Caledonia Curry — better known by her street-art tag, Swoon — makes art that’s an active force in the lives of those who encounter it. Born into a chaotic household in Daytona Florida, she made her way to art school in Brooklyn through sheer force of will, but instinctively swerved away from a life of genteel gallery openings and began illegally plastering unloved buildings around New York with huge etched-and-printed portraits.
Struck by the idea that cities could be seen as artworks in themselves, she went on to build houses that operated as giant musical instruments in post-Katrina New Orleans, sought out artisans in Haiti to help her create beautiful homes after the earthquake, and turned a church in a struggling rural Pennsylvanian town into a tile factory that trained and employed local residents.
Although Curry’s work is sought after by collectors, has been shown in major museums and acquired by MoMA, she continues to funnel the proceeds back into her quixotic interventions, like the flotilla of junk rafts she sailed down the Mississippi in 2008, Huck Finn-style, with a gaggle of musicians and artists who performed along the way.
It’s a heterogenous body of work she’s built over two decades, but what’s woven through everything is a deep respect for the struggles and joy that every human being encounters, and the type of fearless optimism that allows her to tackle trauma head-on and try to make a difference. Her most recent work involves examining ideas of forgiveness and incarceration, swapping life tales with prisoners and meditating on how compassion can play a more prominent role in everyday life.
There seems to be a running theme in your work about bringing positive change to struggling communities
Deep down, I am a person who saw my life be transformed and saved by creativity, from a very young age, and so I think I’ve always had this idea that this is the real power of creativity: to uplift you, to empower you, to problem-solve, to protect you psychologically. As somebody who has always felt a pull to be involved and to help and to set their hands upon problems when you see them, I realised that I wanted for at least some of the work that I was doing to be of direct benefit to people and communities, so I was drawn towards situations where creativity could be a really useful tool.
Do you see a boundary between being an artist and an activist?
When I was 19 and I was looking around the streets of New York, I was like ‘Oh my god, this is so cool, I love New York, I love the street pasting, I love the [messed-up] collage that’ happening outside, I love all of it.’ I wanted to participate, but I knew I’m not a graffiti artist, I’m me, and I can only ever be me, whatever situation I want to be in. I’ve always felt like like, ‘Oh, you want to help after the earthquake? That’s cool, don’t forget to bring yourself!’ So there are some things that I can do to step outside of myself, like learning about new building styles and meeting people where they are and learning from them, and then there’s some things that I can do to bring the power of who I am, like fundraising from my creative community, and drawing people there and giving art classes and bringing creative design to the buildings and working with craftsmen, and doing all that stuff that honours beauty and aesthetics and creativity in the process, because I am an artist, that’s who I am. In life, when you work from your strength, you do better work. If I were to say, ‘Oh I quit, now I’m an activist,’ I think that I wouldn’t be working as strongly in the world.
How does it feel putting on an exhibition of your work in a gallery?
I actually love working in museums and galleries. When I thought that was the full definition of what art could be I was like, ‘Oh hell no, I cannot live with that. My work has to turn real gears in the real world and be a part of life, or else I just can’t do it.’ But now that I’ve found so many wild ways to connect my art with the world, I’m like, ‘Cool: a gallery show, where I don’t have to ask if it’s going to get rained on, I don’t have to ask if you’re going to feel comfortable living in this, it’s not going to break down. All I have to think about is does it look really good? How do you feel about it when you see it? Does it bring up a lot of emotions? What are the references? Is that rope going to break? The considerations are so much more free that it’s like playtime. It’s a dream space. And then that feeds everything else.
Does it make it easier practically for you to work when you’re in MoMA’s collection and people know who you are?
Totally. Rather than waiting for funding and asking for permission, I’m able to create a series of works, sell it, pay for my project and do my thing. What that means ultimately is that I’m totally bankrupt all the time — I’ve lived in the same apartment for the last 15 years and I have no savings — but I’m a very free person creatively.
How has your work evolved over the last two decades?
At 24, I was thinking about the privatisation of public space and how people participate in community, and that led directly to the work in Haiti, but now I’ve been working with people in rehab and in prison, because the United States has a huge mass incarceration problem. That work has come from an almost completely different place, a level even more powerful than anything I’ve ever done before, and it really started in my childhood. Both my parents were severely addicted [to drugs] and there was a lot of mental illness, a lot of struggle in my family. I didn’t understand why until about four years ago. When I did and started down this path — learning about mental illness, addiction and even violent crime all basically being rooted in trauma — the awakening of compassion that happened in me just meant that my life path has started to change. I’m starting to focus more on working with prisoners and addicts and homeless people and trying to really address the cultural dialogue we have in the United States and in a lot of places in the world, about how we understand each other, love each other, and take care of each other. When I was 20 I wouldn’t have been able to face the fact that my family was so insane. I wouldn’t have been able to face my own trauma enough to forgive other people who are acting out on their trauma. I wasn’t grown up enough yet.
