Survival is an act of resistance.
Caledonia Curry excited and inspired the audience at the opening of the Loeb 45th Anniversary Celebration and Reunion weekend with her talk “The Urban Impact of Collaborative Gestures” and her unconventional approach to community building through art making. The child of heroin addicts, she found solace and strength through painting from the age of 11. Her chaotic childhood deeply influenced her practice and her development into a rebel with a cause. She quickly found she was hooked on the rewards creativity was bringing her. “I had never experienced positive feedback before.”
It was during her formal art training at Pratt Institute of Art that her obsession with cities began. “I was discovering how we interact; these dense urban places are like viewing hundreds of languages merge. Cities are the highest forms of art.” At Pratt, she began thinking about her own experiences as a form of resistance and integrating resistance into her practice, breaking down the solitary artist archetype and working with a team. She took the artist identity Swoon and began placing her human scale portraiture in very public places: on walls, billboards and construction sites.
Swoon’s art crosses a wide terrain, from wheat-pasted portraits to boat-building and installations calling attention to social and environmental crises. Her anarchic team constructed boats out of trash and floated them down the Hudson River. They achieved international renown by crowdsourcing funds to reassemble the boats and insinuate them (without official permission) into the 2009 Venice Biennale. Swoon aligns herself with the tradition of pranksters, who overcome obstacles–in her case bureaucratic, financial, and ultimately social–by pushing under, over, around or through them.
Her current projects involve community engagement in places as far-flung as Haiti, New Orleans and Braddock, PA. What the communities have in common is devastation by natural, environmental, political and/or economic forces. Not content to simply create an installation and leave, she creates sustainable, long lasting relationships with communities. She is attracted by a need and a general idea, but success is dependent on community ownership and participation and on “knowing smarter and more capable people to make these projects a reality.”
She traveled to Haiti to create sustainable housing in a small community affected by the 2010 earthquake. She heeded advice to create a community center before building individual homes, “because then the people could connect to the place and have a better connection with each other.” The resulting beautiful structure of super adobe references building styles and structural techniques of the locale and incorporates improvements evolving from community participation in design and construction.
In Braddock her team is guided by the same philosophy to help rebuild a community broken by the closure of steel mills. There she has worked with urban farmers and, through after-school programs, with youth to transform a condemned church into a community center.
It is in these new projects we can trace her method of working to her artistic beginning. Her placing of subtle portraits in public spaces was a way for the community to see the potential of everyday spaces waiting to be active. Community participation is also education about “the subtle forms resistance can take.”
Curry has emerged from her traumatic early family life as a study in resilience. She is grounded by her experience of overcoming obstacles as well as by her central values: to bring the good in the world to the surface and to make cities more fantastical. "You need to dive in without any pre-determination. And I ask myself how can we be better neighbors?” By not settling for “the brokenness from which I came” she pushes herself to address the suffering in the world with something positive, magical and thoughtful.