Brooklyn-based artist Caledonia Curry, known as Swoon, is celebrated internationally as one of the first female street artists in a male-dominated field. For over two decades, Swoon has explored human experiences through public art, museum exhibitions, and film. Her latest projects look at the ties between trauma and addiction, inspired by her own life in a family affected by opioid addiction. She works closely with communities, using art to show empathy and help people heal. Over the last ten years, Swoon has led important projects in places like Braddock and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, New Orleans in Louisiana, Venice, and Komye in Haiti, tackling everything from natural disasters to the opioid crisis.
In your interview with Katie Peyton in Bomb (2018), you describe how things were emerging out of the walls, layering over each other, and you started doing little interventions that lasted almost twenty years. You observe that “going from drawings to installations was a very natural leap.” Can you elaborate on how drawing/pasting on city walls led you to installation?
Even if you’re bringing work that’s already created, you’re always looking specifically at the wall and its texture, how the piece fits within it, how it wraps around it, and what architectural elements it speaks to. There’s a totality to your thinking about it; you’re really starting to consider the whole space. You begin to feel as though that entire space becomes your canvas. I found that way of thinking naturally translated into interior spaces, where you looked at architecture broadly as all-inclusive.
In your interview in Juxatpoz, Kristina Farr says you consistently use your art practice to “foster healing, referring to it as a balm.” It seems that you are an avid believer in the power of art to change and heal. How do you see the relationship between art/activism and your role as an artist?
So much emerges from how we think about and see the world, right? Art, in so many ways, is a tool for thinking and feeling at a very deep level and for processing things. You see culture emerging from these deep inner drives, translated into a thousand little actions and decisions that make up life and the world. There are many levels where change can occur, but the first one, I think, is in processing how we feel about situations in our lives, our situation in the world, and cultural situations. My creative process is a healing process. Art helps me focus, calm down, and deal with struggles in the psyche by translating them into symbols, colors, textures, and patterns—fabulous ways to process things that may be overwhelming in our day-to-day lives. And how we handle overwhelming things is so much part of the health of our society—What do we do when experiences are too big for us personally and culturally? How do we gain consensus around things? How do we understand ourselves and each other? All these questions are super slippery and messy. And because art is slippery, messy, and ever-changing, it can uniquely enter that terrain and allow us to understand our world and create new possibilities.
Your series of floating sculptures and experimental living projects are wildly imaginative and ambitious. What is the genesis of Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea (Deitch Studios, Long Island City, Queens, 2008) and Swimming Cities of Serenissima (2009, Venice)?
Oh gosh, that’s a whole can of worms, really. The original genesis comes from two different places. The first was seeing the Viking ships resurrected from the mud in Norway. I had studied art for so many years, and here I was, standing in front of this magnificent object. I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life. Having a connection with water my whole life—being from Florida, being a surfer, being somebody who, when I have a problem, I get in the bathtub, that’s where I think. So, water is elemental for me.
When George Bush invaded Iraq in 2003 after September 11, I had the sense that this global war was starting under pretenses about resources, deeply corrupt. As many of my fellow Americans voted for it, part of me was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t live in this country. I’m leaving and moving to Berlin!’ I didn’t feel I understood who Americans were at that moment, what was happening, and I was like, ‘I wanna make something that travels, that goes and talks to someone like me when I was in a small town at 16—trying to build bridges rather than escape.’ Also, I wanted to make something with an ecological footprint because so much of what was happening seemed to be a conflict of resources. And I wouldn’t say I succeeded in that aim, but it was a significant aim for me. I realized that maybe I would never build something as elegant as a Viking ship, but I could build a totally crazy raft out of junk, and everything went from there.
In your installation, Medea (2017), you combine sound, and I also sense a dramatic color shift. All your work seems to come from a profound life experience, and this one is probably one of your most intimate. You refer to it as a “haunting and illuminating” experience. What would you like to share about it, and what is your take on using color and sound in this work?
Because I was returning to a deep inner childhood landscape, there was a sense of light pink and white. I was getting into a more intimate, feminine color palette than I often let myself use. I was going back in my mind to the spaces where I grew up in New England for a period when I was a kid (my grandparents were from Connecticut)— the dollhouse, the attic, and the wallpaper. It was one of those life-changing pieces of artwork because, at that time, I leaned heavily into my dream life and drew on this deep symbolism of the psyche as it unfolded toward healing.
