It’s hard not to be affected by Swoon’s passionate and visually stunning idealism, the Brooklyn-based artist has made a career of large beautiful drawings and prints of people who convey hope, strength, and personal power. They are passionate portrayals framed by the trappings of our everyday world but always with an emotional connection that shines through. Her humanist approach to art seeps through into other aspects of her life and work, and her latest project, Braddock Tiles, in North Braddock, Pennsylvania, builds on that sensitivity to the challenges facing people in their lives and hopes to create something new for the people of this post-industrial suburb of Pittsburgh.
Initially known as a street artist, Swoon says she viewed her work on the street as “a simple gesture of making something that was part of its place.” She has since extended that idea, to make things that are now even more rooted in location, by creating projects that would become permanent. She realized that her interests revolved around community-based work, but she also knew that she had to find a way to create an impact that would speak to her skills and strengths.
“The thing for me is that I believe that in order to be the most effective in the world, we have to bring who we really actually are,” she says. “I got this impulse — mostly when I was in my 20s — where I would want to go somewhere and help by doing some random volunteerism or something. And I’d get there and realize, you know what, this is not what I’m most effective at, what I’m most effective at is the thing I’m fucking good at. So I started to more and more to try and figure out how to take this urge to be involved and to be a force for the better, and to align that with being true to who I really am, because that’s where you’re going to be the most powerful, I think. For me I always forefront that question, ‘how do I take who I am as an artist and creative thinker and apply that to this situation so that there will be an outcome for the better for everyone involved?'”
That drive has led her to becoming part of projects in devastated locales across the continent. In Haiti, she worked with locals to build a new architectural style that responded to the earthquake and hurricane-prone realities and ensured more security for the residents. While in post-Katrina New Orleans, she experimented with the idea of musical architecture, which blends the city’s distinctive craft and architectural traditions with its world-renowned music scene.
In North Braddock, Swoon and members of the Transformazium artist collective are working with the local community to transform an early-20th-century church that was set to be demolished into an arts-focused community hub. They know that the project won’t be easy but Swoon is committed to making it happen.
North Braddock, like many other midwestern communities, was devastated when local factories and steel mills closed and jobs disappeared without any new ones to replace them. Swoon’s new project, which is a work in progress, will revitalize a building that has long stood neglected at the heart of the community.
The first time Swoon stepped foot in Braddock in 2006, there was a “heaviness” she didn’t expect. “A lot of people want to romanticize decay, and want to romanticize urban blight, and this wasn’t a situation that you could romanticize,” she says. “I really want to create the world I want to live in, and for me that includes considerations of joyfulness and beauty. Deep down, I believe that when you create an environment that brings out the kind of wonder and joyful nature of all of us that’s the medium through which a lot of growth can happen … We should not leave out the nourishment of the spirit.”
Braddock Tiles hopes to create a small artisanal tile workshop in the church that will initially produce colorful tiles to fix the roof. If everything goes well then the project could expand, but Swoon wants to take it one step at a time.
As an artist, she brings her rich maximalist aesthetic to the project and her network of people that have helped her realize other projects through the years.
“It makes me a little sad to see some of the more spartan conceptual bent in our art making practices come to represent a conservative meanness. I feel like I want to breathe some life into it sometimes,” she says.
It’s hard not to see how her many projects through the years, including such unusual endeavors as her Swimming Cities boat project, are connected by their desire for alternatives. She attributes that impulse partly to her childhood, being raised by parents who struggled with heroin addiction and alcoholism. At a young age, she was forced to confront her mother’s lifelong battle with mental illness and suicide, and in the process a young Swoon learned to grapple with the ugly realities of trauma and addiction and mental illness.
“While learning how to forgive my mother, I came to understand the effects of trauma in the human psyche,” she says. “I’ve always had an instinctual drive to try to create alternatives. So I would guess that this desire to create spaces of wonder has a strong link with my own discovery of art making when I was ten, and how it literally saved my world, gave me a place for my entire mind and heart to blossom and to feel value, curiosity, affirmation and all of these things. I want to pass it on because of the value it gave me in my life.”
Braddock Tiles is one of those alternatives, which has the potential to help inject art and some industry into a place that desperately needs jobs and skilled work. Swoon also knows that she is getting as much from this project as she is contributing. “It is teaching me to make a commitment and stick with it,” she says. “I resist the narrative of ‘oh, this poor situation.'”
Her skills as an artist are being put to good use. As she explains it. “I’m eager for the transformative moment of taking something old and making something new,” she says. In the old days we may have called that alchemical transformation a form of magic, but today we more often than not call it simply art.
An Evening in Celebration of Braddock Tiles, produced by Superchief Gallery, will take place on Saturday, November 16, 2013, 4–9 pm at the Anita Shapolsky Gallery (152 East 65th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan). Tickets ($10) are available online at Eventbrite. Hyperallergic is the proud media partner for the benefit. A new series of prints by Dustin Yellin, RETNA, Swoon, The Conner Brothers, ROA, Faile, and more are set to be released at the event to benefit the project in addition those already available by Duke Riley, Dan Witz, Chris Stain, and others at braddocktiles.org.