“ONE OF MY PHILOSOPHIES OF ART is that the closer you make things to who you truly are in the time and place that you truly occupy, the more universal they will become. That means to me really embracing what it means to be a woman in this moment, right now, making art. I do think that being able to sit more comfortably with my gender and express that in my work has become more important.” In the traditionally male-dominated medium of street art, Swoon has singlehandedly redefined a once-intractable status quo in becoming the first woman to reach the same level of fame as her male counterparts. The physical and logistical perils of street art has often precluded participation by many female artists. Yet Swoon has managed to circumvent the obstacles of her profession’s illegality by way of her rapid ascension to fame and subsequent decision to work exclusively on commission. Her reach expands from decaying warehouses to the permanent collections at prestigious museums to collective third-world art projects rooted in activism. Her ambitious body of work has been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern, among many others.
Swoon, aka Caledonia Dance Curry, was born in New London, Connecticut, and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida. Though substance abuse and mental illness run in her family, she never succumbed to either, crediting art as her savior. “I have never been through substance addictions myself and…I think that probably more than anything is because I started painting when I was ten.” Nine years later, she moved to New York to study paintingat the Pratt Institute. “I wanted to make something that was unconventional and was contemporary and was part of the city. I moved to New York and I was obsessed with it.”
While attending Pratt, she began taking her art to the street, canvassing decaying buildings with wheat pasted portraits. She fantasized about creating art from linoleum blocks, but instead, settled on a medium that better fit her budget. “I just started looking at what I can afford, which was just a sheet of paper and a knife.” Early in her career, not only did she not tag her work, but she also kept her gender under wraps. “I think that this thing happens with young women where there’s almost a feeling that if your gender becomes a focus, then you’ll become pigeonholed…I think that in really subtle ways, patriarchy has continued to vilify feminism, and so it’s natural when you’re young to not want to necessarily identify with [it].”
In 2009, Swoon executed her visionary performance art project Swimming Cities of Serenissima — a massive “floating metropolis” that she constructed out of found materials and foraged junk which she then transformed into a series of seven rafts, and on which she and thirty of her friends floated into the Venice Biennale, figuratively and literally “crashing” the city’s esteemed annual art festival. “When I first started working on the raft so much of what I was thinking about with those images of these floating cities, was rising seas and climate change, and instability of cities built along the coast. At the time that I made them people weren’t as open in mainstream media about climate change.” The rafts later found their home as part of her groundbreaking solo exhibition, Submerged Motherlands at Brooklyn Museum of Art from April 11 – August 24, 2014. Swoon made history with the project, becoming the first living street artist ever to be exhibited at the Brooklyn Museum.
Submerged Motherlands became as a whole, an emotionally cathartic process for Swoon who in the midst of its construction underwent a life-changing event. “At the time when I was making this whole installation my mom also became sick with cancer and passed away…I ended up finding a narrative that had to do with me losing my mother and losing that kind of space that you’re born from.” Her mother’s death was a time of reflection and self- discovery that, along with inspiring a stronger feminine thread in her work, would compel her to face darker memories from her past. Swoon has found herself gravitating more and more toward work that integrates art therapy and that encompasses social dialogue.
She recently returned from Philadelphia, where she was invited to be a part of the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Programs’ newest and most ambitious exhibit in its history, Open Source: Engaging Audiences in Public Space. For it, she joined thirteen other renowned street artists to create temporary works that envelop the entire city (the exhibit runs through fall 2015). Each individual project aims — per the objectives of the organization — to address issues ranging from criminal justice and behavioral health to immigration and recycling, by engaging with various at-risk communities in Philadelphia. For Swoon, this meant working hands-on with recovering substance abuse patients as well as maximum-security prison detainees. “Just talking to [these] people about early life trauma and how that relates to where they are…it definitely is the first time that I’m working completely from personal experience.” While it may be her first project that hits so close to home, the integration of emotional rehabilitation into her work is part of what defines it.