I was a kid who grew up with a mom who had gone through a psychotic breakdown and who struggled with addiction for her entire life. I had learned that her mental illness and my aunt’s mental illness were very much related to a history of trauma that they had suffered and which had been hidden in the culture of silence I grew up in. And so, I needed a way to unpack some of that intergenerational trauma. In a dream about a switchboard I had as a teenager, I was the switchboard, and I had scrambled all the wires inside myself to hide the intense confusion and fear I had towards people I also loved. I worked backward from that image of dissociation, separation, fragmentation, and multiple channels. I just started pulling in different stories and dreams, reading back into old journals, and looking into psychology textbooks, stories, and myths—Medea, who had killed her children in Greek mythology.
I used that starting place to work backward my deepest yet unacknowledged fears to a place where I could see a whole landscape of not just my own experience but also the experience of people in my family. It was a terrifying thing to make. I felt that people would reject it and say, ‘This is too creepy; why would you do this, and what are you making?’ But I found that the people who get it and who need it connect with it deeply and that it’s able to sometimes reach out to them in the same way that it was helpful to me, and that’s been remarkable.
In Seven Contemplations, your site-specific installation at Albright-Knox Northland (2021), you responded to the cavernous architecture of the 8000-square-foot space. How do you start a project like that, and what is your process?
The first thing I came up with was that I was a meditator. Meditation has been a deep part of my creative process over the last decade and my psychological well-being. I was doing an open-eye meditation in front of a beautiful wall in a meditation center. My jumping-off point was when I was having such an ecstatic experience at that moment. I wanted to make something where people can sit open-eyed and give them a practice that they can gaze, sit, and contemplate if they choose to engage with it. It’s possible that they could have had a similar experience to what I was having.
The Next step was to make a scale model of the space and try to plan out— what’s gonna happen on this wall. What piece is gonna go over here? How does it flow together? What are the themes, and how do they relate to each other? What kind of things come in, and where do I rely on the past? And how do past works talk to the new works? I wanted, for example, to bring a tree from the Brooklyn Museum into the space. It wasn’t working, and then during my meditation, I was like, ‘OK, I got it,’ and I got that clarity on how to take a 70-foot sculpture that was damaged and reconfigure it for a 20-foot space. It was half practical-tactical planning and half waiting for the muse to bless you.
In 2019, you presented your first stop-motion animation at Deitch Projects, New York. The text for the show says that for you, the animation process was a way to locate demons within yourself: “Look them in the eye and collaborate with them to diminish their destructive force.” Can you elaborate on your animation process in that context?
I created the animation just after the Madea installation and picked up where I left off. It started from a similar place, which was this image of the splitting house. I was very intense at that moment. I do a lot of therapy with psychedelics because so much of the trauma that I went through as a child had happened before the age of five. It’s hard for me to talk about it in therapy because I don’t always actually remember it, so to get myself back into those preverbal places, I sometimes must lean into modalities by using psychedelics and toys from that time, specifically a raggedy Ann doll of the kind that I had when I was a kid. Working with a therapist, I found ways to enter some spaces in my implicit memory. My psyche has just otherwise been inaccessible or, frankly, too terrifying to acknowledge. Then, once I started to dredge that stuff up to acknowledge—What do I do with this? How do I make sense of these things?
So, I began again with the image of the splitting house and my raggedy doll. I took a drawing I made of my mom when she was in for addictive rage, and I started to bring the pieces together to let one thing flow into the next and ask, ‘Where are you going? What do you want to become?’ I just let it happen and found it that way—my subconscious could direct me in an exciting way. Weeks after making this animation, I could sit back and say, ‘Oh my God, that’s what this was about.’ It became a way of externalizing something, directed by a hushed voice and allowing that hushed voice to have a big voice. I found that life-affirming.
What is happening in your studio these days?
Playing with older works is kind of a spring cleaning of the studio. It’s enjoyable as I do this long process and develop a feature film where I’m doing animations, puppets, prosthetic makeup, and costumes, all toward a feature fantasy that’s an autobiographical fairytale called The Siblings Sisters. It will still be a while in the making, but it will come out in various ways.