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.
Jenny Burgos is the co-founder of SugarHill Works, a boutique printing, scanning and web design company based in New York. We spoke with Jenny about design peeves, elephants and stimulus.
Where are you from?
I grew up in Nutley, New Jersey.
Why the name: Sugar Hill Works?
We live in the Sugar Hill neighborhood, which is a little part of Harlem. We run our business from our apartment, so that’s why we chose the name. We have no affiliation with the hip-hop outfit The Sugar Hill Gang. Apart from liking them.
You and Dan Weisser are the co-owners of this business, which you run from home, and also room-mates. Do you see too much of each other?
We have a great relationship, so it’s not really a problem. Dan can do a lot of work off-site, so if it gets really claustrophobic, he can work from a café or friend’s house. . We also have two other co-partners in the business: Ciel Mahoney and Tan-ya Gerodette. Ciel also lives in the area, so they work at her place too.
It sounds wonderfully incestuous…
Dan and I worked in a rental darkroom together, and we gradually got tired of working for other people. So we decided to start a boutique business of our own, producing high quality inkjet prints, excellent film and flat art scans and building custom websites. Ciel and Tanya are friends who donated their time and ideas and are now partners.
What is the biggest start up challenge?
When you start your first business, you don't realize all the costs and minor details there are. Also finding customers and earning their trust is always a challenge. We have their livelihoods in our hands. We are handling their negatives or running their sites, which are their main contact with their customers.
That makes sense. It should be. What are you most proud of, so far, in running this business?
First of all, we’re just proud we did it. And people give us props for offering low prices to people who are just starting out in the business, and I’m proud of that too. One of the coolest things we did was hosting a free gallery show for all out clients. We rented a gallery space in Chelsea and invited all of our clients to submit a piece of work. The broad theme was “Elephants and Candy”.
Elephants and Candy?
Candy for SugarHill, Elephants, because Dan likes them. He likes them an enormous amount. What's not to like about elephants? The show was a great success, one of our clients sold their work.
You design incredible websites. So many sites online are just terrible. What are your design peeves that make you scream ‘you should have used Sugar Hill’ at the computer screen?
It’s got to be navigation. I’m putting together a bridal shower for my sister at the moment, and shopping for gifts and stuff for the event. So many sites make it so hard to see their merchandise. It’s as if they secretly think that if they make their website bad enough, you’ll just give up and make a trip to their physical store. I won’t. Photos looking unprofessional I obviously hate. Clashing colors, fonts that don’t catch your eye… the list is endless.
Until those sites beat a path to your door, we hear you’re asking President Obama for some help?
Yes! We are trying to get a small business loan from the Stimulus Package. There are not many available, but I think we have a good shot. The loan is up to $35,000, which would really help a lot.
What was your favorite piece from the shoot?
That first dress I wore – the black lace one. It was really short but had a high neck line. I don’t wear things like that very often, but it was wonderful. Modest and sexy and classy, all at the same time.