CUT & PASTE, An Interview with Swoon

March 27, 2013

In 2010, STATUS Magazine commissioned me to do a profile on Ms. Caledonia Curry better known as graffiti artist SWOON and send her my questions about the burgeoning worldwide graffiti movement, its growing acceptance by established institutions and pundits, and how she saw her role as one of the major female voices in that street/mainstream collision.

SWOON is no doubt one of the coolest people I’ve had the privilege of “talking” to online. And much thanks goes out to the editors (esp Mr. Nante SM) of the mag for giving me the chance to correspond with  such a rare, visionary talent.

Though she’s only featured briefly in it, the release of Banksy’s documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop”  has made her an even more ubiquitous icon in that art niche. 

Here’s that piece in full, in its original form (free of the space constraints of print), along with the unabridged Q and A.

STATUS Mag owns the published copyright and photos of the artworks are courtesy of Swoon.  

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Cut & Paste 

Graffiti artist Swoon talks about democratizing public space with subversive art, getting her moniker and evading authorities through sheer positivity. 

Graffiti as street art is at its best when it’s playful and intriguing.

When it becomes too serious, putting forth an agenda in overtly political thrust no matter how veiled it quickly becomes the realm of propaganda. And that kind of visual spectacle spirals down to mere advertising demagoguery.

It takes a graffiti artist like Swoon to tip toe this fine line, with her work still putting forth the psalm of whimsy while generating a palimpsest of meaning even to the most casual observer.

This is Caledonia “Callie” Curry, aka Swoon. She’s a Brooklyn-based artist whose large-scale “paste-up” prints have made her a force to reckon with in street-art circles. Her works can be seen decorating cities and galleries from Bangkok to Brooklyn.

The South Florida native studied painting at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and started doing street art around 1999. Since then she’s gone full time into what she calls her mission in “democratizing public spaces” with art.

I see these walls as a ground level. A reachable and see-able by the masses bulletin board for a million voices needing outlets. And I am one of them. ~ SWOON

Usually made by etching an outline into linoleum or wood and using a giant litho roller to apply the ink Swoon’s works are populated by realistically rendered cut-out everyday people. People you can readily observe in the street made alien and mysterious by her magic. Often, her friends and family are surprised to find themselves in them. Most of them are as hypnotic and mesmerizing as her name.

“I am looking always for faces and moments that grab hold of my attention and seem to ask to be examined more deeply,” she says about her conceptualization stage. “I draw and draw, and carve, and cut, and print, and cut, and then finally it’s ready to paste. I roll it up and go.”

When she gets going there is little that escapes her eye while her scissors and pen sweep up the rest. Because she also lives and works in a single apartment space she describes herself as a “filthy messy and full of uncontrollable clutter by nature. . .I sense little or no separation between art and life. . .and I go a little crazy, but it’s how I am.”

In collaboration one of her most popular mash-ups produced the 2008 trash boats projects called “Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea” with the creative anarchists of the Miss Rockaway Armada. These consisted of seven handmade sculptural wooden rafts constructed out of refuse and garbage from Troy, NY that the group actually sailed down the Hudson River, up the East River and finally to the a gallery and to the Venice Biennale. Needless to say, Swoon and the gang had loads of fun on those boats.

When I go to Manila I will look high and low, paste on something beautiful, see a thousand amazing faces, wonder what to draw next. ~ SWOON

Currently working to overhaul an abandoned church into a school and arts based community center and on a rebuilding project in the earthquake aftermath of Haiti, STATUS wrote to Swoon to talk about her work on the streets.

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SWOON SPEAKS

What’s the story on how you came to be called your cool moniker?

SWOON: It was a dream. My boyfriend at the time dreamed that it was my name – a long time before I ever imagined that I would take a name other than my own. A year or so later, it seemed all at once like a good idea, to, in that larger conversation that I was a part of on the street, take a name, a voice, a character in the dialogue. So I remembered this name, which had already found me once, and I took it on.

What are your thoughts on graffiti art being an inherently subversive socio-political commentary, or is it just a fun way to break out of a boring studio environment?

SWOON: Both. And more. [It’s] A way to change your city with your bare hands. A way to change someone’s day on their way to and from a routine. A way to participate. A beautiful collage. A massively vulnerable act, masked as aggression. So many things.

Kindly shed light on your goal to “democratize public space.”

SWOON: For me pasting is about many things, and one of them is about declaring the walls of the city a public sounding board for our dreams desires and collective identity. I see these walls as a ground level, reachable and see-able by the masses bulletin board for a million voices needing outlets. And I am one of them.

I have always thought of graffiti, critical mass bike rides, street parties, block parties, street protests, community gardens, and a million other large and small gestures, as ways that people choose the means that they have, and go about shaping their environment. I want to live in a city that people feel is their own. That they can form to fit their needs. That they can create in a way that reflects their diverse spirits – not a city you are born and die in, but have no part in shaping.

And collaboration? Does this make furthering the mission easier? And do you prefer it over working alone?

SWOON: I need both. Collaboration keeps me connected with the world, connects me with my community of friends.  .breaks me of old habits, and teaches me new things. Working alone re-centers me, and shows me who I am.

How do you deal with the fusion of your live and work space in one area? What about all the clutter?

SWOON: I work at home, and have a studio. I am filthy messy and full of incontrollable [sic] clutter by nature. As well I sense little or no separation between art and life, so it gets pretty messy, and sometimes gets hard to live and work and think, and I go a little crazy, but it’s how I am.

[I like] Quiet, soft music for drawing, anything else makes me dance around and get too distracted. My favorite album right now – Bright Bright Bright, by the band Dark Dark Dark.

Do you find that what initially motivated you to do street art is the same thing that motivates you now?

SWOON: Yes – the motivation is the same, but the work is different. I work on the street still, but much less. . .I build boats and make voyages, I take over abandoned buildings for community centers, I try to learn what it means to rebuild houses destroyed by earthquakes, I draw pictures and paste them out onto the city. All of the methods [I work with now] come from the desire to communicate with the world, to create a meaningful and active connection with my place and time, to touch people’s lives, and to learn. The work changes and grows, but the impulses have always been the same.

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Briefly, what’s your process from conceptualization to putting it on the streets.

SWOON: First I go looking. Amongst [sic] my friends, amongst [sic] crowds on a city street, I am looking always for faces and moments that grab hold of my attention and seem to ask to be examined more deeply. I take lots of pictures, make lots of drawings, and once I have chosen a subject, I begin looking more and more deeply into it, until it opens out to me, and I can understand it. I draw and draw, and carve, and cut, and print, and cut, and then finally, it’s ready to paste. I roll it up and go.

It’s said you’ve never been arrested for tagging. Do you find this strange?

SWOON: Yes. And no. I try to have the most positive approach that I can. Sometimes you can cut through certain dangers by being aware and respectful and positive. So far, knock on wood, I have always managed.

We look forward to you coming to Manila sometime and decorating the walls of our city with your art. 

SWOON: [When I go to Manila] I will look high and low, paste on something beautiful, see a thousand amazing faces, wonder what to draw next.

(Originally published in different form in Status Magazine, 2010)

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