Swoon Speaks to Finding Compassion Through the Act of Looking and Unearthing Her Own Vulnerability

In some methods, Caledonia Curry’s work as a public artist has come full circle. She debuted as a New York Metropolis road artist generally known as Swoon (beforehand) proper across the flip of the final century, her hand-worked portraits making hanging, albeit unlawful, statements on outdated partitions. As Curry describes, she considered herself at the moment as “a democratic type of mischievous pressure operating by means of town.”

As we speak, she harnesses that very same power into intricate—and intimate—installations set in museums and galleries. Whereas the mark-making could seem the identical, it’s much less straightforward to discern how Curry’s understanding of what public artwork means has advanced. Her early work, whether or not road portraits, the rafts she constructed for her Swimming Cities collection, or her rehabilitation tasks, was all public-facing, but it surely was additionally a balancing act of honoring the vulnerability of others with out revealing her personal. After a fast collection of non-public tragedies, she realized that it wasn’t sufficient to deliver her creativity to bear on behalf of those that have been struggling, however that she additionally needed to, lastly, make that means out of her personal trauma.

Curry has recently added public speaker and filmmaker to her resume, and her new monograph, The Pink Skein, takes its title from the parable of Theseus and the Minotaur and the skein of yarn Ariadne offers Theseus to assist him navigate the Minotaur’s maze. As Curry sees it, her physique of labor thus far is like that lifesaving yarn, a map of each the place she’s been, the place she’s going, and every thing she’s realized alongside the best way.

This dialog has been edited and condensed for readability. Proven above is an exhibition titled “Seven Contemplations” that ran from 2020 to 2021 at Albright-Knox Northland. All photographs © Swoon, shared with permission

Paulette: How do you describe your artwork observe?

Swoon: It’s at all times such a mysteriously exhausting query. My artwork observe has been a lifelong path of exploration of people and these completely different features of our lives, like how we construct neighborhood, how we course of grief, how we rejoice, the cities that we dwell in, how can we work together, how can we construct new prospects for ourselves. My work is making a path by means of taking a look at and celebrating and mirroring again how these issues occur. It’s conscious of this type of interior pressure, after which it’s additionally conscious of the surface world so it’s somewhat little bit of a tug of warfare, proper?

I’m not on high of present occasions, and but I do need to reply to what’s taking place culturally talking. My course of is somewhat slow-moving. My interior inventive voice is like this very outdated, very unusual, little being that lives in me that’s very bossy. There’s at all times a knowledge in the long run, however, oftentimes, within the second, it feels very unusual and somewhat mysterious.


“Swimming Cities” (2008). Picture by Tod Seelie

Paulette: You’ve gotten referred to your work as public artwork. Are you able to speak about what which means to you?

Swoon: I began out doing road artwork illegally. It wasn’t even known as road artwork after I began doing it. I used to be obsessive about graffiti. I knew I wasn’t a graffiti artist, so I began making these block prints and posters. I used to be bringing myself as a portrait artist into that area. I used to be very, very considering changing into a part of town and having issues be short-term, having them decay, having them pop up and disappear. I cherished the trickster feeling that that evoked.

The following main mission that I made after the years of being a road artist was constructing these rafts (for the Swimming Cities collection). That was a giant head-scratcher for lots of people. However lots of people noticed it, they have been like, “oh, it’s really not that completely different (out of your earlier work) in a means. You’re bringing this type of elusive, fleeting artwork expertise to folks the place they’re proper on their very own turf.” The very particular factor concerning the raft is that it could simply present up in folks’s entrance yard, primarily, and completely disarm and shock them.

Different tasks that I’ve finished have been engaged on rebuilding after the earthquake in Haiti and the mission in Braddock, Pennsylvania, the place I rehabilitated a church for a few years. The church is now going to be within the arms of oldsters locally who’re creating transitional housing for folks popping out of jail and homelessness.

I believe the seed that’s related with the unique public artwork impulse is that (query of) how can we dwell in our cities? How can we take part within the public areas of our cities? And you then deepen the query, properly, how can we construct our cities? With whom can we construct our cities? What does it imply, to construct one thing collectively collectively?


“Yaya,” Hong Kong

Paulette: Your early road work was accessible to anybody, and lately, you may have been doing these very lovely installations in museums and gallery areas. How do you navigate that pressure of shifting from a public area to an area that’s nonetheless considerably public however has extra of an environment of “don’t contact”?

