Life of wonder

Last Updated 23 August 2014, 14:30 IST

With a glowing, paper cutout pinned over her heart, the artist known as Swoon led a procession through the Brooklyn Museum to her installation “Submerged Motherlands,” a site-specific jumble that includes two cantilevered rafts, seemingly cobbled out of junk; a tree, of fabric and wire, that reaches to the rotunda; and nooks of stenciled portraits.

“There’s that feeling that you get when you see something that you don’t understand the origin of: wonderment,” she said. “It brings about a kind of innocence, and I love that. I love to witness it. I love to be a part of making those moments happen.”

Since she began illegally pasting images around the city 15 years ago, Swoon has inspired a lot of wonderment. Born Caledonia Curry, she started her career as a street artist but quickly leapfrogged to the attention of gallerists and museum curators, which let her expand to installation and performance art, often with an activist, progressive bent.

“When you look at the work of a lot of her peers, hers stands apart,” said Sarah Suzuki, an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art, which bought several Swoon pieces for its permanent collection in 2005. “There is a real observational aspect to what she’s doing,” documenting her extensive travels and missions.

In New Orleans, Swoon helped create a shantytown where each house is a musical instrument. In Braddock, Pennsylvania, a dwindling, post-industrial landscape, she worked on an arts centre in an abandoned church. After the Haiti earthquake, she alighted, with a team of volunteers, to build colourful houses in the village of Cormiers.

Unlike other street artists, Swoon’s work isn’t based in “cynicism or a critique of commercial culture,” Suzuki said. “There’s an emotional core there.”

Now 36, Swoon is grappling with her own choices — she pours most of her income back into her projects — while planning her next moves. Here, a glimpse into her artistic life.

April 30, 7.30 pm
Benefit for the Konbit Shelter, Tribeca Grand Hotel

On a rain-soaked evening, Swoon stood in front of a few dozen supporters of her project in Haiti, Konbit Shelter, answering questions in the borrowed screening room of this slick hotel. The project began in 2010 as a quick response to the ravages of natural disaster but has evolved into a long-term commitment for Swoon and others: a typical trajectory for her ideas. Building sustainable structures with the residents of rural Cormiers was fulfilling, but also challenging. Nobody, Swoon and her collaborators said, wants to be the first family with the exotic house.

Most of Swoon’s projects are financed through the sale of her work, whose prices run to tens of thousands of dollars. In a pinch, she will turn directly to collectors to subsidise events. “I think of money as a verb,” she said, “because you have it, and it has to go out in the world to do things.” Other artists in her position, especially those who rose to acclaim through the cool cred of the streets, might seek out corporate sponsorship or branding, but not Swoon. Her friend, French artist and TED prizewinner JR, said he was impressed by her ethos. “The fact that she does it the way she does and just struggles her own way” allows her “complete freedom” as an artist, he said.

June 12, 8 pm
Brooklyn Museum Film and Concert

“Submerged Motherlands” is a sort of homecoming for Swoon, the culmination of more than five years of work and her first major piece in New York in several years. It’s built around a sculptural mapou tree, a Haitian symbol, as well as the rafts, which Swoon and her compatriots used to sail on the Hudson River and, in an art world coup, into the Venice Biennale in 2009. Swoon employed a small army of friends as installers. “I love to be able to create a micro-economy out of that,” she said.

“You’re creating jobs, and it’s jobs that are fun and bringing people together.” But she exceeded the museum’s $100,000 budget. “I actually couldn’t even tell you how much I went over,” she said. “But quite a bit.”

Growing up in Daytona Beach, Florida, known to friends and family as Callie, Swoon long considered herself the scrappy sort. At 10, she began taking oil painting classes; her classmates were mostly retirees doing beachscapes and sunsets. But her talent was evident. “I got this epic amount of encouragement, and I just rose to it,” she said. In high school, she started selling her paintings and ceramics — to her teachers. In Brooklyn, she studied painting at the Pratt Institute. “People would email me, and I’d take them to my house, and I’d be like, ‘Do you want to buy this art that’s on my floor?’”

July 14, 3 pm
New Orleans

Swoon packed the cardboard and balsa scale models for the new iteration of her musical shantytown project, “The Music Box”, into her suitcase for her travels. The project started in 2010, in a template version in the Bywater, a bohemian neighbourhood in New Orleans, and is now looking for another pop-up home.

She meant to stay in New Orleans and help build it, but changed her plans: She hadn’t had real time in her studio in Brooklyn in months. “I really have to fight to keep personal time for drawing,” she said. She asked a local blacksmith to scale up her models. “We talked about what could be made without me and what couldn’t,” she said. “This is the first time I’ve dropped off a model and left,” she fretted. “But there’s a lot of right angles.”

August 2, 6 pm
Myrtle Avenue, Brooklyn

With a pair of bolt cutters, Swoon slipped through a fence into an empty lot.

She carried a paper portrait of a cityscape and a teenager from Braddock and quickly pasted it on a wall. “I loved the little rebellion of it,” she said of her early experience wheat-pasting, though now she mostly does it legally. Wherever she travels, she leaves images like these behind. “It just feels like the spine of my work,” she said. “I still love all of the stories that get related to me about what different pieces mean to people, and how it affects the neighbourhood and how they feel about the decay and passing of each piece.”

For Swoon, art is a way to process monumental change, on a global and personal level. “Submerged Motherlands”, commissioned after Hurricane Sandy, was meant to be about rising sea levels; after the death of her mother, from cancer, Swoon found herself adding more maternal imagery. “Dawn and Gemma”, a grand portrait of a breastfeeding woman, dominates the installation’s entry, providing, Swoon said, a new sense of nurture to the piece.

(Published 23 August 2014, 14:30 IST)

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