Talking change with Swoon, whose art helps us see beyond the damage man creates

Talking change with Swoon, whose art helps us see beyond the damage man creates

Forged in the fire of change — Caledonia Curry aka Swoon was raised in a family of heroin addicts, but her tough upbringing only hardened her resolve to spread positivity. Now she’s helping to resurrect the impoverished town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, through an ambitious art-driven renovation project.

Listening to Caledonia Curry talk is not the same when you can’t see her. As the video kicks into gear on Skype, her words spring to life with a new energy. Hands fly around, dusted lightly in old paint, twisting her sentences into things you can see. It’s infectious – as if any idea, no matter how wild, could become something you too could touch and feel. But that’s just Callie all over. Or, at least, that’s Swoon.

As an artist, Caledonia – known to the artworld as Swoon – has been in a constant state of evolution since she was a ten-year-old kid running free and wild in the backstreets of Daytona Beach, Florida. That’s when she first figured out that drawing could be a tool for life – a way to give form to the things that she felt, and to connect with the feelings of others. “From the very first drawings I realised that that alone can be kind of a compassionate act. And that connecting with another human – drawing them how I’ve come to understand them, and then sharing that understanding – can be like a little bridge among people.”

As Swoon, she became embedded in street art’s story as it hit a crescendo in the early noughties. But the portraits she pasted onto city walls, of real people she’d learned from and perhaps even loved, were always destined to become something bigger than hype. Larger than life. And they did.

In 2008, Callie gathered together a troop of friends and built a dreamlike flotilla that sailed down the Mississippi, stopping off along the way to spark imaginations. A couple years later they did it again, venturing this time all the way to Venice, Italy. But it wasn’t long before a new idea settled in. “I think I had, I don’t want to say guilt, but I was like, ‘What are we really doing?’” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love joyful projects. But I just had that feeling like let’s up our game. Let’s take this ability to move mountains and let’s have a really lasting impact on people’s lives.”

When Haiti was hit by an earthquake in 2010, Callie stepped up, galvanising once again the skillset of her friends – artists, builders, engineers – not to build an art-piece but to rebuild people’s homes. The Konbit Shelter project, now in its fifth year, has built a functioning community centre and two family homes in the village of Komye. But most importantly, it’s created jobs. It wasn’t the first time that Callie had toyed with the idea that rebuilding a place could potentially rebuild lives.


Braddock Steel by Swoon. Photo Alyssa Dennis.

In 2007, she stumbled upon an abandoned Lutheran church in the heart of North Braddock, Pennsylvania, where the demise of the steel industry has taken a visible toll. With half the population living below the poverty line, and two thirds of buildings lying disused, Braddock is in need of a little TLC. But Callie knows upliftment has to come from within, that roots grow from the bottom up. Working with artist collective Transformazium, Callie acquired the church and has since set about restoring it, building in jobs for the local community – like handmaking 20,000 roof tiles – in a project that could take at least a decade to complete.

But Callie’s energy doesn’t dwindle over time. Over the course of an hour, her enthusiasm only grows as she talks me through all the changes that she’s helping to spark, least not through the therapy workshops she recently ran in a Philadelphia rehab centre. It’s an incredible feat, the kind of work others talk about but never do, but even more so when you realise: this is personal. Because at the foundation stone of everything that makes Callie, Callie – and Swoon, Swoon – is the tragedy and chaos of a lost childhood in Daytona Beach. And an endless, abundant optimism.

North Braddock, PA. Photo Tod Seelie.

North Braddock, PA. Photo Tod Seelie.

Photo by Todd Seelie

Photo by Todd Seelie

Photo by Todd Seelie

Photo by Todd Seelie

When did you first realise that you could effect change through your work?
Working on the street, I was always thinking about public space and ownership of the city – the kinds of issues that plug into how we live our lives. And then when I did the boats, I just remember feeling like, ‘Holy shit!’ We built this huge thing, we did all this stuff that people said was completely impossible – getting through bureaucracy, organising a community – and I was like, damn, we are really powerful when we put our minds to it! This project is so amazing and fun, but what would happen if we put this same skillset to a moment of crisis?

