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.
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.
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."
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?
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.
of course, I asked, "Who is that?"
And, finally, people said, "Oh, well, that's Swoon."
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?
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 ]