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A few years ago, we spent an afternoon soul-searching with Caledonia Curry—known in the art world as Swoon. At her studio in Brooklyn, we physically thumbed through documents and artworks; figuratively thumbed through memories and feelings. Over the course of a few hours, our conversations led more to a place of deep meaning and reflection, rather than what she’s working on now. She has the ability to translate trauma into new realities, psychologically protect herself from harm and stigmas, and create works of art that tell those stories to connect with more people.
When the pandemic outbreak first began, we checked in on Swoon to hear how she was doing in isolation. As an artist who works with a team to create and install large-scale works, we of course were inquisitive as to how this has changed her practice. We also wanted to elaborate on new works she’s been making, and how she’s winding back the clock to re-visit more simplistic techniques—innate sketching and drawing with colored pencils.
Yesterday, we spoke with Swoon on Instagram Live to hear about this and more. (For those who missed it, the video is published to our channel’s IG TV.) Below, Swoon elaborates on our conversation, accentuating her recently released documentary, recent works like We Are in the Womb of the World, and unearthing a lifetime of personal documents.
WHITEWALL: How are you doing amid COVID-19?
SWOON: I count myself very lucky. My closest friends and family are all well, I am well, there are groceries in the fridge, and I am able to maintain my artistic practice—just in a different way. Funny thing is that I started a project right before all this hit which was about me making small drawings on paper by myself in a room, and let me tell you, that project is realllllly thriving in these conditions.
WW: You’re isolating in your Brooklyn apartment. Are you able to make any work during this time?
S: It’s been a feat of endurance because I’m doing it totally by myself. My partner bought a studio building down in Florida, and is building it out and painting down there during all this, but when I got home to NYC, we were already on lock down and I felt like I needed to just stay home and figure my life out.
So, I’ve been in real art-monk mode these past weeks. I don’t even have a pet! But I have my drawings, and that’s been amazing actually. I feel as though I’m rediscovering drawing, which is strange since it’s been a core of my practice since always, but in another way I feel like I had started to take it for granted, and now I’m diving deeply back in, and having an amazing time.
WW: Tell us a bit about where you’re finding inspiration. “The Midnight Gospel,” other artists, relief funds?
S: I’m so obsessed with “The Midnight Gospel.” I watched it twice in a row! I’ve never done that before. It’s absolutely magical. I was describing it like a piece of art that just palm mashes my internal keypad, hitting like 15 of my passions all at once—the way it talks about buddhism, consciousness, death, and of course, all the visual beauty. So great.
I’m also being deeply inspired by this team of collaborators I’ve been lucky enough to get pulled into, on the #CreateArtForEarth project. Judy Chicago instigated it. She has such a collaborative nature, and it’s been an absolute treasure to get to hear her stories, as well as to get to know Hans Ulrich Obrist and Jane Fonda and all the teams that are involved. It’s pulling me back in to contact with what we all know but don’t always focus on, which is that we need a global shift in consciousness on how we interact with our planet and we need it now.
WW: Tell us a bit about We Are in the Womb of the World you created, part of the “Create for Earth” exhibition.
S: The long version: Judy Chicago made an exhibition called “The End: A meditation on Death and Extinction” where she spent years making work that contemplated her own death, as well as the fact that we are in the middle of the Anthropocene, or, human-driven extinction. She came out of that project realizing that facing her own death was much easier than facing what we are doing to the planet, and she knew she wanted to spend the remaining years of her life using art to try and help shift culture. I had made an exhibition on the Anthropocene extinction back in 2011, and Judy and I had discussed collaborating years ago, but for various reasons it hadn’t worked out, so, when she wanted to launch this project, she got in touch.
Now, here in quarantine, we’ve launched the project, but are still working small and from our houses. No big street mobilizations yet!
That image of a pregnant woman is a drawing of a friend that I just made. Seeing it on the wall, that phrase “We are in the womb of the world” popped in to my mind, thinking about the way the earth really is our perfect womb of survival, and we need to figure out how not to poison the sweetness of our home.
WW: You said, “I’m starting to feel my way around what it means to make art that explicitly speaks to climate change, our relationship to nature, and how we build a culture that respects all life on earth.” Tell us about how you’re exploring that today, and what kind of art you’re creating that responds to that.
S: It feels like a new process for me. I don’t tend to have a super clearly defined message in my work, in fact, letting communication be circuitous is one of my favorite things about art. And yet I do think there is a deep value in, well, standing up and declaring your values. So, I’ve started to think about how I can link messaging up with image making and to work with thinkers who I believe have a unique way of speaking to healing, justice, and the climate. My first two collaborators on this are Chani Nicolas and Prentis Hemphill, both of whom have sent me quotes, and I’m starting to think about how to make a piece that incorporates them.