Swoon: I wasn’t positive if I wished to make work that existed in museums, and I believe on the very starting, I didn’t have a lot to deliver to that area, so I resisted somewhat. Then in the future as typically occurs, I noticed that I had these very intricate areas in my thoughts and that I wasn’t going to have the ability to construct them within the rain, primarily. Like with the rafts, you may have to have the ability to crash into issues, you may have to have the ability to be within the rain, and it has to resist the climate. However what when you’ve got a imaginative and prescient that wants a secure area, that wants the quiet and that wants the calm?

I discovered that I had this multiplicity inside me and that I didn’t need my concepts about how issues ought to or shouldn’t be to restrict the depth of expression and the multiplicity of expression that might come out of me. When I discovered that I had these actually delicate visions that I wished to comprehend within the museum or gallery setting, after I began to get these invites, I went for it. And I found this complete different language of installations.

After I take a look at a face for days, after I take a portrait of someone on the road, after which I stare at that face for days and days, there’s this a part of my mind that’s like, “This human is totally good. I’ve by no means seen something extra noble and exquisite than this particular person.” After which I believe, “You suppose that each time.” That’s as a result of it’s true.Swoon

Paulette: Do you concentrate on how your voice comes by means of in these very completely different sorts of artworks you’re making? Do you see a throughline?

Swoon: I see a throughline for positive. Do I really feel that different folks see that throughline? Possibly not essentially. And I do surprise about that. I believe that the creation and the understanding of the throughline is what my work is. My work isn’t a portrait, or a ship, or a film, proper? It’s me. I believe that the throughline itself is my work, which implies that to truly perceive my work, it takes somewhat little bit of a time funding. On the one hand, I’ve at all times actually cherished being accessible. You may stroll as much as a portrait, and growth, your expertise is instantaneous. You may see one in all my animations, and it doesn’t matter what language you converse, you may have a direct expertise of it. I actually consider in that. And I worth that.

And but, however, I believe that to truly correctly perceive any artist’s work, and likewise my work, it’s crucial to actually get the gestalt of right here’s all of these items, and right here’s how they relate to one another. For instance, let’s say there’s a portrait on the road, after which let’s say that there’s a mission about drug habit and trauma. And also you’re like, okay, what’s the connection right here? For me, the connection, in that case, is about compassion. After I take a look at a face for days, after I take a portrait of someone on the road, after which I stare at that face for days and days, there’s this a part of my mind that’s like, “This human is totally good. I’ve by no means seen something extra noble and exquisite than this particular person.” After which I believe, “You suppose that each time.” That’s as a result of it’s true. As a result of that’s what wanting is, proper? That in case you make investments that focus, impulsively this miraculous factor that’s current in each particular person opens as much as you. That’s the seed in each portrait.

Okay, now we’re rebuilding a house or now we’re out working with of us round trauma and habit. What does it take to see an individual who has dedicated against the law, who’s utilizing medicine brazenly out on the road, who feels legitimately scary on first look? What does it take to see deeper into what’s actually happening with that particular person and the way they acquired in that area? And the way they might probably get to a greater place? The act of wanting is identical in every mission.


“Silvia Elena” (2013), Oaxaca

Paulette: There may be a number of power to the work you do, whether or not it’s the portraits or a place-based work, like in Braddock. As you have been speaking about wanting, I used to be considering that there’s additionally a way of stillness current within the works as properly as a result of as a viewer, I’m now engaged within the act of wanting. This work is inviting folks right into a second of stillness.

Swoon: I actually like that a lot as a result of it’s true of the creation, proper? What does it take to rise up within the morning and make the factor? It takes power, proper? But in addition, it takes stillness, wanting, it takes being with it. It actually takes each. So if the work can then carry each (of these qualities) that’s one thing.

Paulette: By way of the evolution of your work, I’m additionally considering that concept of vulnerability within the public sphere. I believe your early work, the rafts, for instance, have been making large, vital statements, but it surely’s not essentially as susceptible by way of there being a straight line again to you.

