Mural Arts artist helps addicts tell their stories

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Artist Swoon, (left) and Interim House resident Kera Smith work on art as part of "Open Source" - the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program's citywide exhibition. Swoon's deceased mother was an addict. ( YONG KIM / Staff Photographer )

The artists invited to contribute to "Open Source" - the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program's temporary, citywide exhibition taking place this month - were given an artist's fee, a project budget, and access to vast swaths of the city as their canvases. In return, they were required to work with underserved Philadelphians, from prison inmates to schoolchildren.

 

But for Swoon - Connecticut artist Caledonia Curry - leading art-therapy sessions with recovering addicts at Interim House wasn't just public service. It was personal.

Curry's mother, who died two years ago, was an addict.

"As I tried to put her life into perspective, I wanted to do work that addresses addiction directly by working with a community in recovery," she said. "I have this gift in my life of having a practice that allows me to channel a lot of unbearable stuff. My thought was: Can I share this process with people? Can I share this thing that helps me?"

Swoon's own work, a series of murals, will be installed over the weekend at 1728 Sansom St., 2001 Frankford Ave., and 1220 Spring Garden St. And Swoon and her collaborators - including mental health counselor Jessica Radovich - will share their stories and speak about healing from trauma through art at the Institute of Contemporary Art at 6 p.m. Saturday.

It's a departure for Swoon, better known for her large-scale performative works, including elaborately ramshackle flotillas, like the Miss Rockaway Armada that sailed into Philadelphia in 2011; an artistic encampment at the center of Sao Paulo, Brazil; and an initiative to build houses out of soil in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there.

These portraits, she said, will be more intimate and specific. They're drawn from a series of in-depth conversations and collaboration with subjects.

The process began in the spring, when Swoon started working with inmates at Graterford, participants in the Mural Arts Program's Guild restorative justice program, and residents at Interim House, which treats female addicts and assists in recovery.

With each group, she and Radovich led four weeks of sessions.

On the final night at Interim House, she encouraged each woman to present her work - a personal fable of addiction, pain, and survival.

One woman collaged an owl being swarmed by bats, another a manatee being dragged underwater.

"One thing about making good artwork is to let people see you struggle," Swoon told them. "I love to see that there was a thought process and a struggle."

Beth Shannon of West Chester collaged a phoenix rising from flames - an image of rebirth.

"My life up until now feels like it was almost fictional. It was struggling with my addiction and the abusive people in my life," she said.

She's looking for renewal and said making art seemed to help.

"All of us have some sort of substance-abuse history, but also trauma and grief. This is a new way of learning how to think. It's a lot easier to express myself through this."

Sonia Gonzalez of North Philadelphia had expected the sessions would be essentially coloring in someone else's design. Instead, she found herself digging deep into the sources of her addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder: domestic violence, abuse, loss of family members.

"I never knew it was going to be this," she said, gesturing to a collage she'd made depicting both her demons and the memories that bring her solace.

Gonzalez suffers from PTSD, with flashbacks and emotionally induced seizures. She said by working through her past with art, she was about to find a new way of coping.

"I can deal with my flashbacks in a soothing way. They were no longer scary and made me feel powerless. There was a way I could fight them off, going to this safe place within myself. It helped me with a breakthrough."

She plans to continue the practice after leaving Interim House and wants to share what she's learned with her 8-year-old grandson so they can paint and draw together.

"That way," she said, "he can put all his feelings on paper, so he'll never have to endure what I went through. He can break a vicious cycle that's been going on within our family."

Gonzalez and two others will share their stories at the panel discussion Saturday and are featured in the murals by Swoon, who works in linoleum-block prints on paper. Though the images will only hint at their personal stories, the narratives will be accessible online for those who want to learn more.

The project is, in some ways, a throwback to when Swoon began her career as a street artist pasting up portraits on paper around New York City.

But it also represents a new direction for her creatively. "I was doing a lot of thinking about what it means to tell someone's story for them," she said.

For her, these portraits are affirmations.

"People who find themselves in jail or in recovery, there hasn't been a lot of opportunities to see themselves as beautiful or perfect," she said. "These portraits are a chance to give them that loving attention."

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