Swoon Speaks to Finding Compassion Through the Act of Looking and Unearthing Her Own Vulnerability
In some ways, Caledonia Curry’s work as a public artist has come full circle. She debuted as a New York City street artist known as Swoon (previously) right around the turn of the last century, her hand-worked portraits making striking, albeit illegal, statements on old walls. As Curry describes, she thought of herself at that time as “a democratic kind of mischievous force running through the city.”
Today, she harnesses that same energy into intricate—and intimate—installations set in museums and galleries. While the mark-making may seem the same, it’s less easy to discern how Curry’s understanding of what public art means has evolved. Her early work, whether street portraits, the rafts she constructed for her Swimming Cities series, or her rehabilitation projects, was all public-facing, but it was also a balancing act of honoring the vulnerability of others without revealing her own. After a rapid series of personal tragedies, she realized that it wasn’t enough to bring her creativity to bear on behalf of those who were suffering, but that she also had to, finally, make meaning out of her own trauma.
Curry has lately added public speaker and filmmaker to her resume, and her new monograph, The Red Skein, takes its title from the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur and the skein of yarn Ariadne gives Theseus to help him navigate the Minotaur’s maze. As Curry sees it, her body of work to date is like that lifesaving yarn, a map of both where she’s been, where she’s going, and everything she’s learned along the way.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. Shown above is an exhibition titled “Seven Contemplations” that ran from 2020 to 2021 at Albright-Knox Northland. All images © Swoon, shared with permission
Paulette: How do you describe your art practice?
Swoon: It’s always such a mysteriously hard question. My art practice has been a lifelong path of exploration of humans and these different aspects of our lives, like how we build community, how we process grief, how we celebrate, the cities that we live in, how do we interact, how do we build new possibilities for ourselves. My work is making a path through looking at and celebrating and mirroring back how those things happen. It is responsive to this kind of inner force, and then it’s also responsive to the outside world so it’s a little bit of a tug of war, right?
I’m not on top of current events, and yet I do want to respond to what’s happening culturally speaking. My process is a little slow-moving. My inner creative voice is like this very old, very strange, little being that lives in me that’s very bossy. There’s always a wisdom in the end, but, oftentimes, in the moment, it feels very strange and a little mysterious.
Paulette: You have referred to your work as public art. Can you talk about what that means to you?
Swoon: I started out doing street art illegally. It wasn’t even called street art when I started doing it. I was obsessed with graffiti. I knew I wasn’t a graffiti artist, so I started making these block prints and posters. I was bringing myself as a portrait artist into that space. I was very, very interested in becoming part of the city and having things be temporary, having them decay, having them pop up and disappear. I loved the trickster feeling that that evoked.
The next major project that I made after the years of being a street artist was building these rafts (for the Swimming Cities series). That was a big head-scratcher for a lot of people. But a lot of people saw it, they were like, “oh, it’s actually not that different (from your previous work) in a way. You’re bringing this kind of elusive, fleeting art experience to people where they are right on their own turf.” The very special thing about the raft is that it would just show up in people’s front yard, essentially, and totally disarm and surprise them.
Other projects that I’ve done were working on rebuilding after the earthquake in Haiti and the project in Braddock, Pennsylvania, where I rehabilitated a church for many years. The church is now going to be in the hands of folks in the community who are creating transitional housing for people coming out of prison and homelessness.
I think the seed that’s similar with the original public art impulse is that (question of) how do we live in our cities? How do we participate in the public spaces of our cities? And then you deepen the question, well, how do we build our cities? With whom do we build our cities? What does it mean, to build something collectively together?
Paulette: Your early street work was accessible to anyone, and recently, you have been doing these very beautiful installations in museums and gallery spaces. How do you navigate that tension of moving from a public space to a space that’s still somewhat public but has more of an atmosphere of “don’t touch”?
Swoon: I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make work that existed in museums, and I think at the very beginning, I didn’t have much to bring to that space, so I resisted a little. Then one day as often happens, I realized that I had these very intricate spaces in my mind and that I wasn’t going to be able to build them in the rain, essentially. Like with the rafts, you have to be able to crash into things, you have to be able to be in the rain, and it has to withstand the weather. But what if you have a vision that needs a safe space, that needs the quiet and that needs the calm?
I found that I had this multiplicity inside me and that I didn’t want my ideas about how things should or shouldn’t be to limit the depth of expression and the multiplicity of expression that could come out of me. When I found that I had these really delicate visions that I wanted to realize in the museum or gallery setting, when I started to get those invitations, I went for it. And I discovered this whole other language of installations.
When I look at a face for days, when I take a portrait of somebody on the street, and then I stare at that face for days and days, there’s this part of my brain that’s like, “This human is utterly perfect. I’ve never seen anything more noble and beautiful than this person.” And then I think, “You think that every time.” That’s because it’s true.—Swoon
Paulette: Do you think about how your voice comes through in these very different kinds of artworks you’re making? Do you see a throughline?
