Responding as an artist to a natural disaster to aid in recovery is something close to the heart of Brooklyn street artist Callie Curry—better known by her tag name, Swoon. After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, she found herself pondering the most effective way to help, and this lead to the creation of The Konbit Shelter Project, a building program comprised of artists, builders, architects and engineers working to build permanent, sustainably-designed structures for the people of Haiti.
When disaster struck much closer to home last year—as Superstorm Sandy flooded subway tunnels and streets, caused power outages, destroyed homes and businesses and took the lives of 44 people—Curry again wondered what she could do to help. Exactly one year after the hurricane swept into the city, her mural highlighting the vulnerability and resilience of New Yorkers in the wake of the storm will be unveiled on the Bowery Mural wall at Bowery and Houston in Manhattan this Tuesday, Oct. 29 at 4:30pm.
Though Curry is fabricating the Bowery Mural using her signature paper cutout and wheat paste technique, the piece is a unique collaborative between Curry and 30 New York City-area teens. The design will incorporate elements and designs of four hurricane recovery murals in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Queens, created by teens through Groundswell New York, an organization that has promoted public, collaborative art to spark community activism and discussion for the past 17 years.
Curry led a series of master class workshops for the teens—participants in Groundswell’s Summer Leadership Institute program, as well as young people from the Sandy recovery areas, recruited with the help of Groundswell’s community partners—before they created murals about post-Sandy healing and recovery in four of the hardest-hit areas: the Rockaways, Staten Island, Red Hook and Coney Island. Groundswell is looking to continue the Sandy Recovery series, and a fifth mural is currently underway in Sunset Park, as part of the Come Together: Surviving Sandy art exhibition, which kicked off Oct. 20. Visitors to the event, which is open to the public Oct. 26–27 and Nov. 2–3 from 10am–5pm can watch the young participating artists paint the piece.
Curry describes working with the teens as “a total explosion of energy” in a Groundswell video about the project, as they toured Curry’s Brooklyn studio and learned more about her signature printmaking, before creating the murals inspired by her design. Curry, in turn, is combining the imagery in those pieces to create the Bowery mural, which unlike the five other permanent murals, will only be on view for the next three months.
“One of the reasons that I wanted to work with Groundswell is because I feel like they have a really long tradition of using art as a community-building technique,” Curry says in the video. “I believe that color and beauty and culture and all of those things that some people really think of as luxuries are actually something that really are like inspiriting to people, and particularly in difficult situations.”
Curry is a longtime supporter of Groundswell, which became interested in seeing how public art and murals might be included as part of a short-term post-Sandy rebuilding effort. The organization also partnered with LISC New York City, a non-profit community development institution, to create the neighborhood murals.
To gather community input and personal stories of the hurricane, the Groundswell leadership institute participants interviewed residents of the affected areas in the spring, before creating the murals. The communities also gave feedback on the mural designs with presentations and during public design sharing events. The teens from the areas also incorporated their own experiences with the storm into the artworks.
The immediate impact of street art and the ability to reach a broad audience are what drew Curry to the art form as a student at Pratt Institute in the 1990s, according to her TEDx Brooklyn talk. This sense of immediacy and community reach is also at the heart of the Groundswell mural project.
“Public art is a powerful tool to support healing and recovery for communities in need,” says Amy Sananman, Groundswell’s founder and executive director. “The rebuilding effort is going to take a long time and is an ongoing process. The creation of a mural allows us to bring people together around issues that still need to be talked about and addressed.”