When she began her art career, Swoon (born Caledonia Dance Curry) never tagged her art, opting to leave her pieces anonymous. She came up with the “street” name in a dream and began to use the tag which, because it is not gender-specific, led many observers to think the artist was a man—an unexpected advantage in the male-dominated graffiti world; she often went unnoticed by police.
Swoon does not limit herself to graffiti, though she does a great deal of street art. She can be described more as a mixed media artist who specializes in portraits and large-scale installations. Swoon earned a BA in fine arts from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and began her street art at that time as a way to express the artistic instincts she felt were untapped in class. She began wheat pasting art on buildings and walls, which started small and gradually grew into large-scale images, most printed on recycled paper and meant to disintegrate in place. When speaking about her early days, she told Forbes, “I loved being a part of that process. For me, it was taking this classical background in portraiture and taking it outside, maintaining my identity as a classic portrait artist. And bringing that into this other tradition of working outside.”
She often depicts people, including friends and family. According to WIDEWALLS, the reasoning behind this is that she believes we “store things in our body and that a portrait can become an x-ray of those experiences. She wants to capture something essential in the subject.” By placing these images on public buildings, she challenges viewers to connect with the person and make their own personal connection with the image.
In 2005, she began considering larger pieces in the form of installations but, as a bit of an outsider, was hesitant to become part of the gallery scene. She found a home with gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, who often champions offbeat artists. Under Swoon, his gallery became a massive urban skyline. With some larger-scale offerings under her belt, she began to expand into more political and humanitarian works.
Swoon and a group of about 30 other artists, activists, and musicians, famously crashed Venice’s 2009 Biennale with a performance project she called “Swimming Cities of Serenissima.” The group sailed in rafts made of New York City garbage and Slovenian scrap materials, stopping along the way to collect pieces from locals for what they called their “cabinet of curiosities.” The rafts served as sleeping, cooking, and eating quarters along the journey, eventually docking in the Venice Lagoon, where they performed nightly.
“Konbit Shelter” is a sustainable building project Swoon began in 2010, with the goal of creating homes and community spaces in post-earthquake Haiti. She brought with her a team of artists, engineers, and architects to build structures that were made to last. The buildings were made primarily from something called super adobe, earthbags that use long bags filled with adobe and form a beehive-like structure.
She has kept busy with her humanitarian art and installations. In 2011, she created “Anthropocene Extinction” using her signature paper forms. The piece presented a giant Chinese temple made of bamboo and animals leading to a giant figure of an old woman (known as Ms. Bennett), who represented the last Aborigine that existed as a nomad—a lifestyle no longer possible to sustain. The installation is a supposed reflection on how humans can irreversibly impact Earth and the environment. Underneath the woman were demons representing humans’ consumption of the natural world.
That same year, she began building an interactive community-based installation in a New Orleans neighborhood, which she calls “Dithyrambalina.” Several houses were utilized and artists salvaged materials to make what became a giant music box, with each house acting as a musical instrument. Visitors to the buildings produce music by walking through the structure and touching parts of the home.
The New Orleans project caught the attention of several galleries and she created installations for the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Her Brooklyn-based piece, called “Submerged Motherlands” received much attention because it featured a life-sized sculpture of a tree, surrounded by people and natural elements—a celebration of life and renewal. (You can find a listing of her massive collection of installations here.)
Swoon’s artwork has been collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Tate Modern, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, the New Orleans Museum of Art, and a number of others. Her work has been shown at numerous locations in the United States and abroad. She continues her commitment to exploring relationships between people and their built environments.
As our graffiti theme continues, we look to Swoon as a #womanartist who inspires.
Lead image credit: Art Report