WW: On Instagram, you mentioned you were “unearthing” works of yours, but memories associated with those works, too, like an oil bar sketch of your mom. Tell us a bit about the types of works and emotions you’re unearthing right now.
S: It’s intense! Since I’m drawing from quarantine, alone, I’ve decided to go back through 20 years of photo archives and draw all the subjects that I wanted to draw back then, but didn’t have time. This is actually incredibly satisfying to do, it’s oddly like getting a second chance at some part of your life.
Also, I’m starting to entertain the idea of writing a memoir of sorts, and so another thing I’m doing in quarantine is cracking open a suitcase with 20 years of old journals in it. It’s really wild to make this much contact with old and forgotten parts of myself.
To speak specifically to that oil bar sketch of my mom, I picked up an oil bar to draw for the first time since college, and was shocked to find the same drawing style still there in my neural networks just waiting for me. But then as I started to share about the drawing, I realized that although it’s a simple sketch of my mom smoking a cigarette, when I stopped to think about what was going on at the time the picture was taken — she was 90 pounds from completing interferon treatments related to Hep-C that she contracted through addiction and needle use, and, we were at the funeral of her brother who had committed suicide. It was like a normal scene, but just below the surface was this whole history of suffering that is so bound up with my family. I guess that’s what’s been so intense about working from the archives this way, there are so many layers of history that also get confronted.
WW: You recently picked up a few tools and techniques you haven’t touched in years—and for some, decades. Tell us about these and what works you made.
S: I’m just making dozens and dozens of drawings. I have this feeling like I’m sprinting across a terrain, like I just want to draw and draw and draw and use lots of different techniques because I need to rediscover something. So, ink staining and watercolors and oil bars and charcoals, pretty normal tools really, but I’ve been working in such large and intense ways for the last 15 years that I rarely ever give myself the simple pleasure of a nice drawing box full of colored pencils and oil pastels. I’m absolutely loving it.
WW: You held a paper-cutting class online that was a fund raiser for the Emergency Medical Mask Fund. Can you tell us a bit about this?
S: Yeah that was awesome. My friend and gallerist Amanda Krampf started a project called “If You Were Here Now” which hosts therapeutic art making sessions as a response to people being cooped up during COVID-19. She asked me to do one and mentioned that it could even be a fund raiser. Then I saw the writer Elizabeth Gilbert share a story about someone who rode their bike to a mask factory in Mexico and worked with the factory owners directly to get masks supplied to NYC hospitals, finding a way around all the mad bureaucracy that’s blocking supply chains at the moment.
When I read that, not only did I want to support my city, but I was also super inspired by the spirit of it. It reminded me of being in Haiti after the earthquake and having to go directly to factories that were half shut down, and see if we could work with them to get building materials so that we didn’t get caught up in the post-disaster import/export red tape.
As for the class, we started with a short Tonglen meditation, and then worked on the meditative act of paper cutting.
WW: Tell us a bit about your recently released documentary, Swoon: Fearless.
S: My friend Frederic King is a filmmaker who’s been filming on projects with me for years. He’s a hugely big spirit, and in 2017, during my 20 year retrospective exhibition at the CAC in Cincinnati, he decided to take all of that footage, plus find dozens of other documentaries I’ve participated in over the years, and link it together into a full length documentary. I’m really a bit mortified that it’s called “Fearless,” because of course that’s not how I see myself at all! But I’m so so honored that the film exists, and that it’s able to chronicle so much of my life and my community. It’s online for free at swoonfearless.com
WW: One of the themes in the film is how people feel called to build their own paths forward with the materials they have. You said, “Hats off to all the people I see building cooperation and beauty from this moment.” Who are you seeing do this right now?
S: You know, just yesterday a friend put out a call saying that her brother is in a home for folks with disabilities in another state, and that the staff doesn’t have PPE, and they have a positive COVID case. She put out a public ask about what should she do, and I shared it on my studio page. I was so blown away by the response. People offered to hand make equipment and send it, people directed her to projects that are organizing to get supplies to facilities, they suggested political channels that could be followed up as well.
These kinds of rallying responses fill me with gratitude. And I know this is a moment of intense suffering, but through it I continue to be hit by waves of “eusocial euphoria” when I think about the fact that we are cooperating with each other to beat this in a way that we’ve never done in human history. We’re showing ourselves what we are capable of and I find it electrifyingly hopeful.