I returned to New Orleans this June after many years of absence to participate in two unique yet intertwined cultural events focused around the artist SWOON. Known as “Callie” to her friends and collaborators; I found her intelligence, tenacity and abundant talent uniquely balanced by a disarmingly humble and gentle voice.
SWOON who has been traveling for the past six years creating exhibitions and workshops in the United States, Europe and beyond is best known for her collaborations with Brooklyn based art collectives and her far-reaching iconic street art. The unique trademark of her street art is the lack of spray paint and favoring large-scale renderings or cut-outs wheat pasted on to exteriors of buildings. The work depicts thoughtful portraits of real people, often her friends and family. Riding bikes, talking on a stoop or creating something, the subjects both blend and contrast to the urban environment they are borne out of. There is a unique mythology created by the scale of Swoon’s work combined with the evocative gaze and stance the figures.
SWOON is well known also for her community minded approach to collaboration and revitalization in global communities struggling to survive difficult circumstances.
New Orleans Airlift is a multi-disciplinary arts organization that produces and facilitates innovative artistic opportunities for New Orleans-based artists locally and around the globe. My closest friend, Delaney Martin is the founder and tireless leader of this inspiring organization. Two years ago, Airlift brought SWOON to their city for her first wave of iconic street art paste-ups with the goal of a long-term collaboration. Their objective was realized with the conception of the “DITHYRAMBALINA”, a collaborative and permanent landmark project to be built in the Bywater/Ninth Ward of New Orleans (one of the areas hardest hit by the floodwaters of Katrina) out of the remnants of a fallen home.
This project gained attention and support when the New Orleans Museum of Art chose to feature SWOON as first in a series of site-specific commissioned projects in their great hall. While Airlift and NOMA seemed an unlikely pair it confirms the absolute dedication of New Orleans creative community to help revive the city landscape.
From the moment I stepped off the plane I knew it would be a “working”vacation. With only three days until the museum opening and Airlift party I was absorbed into the frenzy of work which included painting walls, building fences, hanging art, walking dogs, & hauling bags of ice. While my help was miniscule compared to the scale of what needed to happen, it was part of the whole. The whole being a group of local and non-local artists, craftsmen, curators, musicians, neighbors, store-owners, students, philanthropists and friends who worked tirelessly helping make SWOON’s projects happen.
These contributions are graciously and readily acknowledged by SWOON. “The work that people know of mine,” SWOON said, “is usually complex large-scale projects that involve a lot of people, it’s the kind of situation where my name or my personality is the most tied to the project, but there’s a large underlying community of artists who are each realizing their own dreams in their own ways, and reaching out to each other and getting together and working really hard to make things happen, and I feel like that is the single most important force in my life and my art-making.”
SWOON’S installation in NOMA’S great hall further explores mythology by depicting a towering female deity with delicate yet massive tentacles extending below her body. Aptly named “THALASSA” after the Greek goddess who represented the primeval mother of all sea creatures, the piece explores the integral relationship of city and sea, past and present. It also references the “women of Storyville’s Red-light district” who were historically depicted as ensnaring and destroying the citizens of New Orleans. Thus “THALASSA” depicts a provocative juxtaposition of menacing verses maternal with the power to create and destroy at will.
The second event billed as an after-party felt to many like the main event …The New Orleans Airlift’s party took place on the aptly named Piety Street lot, the site of the future “DITHYRAMBALINA” project. As night fell on a makeshift dance floor surrounded by decay and beautiful foliage it was clear that the new musical house that would take shape was a triumph in the wake of tragedy. The community who helped to make these projects possible is looking to the future with great respect for the past.
What made New Orleans a magical place for me all those years ago did not wash away with Katrina…Instead it transcended and is flourishing with the help of the many people who stayed or returned to build it back up.
Jane Kate Wood