Swoon: In my early 20s, I had a observe of burying myself throughout the work, you realize, and even in interviews and issues, I’d solely speak about public area or road artwork, these sorts of issues. There was a number of me that I simply wasn’t actually able to reveal. Largely, it was as a result of I had repressed quite a lot of my very own emotional interior world as a result of the life that I had come from was so overwhelming. My household had been in chaos for a lot of, a few years, and I had simply realized to button up and get the f— on with it. For me to faucet again down into any of that, I knew it was going to be explosive. It was a f— battlefield in there, you realize? So I used to be like, properly, we’ll simply cover it, and I’ll be capable to smuggle emotions up from this deep darkish chaos in these works.

Then I went by means of a number of disaster unexpectedly. I misplaced my mother to lung most cancers. My dad dedicated suicide by taking pictures himself within the head 18 months later. It was a f— nightmare. Then my stepdad additionally acquired right into a automotive accident. It simply crushed me all the way down to my essence, this grieving. Similtaneously I used to be grieving, I had simply begun to cope with the truth that I got here from a household that struggled with heavy, heavy drug habit and psychological sickness. All these items have been taking place unexpectedly, and I used to be compelled to confront myself. I used to be compelled to attempt to heal the trauma. To take a look at it and to be like, whoa, that is what you’ve been by means of; that is what it was like. Because of this you’re freaking out in these methods and inclined to rages and never caring for your self in any means and really feel such as you’re falling aside. It’s since you are falling aside.

As soon as I may take a look at that, then I may put it in my work. Unexpectedly, I’m making work the place I’m simply upfront. I’m giving talks publicly (about this legacy of habit and trauma), and people have change into a part of my work, as properly. I’m saying that is the place I got here from, that is what occurred for me, that is how I discovered, and I’m nonetheless discovering peace or forgiveness and even simply discovering my very own rage. As soon as I grew to become in a position to confront that stuff, I grew to become in a position to put it into my work, after which my work modified dramatically. The movie that I’m making is a fairy story that’s a fictionalization of a second in my life when my mother had a psychotic breakdown. It delves very deeply into a number of the interior struggles that I’ve been going by means of during the last decade, however (by means of the character of a) tiny little little one in a fairy story. The stuff of my life is now in a position to be the stuff of my work.


Exhibition at The Brookyln Museum in 2014. Picture by Tod Seelie

Paulette: How do you retain the trauma from overwhelming the work?

Swoon: I believe typically perhaps it’s okay if the trauma overwhelms the work. It’s like, properly, that is that work, and just some folks perceive it, and just some folks will want it. The beauty of artwork is that it’s a container, proper? It’s an settlement. It’s a convention. It’s a observe. I noticed this once we have been on the rafts, and folks can be actually petrified of us. They’d say, “What are you?” And we’d say, “We’re artwork.” And they’d go, “oh, okay.” All of a sudden it was advantageous. I believe that there’s a means that that capabilities internally, as properly, the place you’ve acquired this raging cauldron of unresolved emotion, and in case you deliver it into this container, the container is fairly sturdy.

After I began to offer public talks about my household, which I take into account a part of my work as an artist, I labored with someone who helps folks give public talks as a result of I knew that there was no means I’d give myself permission to speak about one thing like that. I knew I’d simply be in a lot ache that I’d simply rise up on stage and cry and throw up, and all people can be like, geez, thanks for that. I reached out for assist as a result of I knew I can not do that by myself, and I need to make that means of it. I labored with someone who helps activists and artists and all completely different folks make that means of their experiences. As a way to go from, “I’m having this expertise, and right here’s the that means I’m making of it” to “Right here’s why I’d share this with you. Right here’s what I’d ask of you to do collectively as a neighborhood now that I’m telling you all of this wild stuff.” In some methods, me telling you the wild stuff is catharsis, and in one other means, I’m telling you the wild stuff as a means of claiming I’ve been to the territory of which I converse.

I believe typically perhaps it’s okay if the trauma overwhelms the work. It’s like, properly, that is that work, and just some folks perceive it, and just some folks will want it. The beauty of artwork is that it’s a container, proper? It’s an settlement. It’s a convention. It’s a observe.Swoon

Paulette: Among the extra public neighborhood interventions you’ve finished have been after disasters, the place persons are additionally coping with trauma. Are you able to speak about why you see that want for artwork and artistic expression even in these circumstances?

