The “C” Files with Maria Brito

FULL EPISODE

Swoon

Maria Brito and artist Swoon meet in Swoon’s studio in Brooklyn to discuss drug addiction, vulnerability, motherhood, trauma and how being an artist saved her life. The episode also includes interviews with gallery owner Jeffrey Deitch in his SoHo gallery and Anthony Nave, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and senior manager at Mountainside, an addiction treatment center.

AIRED: November 13, 2019 | 0:13:16
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TRANSCRIPT

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Caledonia Curry, known as "Callie" to her friends,

known as "Swoon" to the world, is an extraordinary artist

whose practice spans from murals and street art

to incredible worlds within worlds

and installations in museums,

and she is the embodiment of what it means

to be an activist and an artist.

She has inspired so many people

because she's accessible and everything she does

has humanity at the center of it.

She has had the most difficult childhood.

Both her parents were addicted to heroin.

And she actually was able to become

this incredibly successful artist that she is.

Callie...

Hi. [ Chuckles ] ...hi.

You have been pretty vocal

about the addiction of your parents... Mm-hmm.

...and how scary, frightening, chaotic

that world was for you as a child.

Talk about how you came through the other side.

You know, I think that, for years,

I just ran from my -- from my childhood.

You know, I sort of just burst out of the gate,

and I was going and I was going,

and I-I kind of thought that I had gotten away.

And then in my late 20s, early 30s,

my life started to really fall apart

in the sense that I was just doing things

that I couldn't live with.

I was acting in, like, wild, abusive, chaotic ways myself.

You know there are ways in which that happened unconsciously

where I would just kind of, like, put all my energy

into my work, where I could just feel

that I had all this restlessness

and rage and, like, desire and all these things,

and I was like, "Who am I? What is this person?"

You know, there was a ton

of really serious mental illness in my family.

There was a ton of really serious drug addiction,

and I just figured that,

like, you know, set the stopwatch.

When when do I get mine? Like, when does it happen?

You know, I thought it was about genetics.

I thought that we were really damaged.

And what I learned is that there was damage

but that it was psychological and emotional damage

and that it could be healed.

And so when I was able to stand up and say,

"Yeah, okay, so my parents were addicted to heroin.

I love them. I'm alive. I'm whole.

You know, I see what happened, and yet I forgive them,"

I was able to kind of make my life whole

and say, "I don't have to forget things.

I don't have to hide things. I can be who I am.

I can bring it into my artwork. I can share it."

And then I became able

to actually take the true stories of my life

and try to put them into work directly

and to create healing in that way.

How do you explain cases of people like Callie?

She had a very traumatic childhood,

yet she overcame that trauma.

Nave: Being able to do art

helped her get through those times

because if you're focused on the strokes, the colors,

the way you're drawing them,

how hard are you going to push on the pencil,

you're not thinking about everything else.

So, it's almost a form of meditation in itself

to help you come into that window of tolerance,

to be able to process these things

and cope and soothe yourself.

I'm guessing her parents didn't have some of those

coping skills or some of that sense of safety

from other people in their lives.

And it's not just like, "They're druggies.

They just decided to go through that

because it was so much easier for them to go

and just do the right thing."

If that would be the case,

I guess they wouldn't have done it.

If you haven't been struggling with addiction yourself,

it's just hard to imagine that happening.

But if you understand that the part that takes the most damage

as you go through continued use

is the part that's your personality,

the part that even thinks about right or wrong,

and to be on the outside and trying to imagine that

or understand it, it's like, "Nah.

If you can't see it, it's not broken,"

but there is suffering

and there is something physically going on.

It's not a choice or a lack of morality.

There is something you said

that by drawing certain portraits

and combining certain pieces together

in one big installation

helped you figure out puzzles of your life.

How did that happen?

Well, how it started was I learned that a lot of trauma

is stored in the nervous system

and that in order to heal kind of childhood-trauma things

that are that are buried very deeply in your past,

you need to do very deep work.

So one of the things that came up for me

was a deeply buried fear

that my mom, when she was suicidal

or when she was going through a psychotic episode,

that she was in danger of killing me,

that she wanted to kill me.

And it was one of those things that, as a child,

my mind couldn't let that fear out.

I had to bury it.

But when I started to dig into this work,

I was able to access it, and what happens in trauma

is that the psyche is trying to escape

its present circumstance.

Something's so difficult to deal with

that the mind wants to get away from it.

And one of the ways that you can get away from it

is by kind of splitting the channels of your mind,

so "This isn't happening to me" or "I'm somewhere else"

or "I'm someone else" or, you know,

"my brain has created

a different environment to be in,"

and I found that I was doing those things.

I was creating different environments to be in.

I was creating different memories.

And so I started with an image of disassociation

which you so wisely put as like a puzzle, right?

That it's like a puzzle and all its pieces are scattered.

So I took this scattered image,

and then I started tagging it

with memories, stories, pieces of reading,

things I learned,

and then I started to put them back together

through the artwork.

