Caledonia Curry aka Swoon has to be one of my all-time favorite artists. Her wheatpastes have inspired a generation of street artists, and her work indoors and outdoors touches hearts in a way that many artists aspire to but few achieve. Earlier this year, Tim Hans met up to Swoon for the latest in our continuing series of photo-portraits of artists by Tim, and I asked her a few questions over email.
RJ: You always seem to have a lot on your plate. What projects are you working on at the moment?
Swoon: Today I am gonna finish a paper cut out that’s hanging on my wall and needs my attention… what else?
I have a big installation coming up at the Brooklyn Museum that I’m pretty excited about, it opens in April 2014, along side Ai WeiWei and Judy Chicago, so I am honored to be in such good company, as well as just excited to create a big project in New York again after all these years.
And then besides a few other small projects in the works, the rest of my energies revolve around the big 3 that have dominated my life for the last couple of years – Konbit Shelter, sustainable architecture in post earthquake Haiti. Braddock Tiles, restoring a formerly abandoned church in Braddock, Pa to become an arts based learning center. And Dithyrambalina, musical architecture for New Orleans!
Whew! I get tired just thinking about it all!
RJ: You just finished a community mural with Groundswell, right? How does that process compare to your usual public art or street art projects?
Swoon: Actually the mural is still in progress. We will be installing a version of it together on the Bowery wall in Manhattan in October. What I love about groundswell is the thoroughness of their process. Everybody benefits from a groundswell mural, all of the youth artists that are involved, as well as the community members who get an awesome colorful mural that they helped to inform and create. It’s been amazing watching them work.
RJ: So many of your projects (Miss Rockaway Armada, Swimming Cities, The Music Box…) seem to be able inspiring people to be creative themselves. Why is that such a focus of yours?
Swoon: I’ll answer this one in a story.
So, one night in New Orleans we had an event to introduce our ideas to community organizers from various neighborhoods. There was a woman there named Linda Jackson, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward who has been working tirelessly to bring her neighborhood back since the storm. This woman was fierce and I really admired her. She came up to me and said “Whatever I have to do to welcome you to into my community, I will. I got your back if you guys decide you want to work in the Lower Nine.” I asked her a bit about why she thought a project like musical architecture could be good for her neighborhood and she said “You know, it’s gonna really help these kids. We have kids with no parents, latch key kids, and kids whose parents are addicted to drugs, and in that situation creativity can save a kid’s life.”
Right then a light bulb went on in my head. I don’t know why I had never put this thought together until this conversation, perhaps I had been avoiding it, but all of the sudden I understood something about my own life — and perhaps something about why I do the work that I do — and I said, “It’s true, my parents were hardcore drug addicts and my mother stayed an addict for the whole of my life. When I was 10 years old, and I found painting, it absolutely saved me.”
RJ: What is it about block printing that keeps you interested in the medium after all these years?
Swoon: I was just saying this the other day, that I find it funny that no matter how many blocks I carve, each time I start to carve one I get excited to begin it. I just love the process. I love the transformation that happens to the drawing through carving, and I love the permutations you get to experiment with when you have a bunch of different prints to work with.
RJ: What was the last great book you read?
Swoon: Hmm, well, I just watched a documentary and started on a book I found from watching it, and to be honest the documentary was only barely watchable, and the book may or may not turn out to be great, but both of them are on a subject that is so incredibly important that I dearly hope they keep up their work.
The doc was called Punishment: A Failed Social Experiment, and it centers around the way that the prison system, and indeed the idea of punishment are both dysfunctional in philosophy and in practice, and then tries to highlight the work of some people like the psychiatrist Bob Johnson who worked for years in the maximum security prisons in Britain and believes that even the hardest criminals can heal psychologically given the proper help. It’s a whole mind shift toward the idea that retribution is barbaric and unacceptable, and that our only real goal is to help people heal and to stop violence from continuing in our communities. Seems a really promising direction.
Photos by Tim Hans