She recently launched the Heliotrope Foundation, a non-profit designed to support three long-term projects she’s been working on in three different countries. “Each of these three projects is on the ground…We’re working with the communities in a long-term way, and there’s a lot of different elements involved, but the central aim is to create space within these communities that are struggling.” The first of the community art trinity takes place in Braddock, Pennsylvania. “We’re working with the community on a formerly abandoned church, to restore it in a really creative way. And we hope eventually to create an arts and learning center by and for that people there.” She launched the second project of the series in Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, connecting with the small village of Cormier, located on the north coast of the island. The foundation has already built a community center and several homes, which they’ve constructed with assistance from local farmers (one of the homes, underway currently, is fashioned entirely from bamboo). “One is just another long-term relationship with the community that started around rebuilding after this disaster, and that developed into a relationship with this place where we’re working with the kids, we’re working with the adults, we’re building structures, and also, we’re building relationships.” The third project is in New Orleans and began after Katrina. “It’s much more based around wonder and beauty and experimentation. We started with this house that was collapsing and we were making this musical sculpture with it, and then it fell down. Then, we took the pieces and rebuilt it into these small musical structures. The community embraced it so hugely that we have continued it.”
Fostering community is something that comes organically to Swoon and thus is increasingly becoming an extension of her creative process. “How do I make something not just for people who feel they are invited into a museum space? Because not everybody feels that way…I think in a lot of ways I didn’t feel that way…it felt really natural for me to make something that was going to be more accessible to more people.” Forging her identity as a female artist has also become increasingly natural for her as she evolves creatively. “[Submerged Motherlands] brought me in touch with who I am as a woman and with my desire to just show up really personally in my work. So I think in that way when your own story becomes very central, then who you are as a woman becomes very central…the project that I’m working on right now, where I just came from in Philadelphia, it very, very, very much came out of the work that started around the time of my mother’s death.”
This past summer, Swoon took a breather for a few months to find artistic respite away from the frenetic energy of NYC, and to work on a series of drawings inspired by the time she spent recently in Philadelphia. “It’s so necessary that we talk about addiction and trauma and incarceration. [And I was] reminded not forget the other pieces that make the conversation…We need to have elements of beauty and we need to have elements of joy and wonderment. That has to be part of the conversation for our own sanity and our experience of life…”
Swoon was extremely busy this December during Miami Art Week, with her work being featured at Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian’s “Unrealism” exhibit, The “No Commission Art Fair” Hosted by Swizz Beatz, The Chandran Gallery Booth at Art on Paper, Mccaig + Wells Conception Fair in Wynwood and the Rumney Guggenheim Gallery at SCOPE art fair.
Read the full interview with Swoon by Indira Cesarine for The #GirlPower Issue below:
Indira Cesarine: I’d love to talk to you about your work and everything you have going on, it’s pretty varied and you have such an interesting body of work, its really stunning what you do!
Swoon: I’m glad you think that. Some people find it totally confusing.
IC: I think its great the way you use so many different elements—performance art, street art, sculpture and collaborative art; everything comes together in a very beautiful way. I know that you started oil painting when you were ten. You were obviously an incredibly talented child. What inspired you when you were a kid to start painting?
S: I mean I think when you’re very little, it’s hard to articulate that, it’s just like, ‘when I do this something happens, when I pick up a pen or pencil I can make things or when I pick up a pencil, all of a sudden three hours just went by, how did that happen?’ So I think it was kind of that experience. I found that I could easily conjure a world, you know what I mean, in that way. I was kind of just discovering that.
IC: Obviously you must have had some artistic influences that inspired your work along the way. Are there any particular artists that really resonated with you?