And once I put all those pieces back together,

I found that I had a whole story that made sense

and it was a story about somebody

who could listen to themselves,

who could believe their own mind and memories,

and who could say, "That's in the past now.

I'm alive. I'm whole. I'm okay.

I'm finding a way to heal."

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How do you draw your mom with all the pain that you had

and put yourself in her arms

in such a loving, nurturing moment?

You started here, or you started here?

I started there. Right.

I started there. That was --

That was, like, the present moment,

and then I sort of looked back and kind of found this,

and I was just doing a lot of deciding about how to --

you know, how to bring her story in,

but I felt like I really wanted, when I saw this

and it was, like, her and her absolute sweetness,

and I just wanted to hold that, as well.

That was a picture you guys had?

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

From the time that my mom was diagnosed with cancer

until she died, it was only three months,

so it was a kind of a short period of time,

and I was down in Florida,

and I was taking care of her and spending time with her,

and my world kind of stopped at that moment.

And the thing about artmaking for me

is that it's kind of like this pole

that's, like, in the center of your world,

and that the wind is blowing and your feet are off the ground

and you feel like you're getting sucked away,

but there's one thing you can hold on to.

So I drew her as she was sick and as she was dying,

and it was almost like a choiceless choice.

Like, I-I almost had to draw her

because I couldn't do anything else.

Like, I couldn't survive another way.

I had to stop what I was doing and draw her.

And it was terrifying and it was scary,

but, also, there was a lot of love there,

and so that's why you see the love in this portrait.

But there's -- You know, there's sort of terrifying elements

of the kind of cycles of life and death

and the sort of sense of things being reduced to ashes

but born again.

But this drawing, for me, was one of those things

where I just -- it was how I survived.

Jeffrey, thank you so much for having me.

Well, thank you so much for your interest in Swoon.

You remember the first time you found her work?

Oh, yes. Well, like so many other people in New York,

I saw her work on the streets.

I remember seeing the first work in Chinatown.

And it's startling.

You do a double-take because the figures are so strong

and animated even though they're flat.

They look like they're alive.

And...

of course, I asked, "Who is that?"

And, finally, people said, "Oh, well, that's Swoon."

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Many artists stimulate us

with philosophical issues, formal and conceptual issues.

Well, Swoon has that, as well.

But on top of that,

there's a deep humanity, deep sympathy for people.

Street art has been a boys' club,

and very few women enter into this discourse,

so it's very tough and aggressive work --

fearless, but it's also totally feminine.

Brito: What I also love about Swoon

is this very important combination

of art and activism.

Well, art and activism is something

that almost every younger artist is talking about today,

and artists are more and more concerned

that they need to do something more than produce

another work for an art fair.

So, Swoon has from the beginning.

It's not that she changed

and said, "Oh, I have to be an activist now."

This is central to where she's always been.

Well, and I think we're all very grateful

for giving her that chance in 2005.

We all need artists like Swoon.

Well, with Swoon, I had to fight to get her in the gallery.

She was very reluctant.

But it turned out great.

And we literally closed down the street.

From Green to Worcester, just a sea of bodies.

And Swoon emerges from the gallery

of this crowd like a rock star,

and she is lifted up by the crowd

and is held up

and floats above these hundreds of people.

It's an amazing photograph.

It's one of, like, a religious ecstasy.

Can you tell me about the work

that you have done in Philadelphia

with rehab patients, inmates,

people who want to become valuable members of society

after they've gone through their moments of Hell?

Mm-hmm.

Around the time that I started to really connect

with the struggle that I went through in my own family

and to be honest about the amount of suffering

that it takes to get people to a place

where they are deeply addicted to drugs

or where they have committed a crime

that they and the rest of society can't live with,

I felt this powerful desire to be part of the dialog

around understanding what gets us to that place

and that any of us could get to that place

and that any of us can come back from that place.

And so they started this Arts Community Center,

Philly Mural Arts did,

you know, which sounds kind of unlikely.

You're like, "Is artmaking really what we need

in, like, the middle of the opioid epidemic?"

And I believe and they believe

that the answer is "yes"

and that it's part of a larger answer

but the answer is, "Absolutely, yes."

And so they offer people a space to come in,

to wash their hands, to get clean,

and to just to make art and be listened to.

And what that does

is it gives people a way to calm down,

to get in touch with their feelings a little bit,

and to begin to consider other options.

Like, "Maybe I do want to try to get a bed in a rehab,"

or, like, "Maybe I do want to call my mom, actually,"

or, you know, these things, these decisions

that you don't even have time and space to make

when you're living homeless out on the street,

just hustling for your next fix,

that you need someone

to give you a little bit of care and a little bit of silence

and a little bit of, you know, something beautiful.

I have not met many people like you.

I haven't, and I've met a lot of people in my life.

So I want to say thank you for opening up

your studio, your life, your heart

and a chance to see that human beings

go through very difficult things.

They can come on the other side.

Thank you. I appreciate that so much.

[ Both laugh ]

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