And when you went into your first community project with that optimism, did you face any challenges that made you realise you were stepping into new territory?
Braddock, for example, is just exponentially more expensive. It’s like, ‘Fuck, this thing is beyond massive!’ It’s a 150-year-old ginormous beast of a building and every move you make is gargantuan and slow. Then there are all these issues with working within a community. In Haiti, my friends and I went there wanting to rebuild houses after the earthquake. But then once we stepped back from the disaster, we started to look at Haiti’s colonial history and what it means to be white people with money and skills in a place that has been taught to just believe that the good things come from outside, from white people, and to not believe in themselves. This whole social structure was in place before we arrived, but the fact is we have to acknowledge it. We have to be really aware that we as white people bring a certain message. And we have to really talk openly about that. You can’t be like, ‘Oh, but it wasn’t my intention.’ You have to own that you’re stepping into something. And what are you going to do about that?

Did you learn anything from Haiti that you’ve applied to Braddock, in terms of how you’re entering and engaging the community?
Honestly, my biggest lesson is just that job creation is the most powerful thing that you can do for a community. In Haiti, people were like, not only did you guys provide jobs at a time when the economy had collapsed but you provided meaningful work that helped us feel like we had an element of efficacy at a time when we felt helpless because we had suffered this disaster. I wasn’t even thinking about that. Of course jobs are important in everyone’s lives, but meaningful work that makes you feel effective physically – tangibly in rebuilding your community – is very powerful for people. After providing that experience for others, I was hooked. Like, this is beautiful, people love this, it’s really life-changing. The amount of positive affirmation that we got made me not only keep going in Haiti – we’re still working there five years later – it also made me feel motivated to bring something similiar to Braddock.

The community works on restoring the church in North Braddock, PA. Photo Tod Seelie.

The community works on restoring the church in North Braddock, PA. Photo Tod Seelie.

20,000 handmade tiles will help restore the roof of the church. Photo Tod Seelie

20,000 handmade tiles will help restore the roof of the church. Photo Tod Seelie

And in terms of keeping that going, how do you make it a sustainable project that a community can take on for themselves?
Haiti has been complex for different reasons. Even though we were bringing this extremely low-cost building style, it was impossible for people to replicate it on their own. Building materials are fucking astronomical; a bag of cement in Haiti and a bag of cement in Home Depot are the same price. And that’s why the earthquake was so devastating, because of lax building and an overreliance on concrete. So for us, sustainability was more about adaptability.

The last time I was down there, we had a community meeting and said, ‘Guys, what do you think about bamboo as a building material?’ The farmers were like, ‘What? We’re totally thinking about this right now! Haiti’s extremely deforested, we need to grow something to feed the cows and we’re thinking about planting bamboo.’ So, in Haiti sustainability is about continuing to have meetings, and when something’s not working, to change it. It hasn’t always been a one-to-one where we can adopt every suggestion from the community, but it’s been like a constant dance: what do you think, what’s next, how should this be?

Why do you think all these projects centre around a physical space?
I was trying to answer this question for myself about Braddock: what am I getting out of this? At some basic level I freak out for the idea of taking a building and turning it into an artwork – my artist brain just goes crazy. In Haiti I designed the house which ended up being for my goddaughter Bessie and her mother Monique. At meetings they would say how grateful they were, but I was like, ‘Guys, my creative brain is getting to plug into creating a home, and I am so satisfied by that. I just want you to know I am getting a lot out of this.’ It’s not the NGO thing where they say, ‘We don’t have any identity because we  don’t want to be imposing.’ No. I’m an artist. I’m bringing me. I love making spaces of joy and wonder and beauty.

“Change is the constant, the only constant. It’s going to happen, but which way are you going to row?”

Are you the kind of person that thrives on change?
For me, the idea of change is so central. I come from a drug-addicted family. Both my parents were heroin addicts – they struggled a lot with mental health problems. My mother never got clean. She switched addictions and never really changed. My dad was able to grow in some ways, not in others, but watching the ways he was able to grow was fucking amazing and really changed my life. Right now, my question is not only how can places and towns change for the better, but how can people change for the better. And how can we create spaces where we can help each other change for the better.