S: So many different ones at different times. You know, I just went to the Met the other day to talk about a work in their collection and it just connected me to how so many canonical painters were such a backbone of my learning. Just going through the Rembrandt and the Daumier and van Gogh and Vermeer and just this whole body of classical artists. And then Käthe Kollwitz and really so much of the history of depiction has been super important to me. And then as far as Modern Artists—I mean there’s so many. I really had a special love for William Kentridge when I first started putting myself together as an artist. There’s so many.
IC: You started doing street art when you were still at Pratt—in the early days what brought you to the streets to wheat paste?
S: I just wanted to make something that felt like it was part of my city. I wanted to make something that was unconventional, temporary, and a part of the city. I had just moved to New York and I was obsessed with it and I was like ‘This is such an incredible place—how do I make something that that is part of this?’
IC: You felt that you could connect to the city in a cultural way by doing that, that you could have some sort of impact?
S: Cultural, physical—the whole thing. Just the idea of making a piece that became part of a wall was tactile and really interesting to me. And then it was like ‘How do I make something not just for people who feel they are invited into a museum space?’ Because not everybody feels that way. I think in a lot of ways I didn’t feel that way. I was a kid from this little town in Florida and you know those places are public and they’re open and I think that I sat a little bit uneasily within that context and within the art world. It felt really natural for me to make something that was going to be accessible to more people.
IC: You were one of the few female street artists in the early days and I understand you didn’t actually tag your work or really express your gender in your early work. Do you feel that your gender has become more important now to your work? I know that initially you were very focused on the gender neutralization of yourself as an artist.
S: Well I think that this thing happens with young women where there’s almost a feeling that if your gender becomes focused on then you get pigeonholed. I know and I knew that I stand on my own as an artist regardless of any other category that I also belonged to. The importance for me at that time was to just stand on my own and not allow all the cultural stereotyping to take hold. I think later as I become more comfortable with myself, I become more comfortable with the strength of my work. One of my philosophies of art making is that the closer you make things to who you truly are—in the time and place that you truly occupy—the more universal your work will become. To me that means really embracing what it is to be a woman in this moment, right now, making art. I do think that being able to sit more comfortably with my gender and express that in my work has become more important.
IC: As you continue on your path obviously your work is going to evolve and certain things will shift focus. Initially you were working a lot on your own and now you’re clearly very drawn to community-oriented projects. How much of a balance is there between the studio work that you do yourself versus the larger scale community projects you do where you are working with a collective of artists?
S: It’s a real struggle for me to balance that, for example, I’m leaving for two months just to draw, to not be in New York City, to not be on any project— to just be drawing. Now the drawings are coming out of some time I spent in Philadelphia working with prisoners and people in rehab and they come from this more community based piece—they’re linked to this larger project. It’s become really important to me to just spend that time just making something. When you take on community based work—the depth of consideration that needs to go into everything—I mean I could spend an entire lifetime on projects that I have going and I have multiple projects going. What that means is that if I’m going to spend time drawing I really have to very actively carve it out and set it aside. For me drawing is still the back bone of everything that I do so its still really important.
IC: Is there any particular medium that you really feel strongly about, that instinctively is the one medium that you like to work in? You work with a lot of different elements within your installations.
S: The thing that I build all of my installations from, it starts with printmaking and paper cutting and so everything else kind of grows outward from there. So those are really the back bone of my work.
IC: What inspired the paper cutting?
S: It was when I started working out on the street—I knew I wanted to make elements that were somewhat graphic and reproducible, that had mini-iterations and really play outside in various contexts and different ways, so I started working in those mediums. At first I really wanted to make linoleum blocks but I couldn’t afford linoleum that size—I was waitressing in the city. I just started looking at what I could afford, which was just a sheet of paper and a knife.
IC: I know you use a lot of scavenged and found materials for your works. Can you tell me how you source those elements?
S: I started working with a lot of raw materials because I really just kind of wanted to take things out of the waste-stream and focus less on using new materials. Mostly I just go somewhere and look around the streets for garbage and go to recycling centers like Build It Green and just use materials from there.
IC: That must be really fun in a way. You find that one piece and are like ‘oh wow this is brilliant I want to use this.’
