When I first heard of the street artist Swoon in the early 2000s, you could occasionally luck into walking by one of her wheat-pasted figures adhered to the side of a Brooklyn building before weather or vandals peeled it away. Strikingly unlike the graffiti tags (sometimes clumsy, sometimes brilliant themselves) that elsewhere covered facades, Swoon’s prints — big linocuts that look like confident drawings — vividly conjured people, the kind you might meet and be moved by in real life: a little boy with determination-filled eyes, a pair of bemused sisters, a mother whose beauty has a slightly world-weary air.
Since those days, when she was freshly graduated from the Pratt Institute and leaving her mark on adjacent neighborhoods, Swoon has continued to make her presence felt in both the art world and the real world in no less unusual ways. In 2006, she worked with a group of collaborators to build a fleet of rafts out of scrap wood and float down the Mississippi River — a project reprised on the Hudson River in 2008 at the invitation of gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch and on the Adriatic Sea during the 2009 Venice Biennale (the global invitational, which Swoon and company crashed).
Whatever its form, art by Swoon — who at 35 prefers her given name, Caledonia Curry, or just Callie — doesn’t often stay in the same place for long. Or if it does, as in the case of her latest endeavor, a sustainable building project in Haiti, the product isn’t particularly easy for the average art lover to see in person.
A current installation at the State College of Florida Sarasota-Manatee in Bradenton offers an unusual opportunity to get up close and personal with an elaborate piece by the elusive artist. To create the installation, Petrichor, Curry worked for about a week with some help from SCF students to transform the walls of the college’s 1,500-square-foot gallery into a frieze of wheat-pasted, linocut characters surrounded by an explosion of laser-cut paper flora and fauna. On view through April 4, the result is a feast for the eyes that showcases her unique fusion of drawing, printmaking, collage and street art techniques as well as her humanist passion.
The idea of petrichor — a word coined to describe the scent of rain falling on earth after a long dry spell — stems from an unexpectedly local source: the home garden of Curry’s father in Venice, Fla. When SCF gallery director Joe Loccisano invited Curry to undertake a project of her choosing in Bradenton, she opted for a gallery installation that would pay tribute to her dad. To create the effect of an outdoor oasis inside, the gallery walls were washed with yellow-green and blue paint as a backdrop for more than a dozen of her iconic characters, including a large-scale sepia-toned block print of her father as a stocky, tree-like man whose folds of clothing shelter other, miniature people.
Together the figures constitute a global village of races and ages — crafty girls who build, make and behold crop up a few times — and include mythical creatures like a sea goddess, who wears a breastplate made of crab legs and seahorses and grasps a silky swath of ocean in one hand. Atop and around them, Curry collaged fragments of geometric patterns like honeycomb and lace-like silhouettes of lizards, birds, bees, butterflies, thistles, and a profusion of other garden sprites that float and flutter off the walls, keeping the construction of the installation improvisational and un-precious.
Both aesthetically and thematically, the piece shows an awareness of life’s grittiness with a hope that refuses to be dampened — a contagious worldview that comes across most powerfully in the eyes of Curry’s figures.
“That’s where you see this penetrating intensity, a wonderful recognition of the soul of the person,” says gallery director Loccisano.
Since 2010, when a devastating earthquake killed nearly 250,000 people and displaced millions more in Haiti, Curry has been working with a collaborative team of artists, architects and local families to build sustainable shelters on the island. Called “Konbit Shelter,” after a Creole word meaning communal labor, the project has so far constructed a multi-room community center and a single family home in rural Haiti using bags filled with earth and cement that are stronger than concrete blocks and more readily available than wood. (What’s more, the results provide aesthetic delight — the beehive-shaped community center takes the shape of three light-filled domes with brightly painted doors and windows — an important quality for a community-owned space where some 60 percent of residents work as artists or artisans.)
Earlier this month, shortly after the Bradenton install, Curry visited Haiti again to begin another chapter in the project, which has been funded by sales of her artwork, a Kickstarter drive, and grants from the Rockefeller Foundation and Creative Time. In a video interview last year with the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, she described the connection between her different art practices and the satisfaction of having supporters who grasp the vision that ties them together.
“People … really understood that I was trying constantly to create unconventional spaces and contexts and to make things that showed up in people’s lives fully formed in a way that makes the world seem a little bit larger or more surprising than you thought it was,” Curry said.