Swoon: I see a throughline for sure. Do I feel that other people see that throughline? Maybe not necessarily. And I do wonder about that. I think that the creation and the understanding of the throughline is what my work is. My work isn’t a portrait, or a boat, or a movie, right? It’s me. I think that the throughline itself is my work, which means that to actually understand my work, it takes a little bit of a time investment. On the one hand, I’ve always really loved being accessible. You can walk up to a portrait, and boom, your experience is instantaneous. You can see one of my animations, and it doesn’t matter what language you speak, you have an immediate experience of it. I really believe in that. And I value that.
And yet, on the other hand, I think that to actually properly understand any artist’s work, and also my work, it’s necessary to really get the gestalt of here’s all of these things, and here’s how they relate to each other. For example, let’s say there’s a portrait on the street, and then let’s say that there’s a project about drug addiction and trauma. And you’re like, okay, what’s the relationship here? For me, the relationship, in that case, is about compassion. When I look at a face for days, when I take a portrait of somebody on the street, and then I stare at that face for days and days, there’s this part of my brain that’s like, “This human is utterly perfect. I’ve never seen anything more noble and beautiful than this person.” And then I think, “You think that every time.” That’s because it’s true. Because that’s what looking is, right? That if you invest that attention, all of a sudden this miraculous thing that’s present in every person opens up to you. That’s the seed in every portrait.
Okay, now we’re rebuilding a home or now we’re out working with folks around trauma and addiction. What does it take to see a person who has committed a crime, who’s using drugs openly out on the street, who feels legitimately scary on first glance? What does it take to see deeper into what’s really going on with that person and how they got in that space? And how they could potentially get to a better place? The act of looking is the same in each project.
Paulette: There is a lot of energy to the work you do, whether it’s the portraits or a place-based work, like in Braddock. As you were talking about looking, I was thinking that there’s also a sense of stillness present in the works as well because as a viewer, I’m now engaged in the act of looking. This work is inviting people into a moment of stillness.
Swoon: I really like that so much because it’s true of the creation, right? What does it take to get up in the morning and make the thing? It takes energy, right? But also, it takes stillness, looking, it takes being with it. It really takes both. So if the work can then carry both (of those qualities) that’s something.
Paulette: In terms of the evolution of your work, I’m also interested in that idea of vulnerability in the public sphere. I think your early work, the rafts, for example, were making huge, important statements, but it’s not necessarily as vulnerable in terms of there being a straight line back to you.
Swoon: In my early 20s, I had a practice of burying myself within the work, you know, and even in interviews and things, I would only talk about public space or street art, these kinds of things. There was a lot of me that I just wasn’t really ready to reveal. In large part, it was because I had repressed a great deal of my own emotional inner world because the life that I had come from was so overwhelming. My family had been in chaos for many, many years, and I had just learned to button up and get the f— on with it. For me to tap back down into any of that, I knew it was going to be explosive. It was a f— battlefield in there, you know? So I was like, well, we’ll just hide it, and I’ll be able to smuggle feelings up from this deep dark chaos in these works.
Then I went through a lot of catastrophe all at once. I lost my mom to lung cancer. My dad committed suicide by shooting himself in the head 18 months later. It was a f— nightmare. Then my stepdad also got into a car accident. It just crushed me down to my essence, this grieving. At the same time as I was grieving, I had just begun to deal with the fact that I came from a family that struggled with heavy, heavy drug addiction and mental illness. All these things were happening all at once, and I was forced to confront myself. I was forced to try to heal the trauma. To look at it and to be like, whoa, this is what you’ve been through; this is what it was like. This is why you’re freaking out in these ways and susceptible to rages and not taking care of yourself in any way and feel like you’re falling apart. It’s because you are falling apart.
Once I could look at that, then I could put it in my work. All of a sudden, I’m making work where I’m just upfront. I’m giving talks publicly (about this legacy of addiction and trauma), and those have become part of my work, as well. I’m saying this is where I came from, this is what happened for me, this is how I found, and I’m still finding peace or forgiveness or even just finding my own rage. Once I became able to confront that stuff, I became able to put it into my work, and then my work changed dramatically. The film that I’m making is a fairy tale that’s a fictionalization of a moment in my life when my mom had a psychotic breakdown. It delves very deeply into a lot of the inner struggles that I’ve been going through over the last decade, but (through the character of a) tiny little child in a fairy tale. The stuff of my life is now able to be the stuff of my work.
Paulette: How do you keep the trauma from overwhelming the work?
Swoon: I think sometimes maybe it’s okay if the trauma overwhelms the work. It’s like, well, this is that work, and only some people understand it, and only some people will need it. The wonderful thing about art is that it’s a container, right? It’s an agreement. It’s a tradition. It’s a practice. I realized this when we were on the rafts, and people would be really scared of us. They would say, “What are you?” And we would say, “We’re art.” And they would go, “oh, okay.” Suddenly it was fine. I think that there’s a way that that functions internally, as well, where you’ve got this raging cauldron of unresolved emotion, and if you bring it into this container, the container is pretty strong.
