Am I in love? Maybe. I’ve never met her, but she’s a 30-something street artist/ social justice activist who goes by the tag Swoon, although her birth name is also pretty fabulous — Caledonia “Callie” Curry. For years, her powerful portraits could be found illegally wheat-pasted on the sides of neglected buildings in gritty Brooklyn’s back alleys.
For much of 2014, the Brooklyn Museum devoted its 5th-floor rotunda to Swoon’s Hurricane Sandy-inspired installation. I was lucky enough to see this fantastical landscape — rafts made of salvaged junk (wood scraps, old pipes, bicycle and car parts, rope), larger-than-life portraits including one of Swoon’s ailing mother who recently died of cancer, and a meditation-gazebo topped with a depiction of a breastfeeding woman.
From the clutter representing our fragile, dislocated lives with their alarming cycles of growth and decay, rose a magnificent fabric tree (akin to the sacred but endangered Mapou in Haiti). It drew our gaze, repeatedly, to the rotunda skylight, as if we might find relief from our environmental anxieties up there with the delicate cut paper foliage. Swoon believes “we can create little cracks in the façade of impossibility and inevitability.” Standing at the foot of that tree, I, too, believed.
A Tree Grows at the People’s Climate March
Swoon’s “Tree of Life” will rise again, Sunday, September 21, on Manhattan’s 11th Avenue at 35th Street. As we reach the end of the People’s Climate March, we will be invited to inscribe on a ribbon what we fear losing to climate chaos and tie the message to the tree. It will be a visual representation of MLK’s assertion, “We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”
An ambulance driven by two women pulled away from the Lawrence Lab in Berkeley on May 2, 1982. But, while other ambulances raced to rescue sick or injured people that day, this one raced to rescue planet Earth. It was an emergency.
The Earth Ambulance was the vision of Helène Aylon. For years, she worked alone, isolated in her studio, until she heard a lecture by Dr. Helen Caldicott, the famous antinuclear activist from Australia. Aylon vowed then to use her art to bring people together to heal the Earth.
After urging activists not to “cringe from the visionary, the utopian,” Aylon led a women’s caravan on a ceremonial journey across the U.S., stopping at 12 Strategic Air Command (S.A.C.) nuclear bases to collect samples of earth. The soil was put into pillowcases decorated with women’s Earth dreams and nightmares.
The caravan arrived in New York City in time for the historic June 12th March for Disarmament. The women unloaded the full pillowcases from the ambulance and poured the soil onto old army stretchers from Korea and Vietnam.
In solemn procession, they carried the stretchers through a crowd of one million, to a park near the U.N. and poured the ailing earth into 12 grave-length transparent boxes, each box neatly labeled for the soil it held. There was sandy soil from Vandenberg S.A.C. in southern California; clay-colored earth from Los Alamos; dark red earth from the atomic lab near Pittsburgh. Passersby stopped to look at the planet’s soil, moved by its beauty.
Months later, pillowcases from the Earth Ambulance were hung like laundry on clotheslines in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. For two weeks, people stopped to read Earth dreams and nightmares. At night, women camped out there, the dream-laden “sacks” hanging over them, waving in the breeze. Plaza police looked on, mistakenly assuming that official permission had been granted.
I got to see the pillowcases in the Plaza and again at the Seneca Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice, where I added one to the collection.
In 1992, I saw the Earth Ambulance, sans rescued soil. Aylon had filled it to the top with seeds from Native American lands and parked it in the Brooklyn Bridge Anchorage. Pillowcases were hung on clotheslines above the ambulance, while a video played, showing the caravan’s 1982 trip.
I still have the handful of seeds viewers were invited to take as a memento of hope for the planet’s future.
To Go Deeper
“Life of Wonderment: Swoon Blurs the Line Between Art and Activism” by Melena Ryzik, The New York Times, August 6, 2014,
“Brooklyn Museum Features Swoon: ‘Submerged Motherlands‘” by Richard Friswell, Artes Magazine, July 2, 2014
Website: The Climate Ribbon
“Walrus TV Artist Feature: Swoon Interview from The Run Up” (10 minutes)
“Submerged Motherlands” environmental art at the Brooklyn Museum, 2014 (3 minutes)
“The S.A.C./ SAC Voyage of the Earth Ambulance” by Helène Aylon, WEAD (Women Environmental Artists Directory) Issue #5
“A Woman on a Mission” by Leslie Knowlton, Los Angeles Times, February 24, 1995
Book: Whatever Is Contained Must Be Released: My Jewish Orthodox Girlhood, My Life as a Feminist Artist, by Helène Aylon, The Feminist Press, 2012 (Also available on Kindle)
“Bridge of Knots” Helene Aylon’s pillowcase performance art (2 minutes)