Swoon: It began as a result of I wished to be useful. I’ve at all times believed which you could be probably the most useful whenever you deliver your biggest energy, and my biggest energy has at all times been about creativity and creation. I had this hunch that I may very well be useful and convey my energy on the similar time. For instance, within the occasion of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, me and my group of associates weren’t first responders, proper? We weren’t medics. We didn’t converse Creole. We weren’t going to be that emergency tactical group. However after that emergency tactical group leaves, there are all these different questions. We’re nonetheless determining the emergency response, however there’s additionally the subsequent query of what do folks want within the grieving, the therapeutic, the rebuilding.

We have been speaking about what was vital about engaged on this neighborhood middle collectively (within the wake of the earthquake), and one in all our Haitian collaborators stated, “We have been so careworn, and we have been so freaked out. There have been days whenever you didn’t know what to do, however you wished to do one thing to assist your fellows. We would have liked a factor to do collectively. The neighborhood middle—we have been all there, we have been all swinging shovels, we have been all bringing grime, and it gave us this communal exercise to rebound with one another. To take a look at one another and be like we’re doing this factor collectively and we will do something collectively.” It grew to become this ritual of communal efficacy, this collective acknowledgment of communal efficacy, this empowerment. The constructing, in some methods, grew to become secondary.

We ended up collaborating with a bunch of individuals as a result of there have been so many sculptors on this village. That was a part of this collective soothing by means of magnificence, by means of tactile making, by means of coloration and kind, and all these items which might be nourishment for the soul, in addition to the physique.


Exhibition at The Brookyln Museum in 2014. Picture by Tod Seelie

Paulette: We’ve spoken about a few of your extra conceptual items, however, after all, there may be additionally your hand-drawn work. I’m very struck by your mark-making, which jogged my memory of Albrecht Dürer’s woodblock prints. Are you able to speak about the best way you employ the road in your work?

Swoon: I’ve ancestors proper? Albrecht Dürer is one in all my ancestors. There’s Van Gogh’s pen strains. Are you aware Käthe Kollwitz, the German expressionist? She’s just like the grandmother that I hope to be in the future. I studied classical portray after I was a child, and so I’m fairly rooted in that custom. However then, after all, I acquired to New York Metropolis, and I wished to be within the second.

Even in my movie that I’m engaged on, that line is on the faces of a few of the characters. That line is likely one of the throughlines of my work and the sense of issues being hand-built. Whenever you make one thing, folks really feel the tactile world change into alive of their physique, as properly. Notably within the digital age, (it’s vital) to simply pause and bear in mind each on occasion what it feels wish to be within the tactile world. With the installations, you’re strolling by means of them, you’re having this relationship with the physique. After I make my movie, I would like folks to really feel that the world of the movie is handmade. I would like there to be that rawness and that handmadeness. I believe that that builds intimacy as a result of it’s from my hand to your eye, proper?

Paulette: Are you able to speak about what you’re enthusiastic about for the longer term?

Swoon: I’ve simply realized to work with actors, and it’s wonderful. To be with someone, whereas they’re within the heights or the depths of their inventive second, and to be the one that’s there witnessing it, to be an empathetic reference to them in that efficiency when you’re capturing it on movie, it’s so highly effective. I had no concept that that’s one thing that I’d be good at or love, however I find it irresistible. I’m actually taking to it. The factor concerning the movie that’s blowing my thoughts is that it’s taking all of me into one mission. My drawing, my neighborhood organizing, the empathetic presence, the issue fixing, the narrative stuff, every thing that I’ve ever introduced into any mission is now all going into this one mission, and I’m simply studying like loopy.

Paulette: What have you ever realized about your self by means of the entire years of being an artist?

Swoon: I’ve realized a type of relationship with this interior pressure. I’ve realized rather a lot about my ego. Folks will love you, after which they may hate you, after which they may put you up on a pedestal, after which they may abandon you, after which they may make you out to be this good thing, after which they may trash you. It’s this actual rollercoaster. I’ve actually seen my very own ego and simply actually been current with it and been like, wow, you’re actually appearing up over right here, otherwise you’re actually crushed by this factor. Simply seeing, actually seeing my foibles and flaws after which additionally seeing part of myself that I actually like, which is near that inventive power. I like the sensation of my very own inventive pressure. I believe it’s good in that method to come into good relationship with your self. I such as you. I can dwell with you—though you’re messy as s—.


Discover extra of Swoon’s work on her web site and Instagram. The Pink Skein is out there for pre-order on Bookshop.