S: Totally, totally. The pieces sort of feel like they have their own story, and then I even find that I am recycling the works for my own installations. I’ll find a piece and it will show up in different installations in different ways, and it kind of accrues different marks and different layers and sort of has a story that its been carrying around and that becomes this part of it.
IC: I was reading a lot about your Swimming Cities of Serenissima performance project which is so brilliant; I would love for you to tell me about your experience of arriving at the Venice Biennale and what that must have felt like–it must have been a really special moment.
S: It was incredible in so many ways. One of them is just—try to imagine that you have built something with your own hands and you’re navigating it in the sea. Like just imagine what that feels like—you’re like ‘oh my God I can’t believe we’re doing this’ and it’s beautiful and then there’s people’s reactions of like ‘holy shit, how did you get here, where did you come from?’ Then there was all the excitement from people in Venice. And then there was the total horror from the Biennale itself, which of course was hysterically funny to us. Then there were all of the people who would come up to us and go, ‘oh my god I feel like I’m dreaming right now.’ I just love inspiring reactions like that. Yeah, it was incredible!
IC: It must have been a pretty big distance to go from Slovenia all the way to Venice? How long was the actual journey?
S: It took like three weeks!
IC: Was there ever a moment that you were worried that the rafts made out of garbage and all these found objects might not make it?
S: Oh yeah, we ended up in this wind called the Bora that comes down from the mountains. And you have like a thirty minutes heads up—you can’t really check the weather that day and know that its gonna happen; it just swoops in. And so there was a point that we got caught in the Bora and it was really terrifying because these winds start kicking up that these vessels are not made for—and so yeah! We were virtually rescued by fisherman. We were like “go now, you have to turn the helm!”
IC: You incorporated the rafts in that particular art piece as well as a lot of other elements that I understand were representative of your mother and various other things for Submerged Motherlands. Can you tell me more about your inspirations revolving around that particular installation and all the elements you brought together?
S: It was one of those things that comes together slowly, it’s a very intuitive process—it has a lot of layers and I can unpack the layers for you, but the truth of it was that is was really about physically feeling that experience and being and feeling the elements. So one thing to explain it—the pieces had a certain logic to me—but really truly, those moments are experiential. When I first started working on the raft so much of what I was thinking about—with those images of these floating cities—was rising seas and climate change and the instability of cities built along the coast, and just the place that we’re in right now ecologically. For me I’m always wondering how do thoughts become expressed in form? How am I processing these emotions—going in and creating something that is sort of the result of my own thinking out loud. So I created these rafts and at the time that I made them, people weren’t as open in mainstream media with the conversation about climate change. Even though we all knew that it was happening, it wasn’t at the front of our minds. It was one of those things where a few years later, after we had gone to Venice, after we had put them in storage for a while and sort of packed them up and said ‘okay maybe these will become something again one day.’
Then Sandy had hit New York and it felt like this time—when suddenly the images of floods and these images of precarity and climate change felt like it resonated with people and I thought, this is a moment where these vessels as objects that have had this journey can be a different resonance for people, just as objects in a space that they can stand next to and look at and see and feel where they’ve been and sort of experience the story that’s parked there, their journey. And then I also created this mammoth tree which was a home anchor for these vessels to return to and then at the time when I was making this whole installation my mom became sick with cancer and passed away. So as somebody that’s creating pretty directly from their own experience—that was going to be a narrative that was just going to have to show up in that piece. And you know the way that I ended up finding a narrative that emerged from it all. It had to do with me losing my mother and losing that kind of initial place that your born from; that is your first home and my thoughts and grief and feelings around my mother seemed to make sense next to the grief that we’re experiencing when we think about how our own kind of motherland and homeland is being threatened by this moment that we’re in and by our actions and by things that have been set into motion. That’s the thing about art work—you’re allowed to let thoughts in that aren’t necessarily the most rational thoughts in the world but that are very real and very intuitive and that make sense to your subconscious mind. They’re really allowed a space to kind of thrive and be alive and play together when you’re making an installation. Does that make sense?