When I started to give public talks about my family, which I consider part of my work as an artist, I worked with somebody who helps people give public talks because I knew that there was no way I would give myself permission to talk about something like that. I knew I would just be in so much pain that I would just get up on stage and cry and throw up, and everybody would be like, geez, thanks for that. I reached out for help because I knew I cannot do this on my own, and I want to make meaning of it. I worked with somebody who helps activists and artists and all different people make meaning of their experiences. So that you can go from, “I’m having this experience, and here’s the meaning I’m making of it” to “Here’s why I would share this with you. Here’s what I would ask of you to do together as a community now that I’m telling you all of this wild stuff.” In some ways, me telling you the wild stuff is catharsis, and in another way, I’m telling you the wild stuff as a way of saying I’ve been to the territory of which I speak.
I think sometimes maybe it’s okay if the trauma overwhelms the work. It’s like, well, this is that work, and only some people understand it, and only some people will need it. The wonderful thing about art is that it’s a container, right? It’s an agreement. It’s a tradition. It’s a practice.—Swoon
Paulette: Some of the more public community interventions you’ve done have been after disasters, where people are also dealing with trauma. Can you talk about why you see that need for art and creative expression even in those circumstances?
Swoon: It started because I wanted to be helpful. I’ve always believed that you can be the most helpful when you bring your greatest strength, and my greatest strength has always been about creativity and creation. I had this hunch that I could be helpful and bring my strength at the same time. For example, in the instance of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, me and my group of friends were not first responders, right? We weren’t medics. We didn’t speak Creole. We weren’t going to be that emergency tactical team. But after that emergency tactical team leaves, there are all these other questions. We’re still figuring out the emergency response, but there’s also the next question of what do people need in the grieving, the healing, the rebuilding.
We were talking about what was important about working on this community center together (in the wake of the earthquake), and one of our Haitian collaborators said, “We were so stressed, and we were so freaked out. There were days when you didn’t know what to do, but you wanted to do something to help your fellows. We needed a thing to do together. The community center—we were all there, we were all swinging shovels, we were all bringing dirt, and it gave us this communal activity to rebound with each other. To look at each other and be like we’re doing this thing together and we can do anything together.” It became this ritual of communal efficacy, this collective acknowledgment of communal efficacy, this empowerment. The building, in some ways, became secondary.
We ended up collaborating with a group of people because there were so many sculptors in this village. That was part of this collective soothing through beauty, through tactile making, through color and form, and all these things that are nourishment for the soul, as well as the body.
Paulette: We’ve spoken about some of your more conceptual pieces, but, of course, there is also your hand-drawn work. I’m very struck by your mark-making, which reminded me of Albrecht Dürer’s woodblock prints. Can you talk about the way you use the line in your work?
Swoon: I have ancestors right? Albrecht Dürer is one of my ancestors. There’s Van Gogh’s pen lines. Do you know Käthe Kollwitz, the German expressionist? She’s like the grandmother that I hope to be one day. I studied classical painting when I was a kid, and so I’m pretty rooted in that tradition. But then, of course, I got to New York City, and I wanted to be in the moment.
Even in my film that I’m working on, that line is on the faces of some of the characters. That line is one of the throughlines of my work and the sense of things being hand-built. When you make something, people feel the tactile world become alive in their body, as well. Particularly in the digital age, (it’s important) to just pause and remember every once in a while what it feels like to be in the tactile world. With the installations, you’re walking through them, you’re having this relationship with the body. When I make my film, I want people to feel that the world of the film is handmade. I want there to be that rawness and that handmadeness. I think that that builds intimacy because it’s from my hand to your eye, right?
Paulette: Can you talk about what you are excited about for the future?
Swoon: I’ve just learned to work with actors, and it’s amazing. To be with somebody, while they are in the heights or the depths of their creative moment, and to be the person who’s there witnessing it, to be an empathetic connection with them in that performance while you’re capturing it on film, it’s so powerful. I had no idea that that’s something that I would be good at or love, but I love it. I’m really taking to it. The thing about the film that’s blowing my mind is that it’s taking all of me into one project. My drawing, my community organizing, the empathetic presence, the problem solving, the narrative stuff, everything that I have ever brought into any project is now all going into this one project, and I’m just learning like crazy.
Paulette: What have you learned about yourself through all of the years of being an artist?
Swoon: I’ve learned a kind of relationship with this inner force. I’ve learned a lot about my ego. People will love you, and then they will hate you, and then they will put you up on a pedestal, and then they will abandon you, and then they will make you out to be this great thing, and then they will trash you. It’s this real rollercoaster. I’ve really seen my own ego and just really been present with it and been like, wow, you’re really acting up over here, or you’re really crushed by this thing. Just seeing, really seeing my foibles and flaws and then also seeing a part of myself that I really like, which is close to that creative energy. I like the feeling of my own creative force. I think it’s nice in that way to come into good relationship with yourself. I like you. I can live with you—even though you’re messy as s—.
Find more of Swoon’s work on her site and Instagram. The Red Skein is available for pre-order on Bookshop.
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