Interview by Roger Gastman
SWOON is the true embodiment of an artist living her life through the work she creates. Art is the vehicle SWOON uses to extend herself and her experiences. Whether it be grieving the passing of her mother or trying to understand a social crisis, she does so through her work. Everything she needs to experience happens within her art — it’s how SWOON interacts with the world around her.
You have a pretty interesting middle name, “Dance” (as in Caledonia Dance Curry).
I do. Hippies — what are you going to do with them?
What was that like growing up with your parents — was it a great environment encouraging of your art? I was just with an artist who started talking again to his parents who were hippies and he couldn’t stand them. He even made a film about killing them.
I just made a piece of art about uncovering very subconscious fears that my mom would kill me. So there’s that. They were addicted to heroin when I was born. My mom went on to be completely undone by various addictions and psychotic episodes and dealt with mental illness for the rest of her life. Sometimes she was great and amazing, while other times she wasn’t. It’s been kind of a big box to unpack in the last few years. I do a lot of work around trauma and addiction and it’s because of my background.
That explains why you can easily go live in a jungle or in a desolate town, because in the end you’re kind of conditioned for it?
The way I grew up when I was little was so unstable, and you just didn’t know what was coming next. I was never in a comfort zone. Now my comfort zone is a bit broad.
You do some ridiculous projects or live on a boat, or on an island, and build things. Then at the same time you have respected collectors who I’m sure want to have you over for a dinner party and discuss your work. They’re such different, wild worlds. How do you balance?
I’m not as good at showing up at dinner parties. I try to do it every once in a while, but I just feel out of place.
You end up in New York, you and street art are a quick match. You’re making interesting work on the street that people had not been doing before. You’re taking techniques that have been used and twisting them into your own unique practice. Quickly people know who you are because you have a unique voice. How did you end up with that unique voice and how are you able to take those common street art tools and reinvent them for yourself and your own process?
I became a fully dedicated painter; I knew that I am an artist and this is my life when I was about 10 years old. By the time I was 18 and moved to New York, I had used so many materials in so many ways that I was comfortable and I just had a running start. I blazed through a little bit of art school and the path they presented didn’t feel right to me. I needed to find my own path. I felt the stuff I was seeing in the streets was amazing but wasn’t me. I didn’t grow up with this background. So the question was, how do I be who I am but also do this thing that I love or enter into this city that I love. I was always going to be an artist. That was just who I was.
Alixa and Naima New York City, 2008 Courtesy of SWOON
When you started to do work on the streets, were you familiar with the history of graffiti and street art and what world you were stepping into?
It was 1999, and there were a lot of artists out there and I was very aware of what was going on. For me, it really clicked the moment when I saw Gordon Matta-Clark’s work. He would chop up abandoned buildings and make sculptures out of them. I was looking at this broad spectrum, from muralists, land art and Banksy to Shepard Fairey and REVS. I was looking at anyone who was using the city as a medium and their canvas.
I’m guessing in the early days it was you in a dorm room or a little apartment — you trying to beg, borrow and steal to get space. Through the years you’ve built up a great studio practice. How was that transition from being someone so hands-on to letting other people help you?
I had to learn; it was a long process. I like being hands-on. I really had to have people convince me that I could get help. I had a friend of mine from Manchester come to help and literally they said, “Look at what you’re doing. You’re painting a fucking red square 50 times. I can paint it 48 times. Get out of here.” That was a kind of light turning on. Because I think in the beginning I was still such a traditionalist about art-making that I thought, “Well, if I don’t make it, it’s not mine.” But then I realized that you can make a vision and then when some part of your vision became a repeatable action then you can get help with that repeatable action.
My very first big installation was with Jeffrey Deitch, and I went from something tiny on my kitchen wall to this massive, huge public installation. I was basically shitting myself. My friend Jeff Stark came in and helped me. He set up the whole studio and then said, “Callie, don’t disappear into a task. Your job while your crew is here is to set up work for your crew. When they leave you can disappear into your task.” For me that was so hard. I genuinely hated it at first. But then I got a little better at it. Eventually I got comfortable with it and you see what you can do. You see what becomes possible. It just went from there.
Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea Deitch Projects, Long Island City, NYC, 2008. Photo by Tod Seelie
Being able to run a crew — in a sense has that made it easier for you to take on more and challenge yourself?
Yes. Running a crew is something I found I could do and enjoyed. You can challenge yourself more because you can do things you wouldn’t be able to do alone because you’re just one person. With a crew you can think in a different way, which is incredible. It frees your imagination because you’re not limited to your very specific skill set and your own number of hours in a day.
You just had a mid-career retrospective. What did that do to your mind and what was it like to revisit some of these things in the past?
I just left Cincinnati last night. We did a screening. A longtime collaborator of mine surprised me by making an hour-long documentary of my work. I went through this process of making the whole retrospective and then watching the film. It was wild to be able to look at your life. It really is a survey of my life. I can’t really say that I know what it did to my life because I just finished it yesterday. But I feel like it has given me a little freedom to be, “You know what? I could do something totally different tomorrow.” Sure I could start making prints and portraits again. Or I could do whatever — I could walk into the studio and pick up some oil paints if I want to because I just did such a big rounding-out chapter of my life. If I choose to continue in a similar direction, great, but it feels like there’s this little doorway of freedom that I’m looking at right now because of having digested so much of my past.
Were there a couple things in this show that really stood out to you that you wanted to revisit, work with and expand on? I know a lot of your work has reoccurring images. Seeing it all together like that, with those people appearing in different installations that were never meant to be together, living together — was that interesting?
That part felt similar to the way that I do other installations, where I’ll bring together different figures and a narrative will emerge when the different figures come together. So I didn’t have too many surprises strictly in that sense of weaving together a tapestry and making the figures come together. The one thing that did happen that was surprising is I took an old piece, “The Ice Queen” that I created for L.A. MOCA, and I combined it with some newer imagery and also with new audio elements that I had never tried before. I started with this old narrative and I let the narrative evolve as my understanding has evolved over the years. It turned out to be a piece that, for me, is my most significant piece to date in regards to personal exploration and what the piece taught me. It’s the most profound piece I’ve worked on. How other people receive it is up to them, but making it really
helped me grow.
I don’t look at you as a political artist necessarily, but you are a pioneer of many social issues and social projects. Do you look at those social projects and the attention you draw to things as a political thing or more as social initiatives?
I’m not sure that I feel strong on the definition there. I do know that a lot of my political values become translated through actions and social projects. I am naturally somebody who thinks through emotions. I’m good with human connection and working with people who have dealt with heavy stuff. There’s a worldview that says, “Hey let’s help each other after a catastrophe.” Or “Let’s not stigmatize people who are suffering from addiction.” Those are perspectives that exist within a political/social framework. For me, the way that’s going to emerge has to do more with the human connection and the tangible effects rather than political campaigning.
I try to tangibly embody what’s important to me when I work on a piece. If I’m doing a series of portraits, let’s say that are around incarcerated people, I’m usually working in the jail for a while. I’m usually doing some art therapy with those folks. There’s usually an element that tethers the portrait to a lived experience.
When I look at your work I often just want to say, “Holy shit, how did she do that?” Just the amount of hand touching, cutting, folding and gluing.
There are a couple of ways, and one is that I throw everything at it. If you could see my apartment right now, it’s a total shithole and always has been, because if I have money I put it into my art; if I have energy I’ll put it into my art. The other way is in my community of friends. There are so many projects that never would have happened in a million years if it wasn’t for my community of friends coming together.
Is that a large part of it — your community of friends and bringing everyone together?