IC: I would expect that to be a very intuitive work that needs to come from an emotional place, and art is not necessarily made to make sense. I think that it’s very interesting also that piece became a very emotive piece with everything that happened with your mother. It definitely must have brought an enormous amount of personification to the work that maybe initially it wasn’t intended to have but that naturally evolved due to circumstances. Do you feel that perhaps that particular kind of return to motherhood and that particular work of art in itself also drew you more towards gender specific work or relating in more ways to being a female artist? There’s so much emotion revolving around a mother-daughter relationship; maybe the work opened up some kind of cavern that wasn’t previously exposed?
S: You know, I think that what it did was that it brought to me a real need to tell my own very personal story in my work more deeply then I ever had before. It really brought me in touch with who I am as a woman and with my desire to, to just show up really personally in my work. I think in that way—you know when your own story becomes very central then who you are as a woman becomes very central. The project that I’m working on right now where I just came from in Philadelphia, it very very very much came out of the work that started around the time of my mother’s death and my dad actually just passed away as well. So it’s been a crazy 2 years. My dad struggled with drug addiction and to some extent, with mental illness issues as did a lot of people in my family and I really grew up kind of without any real perspective on that. I didn’t understand what brings people to that place until a couple of years ago. Their deaths really brought me to a place of looking more deeply at how—just how people become addicted, and what kinds of trauma are forming them in those instances. I found a real need to tell my own story as a child who had grown up in that environment and somebody who’s struggling to understand their relationship to our culture right now. The project that I did in Philadelphia was working in a women’s rehab and working in a prison—it was a men’s prison—but really just talking to people about early life trauma and how that relates to where they are and even though for me it’s not specifically a gender issue, it definitely is the first time that I’m working completely from personal experience. So I think that who I am as a woman—it’s just brings who I am more deeply into my work.
You talked about being more in touch—I think I have been in a little bit of touch with Judy Chicago and with Eve Ensler who are two artists who are really huge feminist icons for me. You asked the question of ‘Did this last year bring me into thinking more about myself as a female and as an artist?’ I definitely did start to look. I feel like looking at trauma and looking at how people recover and how people come to understand that stuff—I think that Eve Ensler’s work became super important to me. It always had been but looking at her work, The City of Joy, and listening to her talks and listening to her perspective became super important to me in this process.
IC: I know that many of times you’ve mentioned that you don’t really feel like your work relates to feminism. Do you still feel that way?
S: I think that probably at the times that I said that I was sort of doing the thing that I described where you’re a very young woman and you don’t want to be pigeon-holed into the generation of feminists that came before because they’re the generation before you; they did all this work so that you could be who you are instead of being who they were. I think that when I was very young, I wasn’t really relating to their work as much. I think now I have a much different perspective on it and I really see myself in the context of what they’ve done.
IC: When you look at the art world today, there’s so few female street artists, let alone female contemporary artists working and surviving off of their artwork. As much as we say ‘oh yeah the previous generations set the tone of feminism and paved the way,’ I personally think strongly that there’s so much work that needs to be done. In many respects, I think that we’re fooling ourselves if we think that the system is equal. I think that the way that translates and the way people deal with it is different because, like you said, the terminology of feminism is associated with something perhaps from the past.
S: I think that as a young woman who was emerging, I just felt like I needed my own definition and now that I kind of understand myself a little more completely, I identify a little more strongly with the work that they have done. I think that in really subtle ways, the patriarchy has continued to vilify feminism. And so it’s natural when you’re young to not want to necessarily identify with something that’s so vilified. But I think it was really more about just wanting to define myself and my own rights. I wasn’t comfortable attaching myself to any label because I was just like ‘I’m forming this now, this is me.’ I didn’t even really have any mentors. I didn’t have anyone to look to. I was sort of just on my own like ‘okay I’m out here, I’m doing this and I don’t know or have a lot of other examples I’m looking at. I’m just trying to birth a new version of what I can be.’