Our prison system in the US is largely a punitive system; it helps people change for the worse. Also, I think many of us feel that people don’t change on the inside, but I take the position that yes we can, we do. It’s a matter of feeling safe to change. That’s something I’ve been thinking of so much recently. In order to change on the inside we have to do all this very deep personal work. And in order to do that we have to feel safe with each other. Change is the constant, the only constant, it’s going to happen for the worse or for the better. So my question is, where is your position on that? It’s going to happen, but which way are you going to row?

You recently collaborated with a therapist to run workshops in a prison and rehab centre in Philadelphia. What role did art play?
We did a month of therapy workshops around how we can access our own personal narrative in a transformative way through creativity. We’re constantly telling ourselves the story of our lives, what happened to us, and sometimes we feel out of control of that. But if you take that story and turn it into a fable – and then you illustrate that fable, and you’re telling it in a different language – can you somehow gain a new mastery over that? That was my first question. My second question was, can we find a way to talk about the link between trauma, violence and mental illness.

With me, for example, my family suffered tremendously from drug addiction and mental illness, so I spent my teenage years just watching the clock like, ‘Okay, I’m gonna go crazy soon, when is my thing going to arrive?’ Then I hit twenty-two, twenty-five and I was like, ‘Oh, it’s not coming! Look at me I’m okay!’ And then in my thirties someone sent me this video about this guy who was like, ‘This shit you’re going through is not a coincidence. This is all trauma based.’


But in America we don’t love this conversation. Partly because the system is punitive, and partly because I come from that familial system of denial where you just don’t talk about it, I was unaware about the link between all these things. When I had that awakening it was so powerful for me. It was like you go through life thinking this world is full of shitty people, and you bear the weight of feeling this inside. Then somebody said, ‘Guess what? There are actually no bad people.’ There are hurting people, there are sick people. It felt like a knife had been taken out of my heart. Seeing people for who they were born as, I can then have the conversation, ‘What did you go through? How did you get here?’ I feel so much lighter.

And I feel like, fuck, why as a culture are we stuck in this hateful way of thinking? The US is a one hundred per cent punitive hateful culture. Nobody ends up in rehab or in jail, almost ever, without having gone through some kind of childhood trauma. How do we look at that and not think, ‘Is punishing people really helping us create a safer society? Or would getting people into therapy make us safer in the long run?’ Speaking of change, we’re stuck in this mindset but we have to turn it over.

Why do you think that art can be so transformative for people?
Most of the trauma that I have gone through, for example, has been before the age of seven, so for a lot of my most fucked-up years – when shit was just fucking lunacy – I was there but I don’t remember it. When people tell me stories, I’m like, ‘Yo, that happened? I was three years old?’ I have no memories, but I know that it’s in me. There’s this whole movement in trauma therapy about how you access things that you don’t remember, and yet they’re still impacting you because they’ve hardwired you to react to stress in a fucking bonkers way. And yet you can’t talk it out because you don’t have any memory of it. For me, storytelling, visual arts, those languages – I believe they are more primal than our spoken language. Even storytelling versus explanation, it speaks to us on a much more subconscious level and I think that your subconscious mind is where the transformation is happening. We can have conscious realisations all day, but until they percolate down to the inner reaches of ourselves, we’re not acting on that change.

Caledonia acquired the Lutheran church through a local program that makes abandoned properties available for creative use.  Photo Tod Seelie.

Caledonia acquired the Lutheran church through a local program that makes abandoned properties available for creative use. Photo Tod Seelie.

Sonia by Swoon. Photo Steve Weinik.

Sonia by Swoon. Photo Steve Weinik.

Art by Swoon. Photo Steve Weinik.

Art by Swoon. Photo Steve Weinik.

Up until now your work has been tangible; it transforms physical spaces. What’s your barometer of success when you work with people? Or is that a tougher thing to figure out?
It definitely is. There was this moment when I gave a talk. It was five people and we all talked about our stories – someone from rehab, a guy from a penitentiary – and afterwards this girl came up to me in tears, in hysterics. She was like, ‘I don’t understand what I’m feeling right now. I didn’t know this was going to happen, but it was meaningful to me.’ So that’s the first level of success. Then after that, I don’t really know. Maybe changing policy-makers’ minds. Seeing the culture actually shift and feeling like we’ve been a part of that would be a barometer of success for me.