As well as helping other people, does this type of project feel healing for you?
Yeah, in an art context, if I tell my life story, people go ‘Oh my god, woah!’ When I told my story in the prison programme, every person looked me straight in the eye and was like, ‘We feel you.’ The first day that I did that, I just went home and just cried and went to bed. It was so impactful to have a group of people just not bat an eyelash and not look away and just say, ‘We know. We’ve been through the exact same thing and more.’ I was really blown away by the humanity that I received back and how healing the experience was. It’s one hundred per cent a two-way street.
Did you always know you wanted to dedicate your life to art?
I started painting when I was 10. Everything clicked and I was like, ‘OK, this is me.’ My family got more stable when I was a teenager, and they really rallied around me. There was this feeling like, ‘Baby, you’ve got to get somewhere good. You’ve got to get to safe ground.’ And because they had been such wild people there was nothing that I could do that could surprise them, I could come home and be like ‘I’m doing all these illegal things now’ and they’d be like, ‘You’re great!’
So I took that love from them, I went to college, I was so focused and then kind of in the middle I just kind of flipped out and went off-map. The street-pasting project was the first project where I was just finding my way really slowly. I was such a classically trained person I could have stayed in that and always done something that looked right and felt right, but I knew that I had to go and do things that were awkward and strange and have an ugly duckling phase, so that I could find myself.
How do you feel about the fact that there is a conventional career path for artists now?
I was like, ‘I don’t like confined spaces, sorry. No offence but I’ll take the long way.’ When I’ve asked myself what does it mean to be an artist and how do you contribute to culture, I always felt like, well, I’m a unique little snowflake, I’ve never existed, so if I do nothing other than completely adhere to who I am then my art will be a new thing, because I’ve never existed before.
You seem very unafraid of taking risks. Are you fearless, or do you just push through the fear?
There’s so much fear and anxiety! I started meditating a lot more recently, because sometimes the fear and anxiety gets so strong that I just have to breathe and visualise good outcomes. I have to do all this psychological work to get myself to a place where you’re not like ‘What am I doing? I’m going to kill 20 of my best friends, we’re all going to die!’ Or ‘I’m going to humiliate myself, I’m doing the wrong thing, I’m such a fool.’ It’s this funny double-edged sword of having grown up in deep chaos, that I am not as afraid because seen true insanity, so minor insanity is not that big of a deal.
You’ve sailed a flotilla of rafts made from junk down the Mississippi and across the Mediterranean. That seems pretty insane.
There were at least one time per day, every day of that project, we would break down in front of an ongoing barge, or a flood would happen, and I would be like, ‘We’re gonna die right now.’ So many disasters happened. It’s lunacy that we kept going. When the project was done, it was because we used our nine lives.
There’s a powerful message about resilience in there.
Oh yeah, because everyone was like, ‘You can’t do that.’ For me, when something’s not working, and I’m trying to figure it out, often I’ll get this moment where something clicks in my brain, and I just go, ‘I don’t believe in this problem.’ The message is, just keep looking at it from different angles. Don’t take no for an answer, keep asking, keep looking, turn it upside down, don’t believe what you’re told the first time around. Some people think that because you’ve never seen it, it can’t be done. And in fact you have to know that when you’re trying to do something weird, literally every person that you talk to, in any official capacity, is pretty much always going to say that it can’t be done. And generally, it’s a base assumption because people haven’t seen it before.
What are you aiming towards now?
I just feel like as a human culture, every single day, every single generation, we as human beings lose touch with what compassion means. What does it look like, what does it feel like, how do we live it? How do we live it not just with somebody who’s really cute and sweet and fun, how do we live it with somebody who has done something really horrendous, who will probably do something really horrendous again? How do we think about healing? The very idea of punishment, what does it mean, is there a role for it? I’m scratching at this place, like ‘Oh this is what our work is.’ I cry whenever I talk about this. I’ve been doing all these different things in life that I really care about but it’s one of those things where I finally hit the nerve.