their head: stay in your sanitized apartments, go to work, come home and go back inside. It’s the gated community fantasy, I guess.

Thanks, Ciel.

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