Early on when I first started working in the streets, there was a feeling that just working on the street at all was a political act. That has ended up to be true in a variety of ways, including some ways that we wouldn’t have expected or wanted, actually. But I also found that it was the beginning of the Iraq war and there was so much political organizing. I was just starting to witness, through small and large actions, what people can do when they come together. Finding friends who really felt the same way and being so amazed by their creativity, then also finding that as a workaholic a great way to hang out with people is by finding common projects together. So it’s always been an important aspect of my work. I’ve been amazed at my group of friends. Most of them are people that don’t believe in impossibility.
What does the term "street art" mean to you in the late ’90s when you are getting started and what does it mean to you almost 20 years later?
For me, when I started street art was illegal. Generally fairly small scale because you’re trying to do it fast, you’re trying to get it done. It’s this little touch that you give to the city. It’s about claiming public space, it’s a little bit about transgression. It’s about being, “All these fucking buildings are abandoned and neglected and these factories are empty,” and thinking, “We’re going to participate in our city.” Including political posters, and really any ideas that people want to throw out there. It’s really this democratically hectic layered thing.
I realize that now street art means giant murals that are kind of tied into urban renewal projects, which are inherently complicated. Maybe we don’t want to romanticize urban blight but we also need to be aware of the forces of gentrification that push low-income people out of cities. When I first started, if you told me that my work would be used as a tool to raise the property values in a neighborhood, I wouldn’t have even believed you. Having seen what’s happened in the last 20 years has been mind blowing.
So the term street art basically now is people doing pretty murals for the city or a mural festival, not necessarily being gritty, at night, and earning your respect from the other artists.
It definitely feels like the definition has changed. It’s cool there’s a mural movement. There’s nothing wrong with a mural movement. It just caught me off guard to realize that the term hasn’t changed. I was like, “This is a mural movement. This isn’t what we were doing. This is a different thing.”
Absolutely. I was so mad about that. I’m like, “There’s graffiti, there’s street art and then there’s murals.” Even for this show, the amount of people who come to me with, “My girlfriend, my boyfriend, my cousin, they’re such a great street artist you should put them in the show.” They show me their work and it’s 12 legal murals that they’ve painted in Sacramento over the past two years. I’m happy they’re painting murals but that’s not what I’m talking about. That’s not my language.
I remember when we first started painting outside. Graffiti artists hated us and a lot of graffiti artists still hate us. It was important for them that we not be called graffiti. They were like, “This isn’t graffiti,” while we had other people trying to tell us what we were doing was graffiti. I thought it was different. Graffiti is a very specific thing. It has its roots over the years and is really a specific form of expression. That’s not what I’m doing. When the term street art came up, I thought, “OK, fine.” That really becomes this catchphrase that defines this moment and movement, so maybe we’re just in need of a new name. This large-scale mural movement is in need of a name for itself.
Caitlin, Silkscreen, Cut Paper and Acrylic Gouache on Wood 2018, 106” × 77”
What does SWOON mean in 1999 and what does SWOON represent today?
I didn’t start calling myself SWOON until maybe 2000 or 2001. I worked for a while with no name. At the time I thought having a name was all about ego. I started thinking about having a name because of BAST. All over the city I would see different works and I’d think, “Oh my god, this thing’s amazing!” Over and over again I would see the name BAST written on it. They were all different and I wouldn’t have associated them with the same person. The idea of having a name went from it being a huge ego thing to being a recognizable voice in a conversation. I wanted to be a voice.
I just kind of adopted this name that was given to me in my friend’s dream. Back then it was just a little peep. Just wanting to be a voice in a conversation.
What the name means — I feel it’s still basically the same — it’s this way of looking at the world, which is always about saying I don’t believe that thing, I see another possibility. I don’t believe that we can’t make this raft and live on the water. I don’t believe that we can’t be helpful after this earthquake. I don’t believe that people can’t heal from addiction. I don’t believe that this private property shouldn’t include public voices. You know what I mean? A way of constantly being willing to rethink the terms of your reality.