IC: Can you tell me about your Braddock Tiles project?
S: That’s a project right outside of Pittsburgh, where we’re working on an abandoned church and turning it into an arts and learning center for that community of North Braddock. And then in Philadelphia I’m working with Philly Mural Arts and I’ve been working with people in prison, in maximum security prison; working with people in a rehab center and then working with people in a prison re-entry program and doing kind of arts therapy stuff and talking to people about the link between earlier life trauma and their present circumstances, and just trying to kind of expand the public conversation and understanding around the link between trauma, mental illness and drug addiction.
IC: Can you tell me about the Heliotrope Foundation?
S: The Heliotrope Foundation is something that I started and that’s a non-profit, which is really designed to help me finish these three long-term projects that I’ve been working on for many years in three different countries. Each of these three projects is on the ground, we’re building things, we’re working with the community in a long term way, and there’s a lot of different elements involved, but the central element is kind of creating spaces within these communities that are struggling. So the first one is in Braddock, Pennsylvania, which is outside of Pittsburgh. We’re working on a formerly abandoned church and we’re working with the community to restore the church in a really creative way and we hope eventually to create an arts and learning center in that community kind of by and for the people there. The second project is in Haiti. A group of friends and I started working in Haiti after the earthquake on rebuilding with people. So we connected with this small village, called Cormier. And so far we’ve built one community center and two homes and we’re working with the farmers who are going to start growing bamboo and we’re working with those guys about developing a third house this coming year out of bamboo—part of the learning center there in Haiti that we built. So that one is just kind of another long term relationship with the community that started around rebuilding after this disaster and that developed into a relationship with this place where we’re working with the kids, we’re working with the adults, we’re building structures, and also, we’re building relationships—just doing a lot of learning work together. And then the third project is in New Orleans and that one is a little more fun. It was started after Katrina but a few years after. It’s much more of—just a project that’s around wonder and beauty and experimentation. We started with this house that was collapsing and we were making this kind of musical sculpture with the house and then it fell down and then we took the pieces and rebuilt it into these kind of small musical structures. The community embraced it so hugely that we have continued it. I’m working with a group down there called New Orleans Airlift. And they’re continuing the project on, I’m just a small part of it now and we’re building mobile musical structures that set up and play these kind of performances throughout New Orleans.
IC: That sounds pretty amazing. Is there a title for that particular project?
S: That one’s called The Music Box. It’s a project that really exists on its own and I am now just a small part of it. You know, it was something that I started with that group but then it really took on a life of its own. There’s so much out there in the world about it because the group of artists down there that run it are so brilliant and they’re taking it in wild, new directions that are amazing.
IC: Do you have any solo projects coming up we should look out for?
S: I’m talking with the museum, Mass MoCA about potentially doing an installation in the next couple years. They’re a really great institution in terms of being supportive of people who do really large scale installations like I do. I’m talking with those guys about putting something together, which would definitely be more along the lines of a solo show.
IC: The work that you’re doing obviously comes from a very sensitive core. I appreciate the intuitive nature of it. I think there’s something about it that’s very mystical but at the same time heartfelt. There’s a sense of humor to it as well. A lot of your work is obviously very serious and then you throw in the rafts and things like that which are almost hysterical, and like you said, poking fun at the art world, like when you sailed into Venice on a raft of garbage!
S: I appreciate that, Thank you. It’s so necessary that we talk about addiction and trauma and incarceration and you can get so far into that dialogue… you kind of just reminded me right now to not forget the other pieces that make the conversation. We need to have elements of beauty and we need to have elements of joy and wonderment. That has to be part of the conversation for our own sanity and our experience of life, you know?
Interview by Indira Cesarine for The #GirlPower Issue.