NY artist Swoon creates sea goddess at DIA and on mural

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

The New York street artist known as Swoon is up to her neck in Detroit projects.

The 38-year-old, more formally known as Caledonia Curry, just spent a week with several assistants meticulously reassembling her vast paper sculpture, “Thalassa,” now hanging just outside the Great Hall at the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Next week she starts on a large mural in the city’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood that will act as a companion piece to the DIA installation. And on Oct. 8, Swoon has a solo show opening at Detroit’s Library Street Collective.

“Thalassa” was originally commissioned by the New Orleans Museum of Art. “It was just a few months after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill,” the artist says. “I’m a Floridian, and very much an ocean person. I was shocked at how much I grieved that spill.”

For succor, she turned to the primordial Greek goddess of the sea, who in her hands rises from the waters with a triumphant look on her face.

“She’s very much about man’s relationship with nature and the oceans,” Swoon says. “I think I was dealing with re-finding our relationship with water.”

DIA Director Salvador Salort-Pons says he loves Swoon’s approach.

“She works from very simple materials, and is able to create dream-like, inspiring works of art. And with my background in mythology,” he adds, “I love the image of Thalassa emerging from the waters.”

The chance to link a museum installation with a mural on Detroit’s east side, he adds, was also too good to pass up. “It’s a way for us to reach out to the Jefferson-Chalmers community and bring new audiences to the DIA.”

Signs at both museum and mural, which will be at 14635 E. Jefferson, will encourage visitors to check out the related piece across town.

“Thalassa” will be on display through March 17. The artist will speak about her work at the Detroit Film Theatre at 1 p.m. Saturday.

This isn’t Swoon’s only visit to the Motor City. She first came for a conference in 2006. She returned in 2010 to contribute to a Power House Productions project refashioning several abandoned houses on Detroit’s Moran Street, where she installed a number of her trademark wheat-paste paper portraits.

Classically trained at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute, Swoon says she quickly realized conventional painting wasn’t for her.

“I just didn’t feel making a square on a wall was enough,” she says. “I was in love with New York City, and wanted to make something that would inextricably be a part of it.”

So she turned to intricately cut and painted black-and-white paper portraits, often of friends and family, which she wheat-pasted on industrial buildings all around Brooklyn and Manhattan.

“I wanted to bring people close to the work,” she says. “I make them human-scale and close to the ground, so you have a one-on-one experience. I call them ‘vessels of empathy.’ ”

Of course, getting harassed by the authorities is an occupational risk for the street artist — just ask Shepard Fairey about his adventures in Detroit — but Swoon insists she’s never been arrested.

“The reason I haven’t,” she explains, “is that wheat paste comes off really easy if anyone objects.”

Her show at Library Street Collective, “The Light After,” will feature a number of those paper portraits, including a particularly affecting one starring her mother, who died of lung cancer, represented as both skeleton and happy young woman holding a toddler.

It’s just one element from her large 2014 “Submerged Motherlands” show at the Brooklyn Museum.

“My mother died three years ago,” Swoon says, and the artist had a prophetic dream just about the time her mother crossed over.

“It was snowing in the dream,” she recalls, “but the snow passed right through my body, emerging as these blossoms of light. And throughout, my mom was talking to me. I woke up weeping and thought, ‘Oh, that was Mom dying.’ ”

It left Swoon with a fierce curiosity about dying and near-death experiences — and seemingly clairvoyant dreams like hers, which are not entirely uncommon.

“The Light After” will attempt to recreate in hanging paper sculptures what people describe after they’ve been revived.

“They commonly talk about a tunnel,” Swoon says, “and a beautiful place they’re trying to get to, but can’t once they’re pulled back.”

Swoon hopes the hanging paper labyrinths she’s creating in Library Street’s front gallery, which represent the tunnel, will leave patrons with a sense of wonder.

“I like people to feel totally immersed in a world they haven’t been in before,” she says. “I always love that feeling — that freshness and surprise.”


(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy


Through March 17

Detroit Institute of Arts, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Tues.- Thurs.; 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sat.-Sun.

Free for residents of Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties

Nonresidents: $12.50 adults, $8 seniors, $6 youth (6-17); kids 5 and under free

(313) 833-7900


Swoon speaks

1 p.m. Oct. 1

Detroit Film Theatre, 5200 Woodward, Detroit

Free with museum admission

(313) 833-7900


‘Swoon: The Light After’

Oct. 8-Nov. 26

Library Street Collective, 1260 Library, Detroit

Noon-6 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday

(313) 600-7443