What was the content of the talks?
Everyone just told these very emotional stories: this is me, this is my life, this is where I’m coming from. I talked for example about my parents’ addiction, what that had meant for me as a child, and the recent…. My father recently… He committed suicide in February. He was already old but he was like I’m done being alive. And it was so overwhelming for me. I was like I’m fucking losing it here, this is too much. I’m already dealing with the death of my mother. I’m already trying to access this idea of trauma – and now this? And so I just told that story: this is where I was, this is what happened, this is what it felt like to go through this, and this is what it means to keep forgiving, to keep pushing to understand where people are coming from and why they did the things they did.

At the root of our desire to punish is our desire to avoid grief. I had to grieve my father even harder rather than be like, ‘Fuck you, I punish who you even were to me.’ I’m gonna not accept that as a way out. I’m gonna feel the grief straight on. And then once I’ve done that I’m going to get to the other side and start forgiving.

Do you spend time thinking about the things you would change about yourself?
Absolutely. Before I had this awakening about my parents, I had to go to therapy because I was actually becoming abusive. I was becoming an abusive partner in my relationships, I was being verbally, psychologically and sometimes even physically abusive. It was such an awful experience to go through, to be abusive. It was like the worst thing that ever happened to me, and yet I was the one doing it.

But at therapy I started to see that I wasn’t a bad person, I was a damaged person. I came from a family that was so wild and out of control, I was a terrified and angry human being on the inside. On the outside, I have all of this love for people and all of this joy, but when it came time for me to try and love another human being, I was a fucking maniac. I had to go deep down into that part of myself and be like, ‘Oh, I’m not evil, I’m just scared, I’m broken, I’m hurt, I’m freaked out.’ I didn’t know all these things. Who I am as an emotional being was forged in the fire of chaos.

Being able to forgive myself for that, and being able to forgive my parents for the environment they gave me, that directly blossomed outwards to realising: this is not just me, this is not just my parents, this is every person in our prison system, this is every person in our rehab system, this is our whole culture. The work that I am most on fire about is work that came from me hitting rock bottom and going like, ‘I can’t live with myself anymore. I need to change who I am.’

What separates you from someone who doesn’t handle change well?
I was thinking about that recently. Everyone in jail, everyone in rehab, they just don’t handle stress well. I literally think that’s what we’re seeing: people who just don’t handle stress well and when put under stress, just act out in crazy ways. I am kind of a special case because I went through all this fucked-up shit as a kid, but I had a big sister who always took care of me no matter what. I also discovered painting when I was ten years old, and had all this really positive feedback; my family started really encouraging me and my mom got a lot more stable when I was that age, so I had these moments whereby I was able to develop resiliency in a way that some people never get. Through the luck of the draw I got the ability to cope.

But people who don’t have the ability to cope need to be more compassionate with themselves. People need to acknowledge that if they’re having trouble with change, it’s okay and that everyone needs help. No one should have to do it alone. We are social creatures and there are tools, like therapy, or meditation – it literally changes your brain.

And when it comes to making change in our everyday lives, what advice would you have for someone who is maybe stuck in a rut in their personal life or work and doesn’t feel like they can put their ideas into action, like you do? I would say that the ‘fake it till you make it’ philosophy is powerful. There’s this phrase, maybe it’s an AA phrase: ‘It’s easier to act yourself into a new way of thinking then it is to think yourself into a new way of acting.’ And so my advice would be to do it even if you don’t believe yourself. Even if you’re like, ‘It’s not perfect, it’s not right, I’m not ready,’ do it anyway. Put action first, and try and get positive feedback.

I’ve become a meditator in the last year. You know, the chemistry of your brain is not a fixed thing. Giving ourselves moments of pause, giving ourselves positive feedback literally changes the next thought we have, which can give you the confidence to do the thing. So just that sort of belief – meditating on self-compassion, self-love, doing the thing even if you’re not completely confident, and just allowing a feedback loop of good things to begin, in the place of a feedback loop of negative things. If there’s some way to get that started, do it, do it, do it.

Support Braddock Tiles and the Konbit Shelter project at Heliotrope Foundation.

This article originally appeared in Huck 53 – The Change Issue. Buy a copy in the Huck Shop now or subscribe today to make sure you never miss another issue.