[January 12, 2021]
Welcome back to Crip Times! We hope you were able to find some moments of rest over the few weeks since you last heard from us.
This week, Yousef and Kristina talk to Gloria Swain about making art as an older, Mad, Black, female artist and activist, the barriers in society and the sector. Gloria speaks about how her art and curatorial practices are part of the healing process for her. We talk about dancing as an integral part of art and healing processes (we love Gloria’s dancing on her Instagram page!)
“I’m creating my own legacy. So, when I’m gone my art’s still gonna be here.”
We speak about Gloria’s artistic legacy, changes we want to see in the future of the Candian art sector, and how we may go about making those changes. Gloria speaks about how the support she’s received in the art sector has impacted her practice. We wrap up this episode speaking about what Gloria is working on right now, how you can find her, and Gloria shares some words of wisdom we can all find peace in.
[Podcast begins: 00:00:00]
Narrator: You’re listening to a Wheels on the Ground Production.
[Jazz music playing]
Yousef Kadoura [YK]: Hello and welcome to the seventh episode of Crip Times.
Kayla Besse [KB]: Today on Crip Times we are joined by Gloria Swain, an interdisciplinary Black, Femme artist and activist with your hosts, and my friends Yousef and Kristina.
[Jazz music continues]
YK: And hello Gloria, thank you so much for joining us on our podcast today. Um, welcome! Welcome, welcome to Crip Times. It’s a pleasure to have you here.
Gloria Swain [GS]: Well thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here! In isolation. [Laughter]
YK: I mean, really there isn’t a better place to be right now.
Kristina McMullin [KM]: In isolation together!
YK: Collective isolation, yes.
GS: I like that.
YK: Uh, yeah, so it’s so great to have you here, Gloria. For our audience could you maybe uh, give a little bit of an introduction as to who you are and what you do?
GS: OK. Uh, my name is Gloria C. Swain. I’m a Black feminist artist, activist, researcher, senior’s rights and mental health advocate. Uh, and disability writer. Uh, I work with installations, abstract geometric paintings, performance art, and black and white photography. Uh, my art practice challenges systematic oppression against Black women and Trans folks. To explore and connect and to bring awareness to how our past traumas of slavery and overall colonial violence against Black mental health.
KM: Wow. So, basically you’re a brilliant human uh, creating work amongst a less than brilliant world. And given that we are in the midst of the Covid-19 uh, pandemic, are you able to share uh, with us how your art making practice has been impacted by Covid-19 um, in this time?
GS: This will probably be my longest response, because yes. Yeah. First let me say as an older Black woman living with chronic illness, illnesses, and being part of a group who is at a higher risk for Covid-19, uh, this pandemic brings to light and confirms for me personally how Madness is produced by my own experiences of isolation, exclusion, poverty, ageism, and the ongoing impact of intergenerational trauma.
[00:03:17] Looking at how COVID-19 has impacted my art practice, um, I have to say not a lot has changed within my work. I still create because creating art is part of my healing process. Um … as, it was never an issue, uh, as far as like say isolation. Um, or creating work because of isolation. I’ve always created work because of, um, I guess it’s a healing process for me. It’s a, it’s a healing journey. So, as for as the Covid impact to my art practice, it’s not a lot. Um, it’s not a lot of changes. I think my biggest challenge is the financial – being hit financially – because of cancelled shows, the lack of funding, which means that I’m unable to purchase art supplies. So that impacts my mental health also because I use art as a way to deal with my depression. Uh, but I have sort of found ways to um, deal with it. So would you like me to talk with the ways I’m dealing with it?
KM: That would be amazing, yes.
GS: In reference to not being able to purchase art supplies because of the lack of funding, I recently put a call out on social media. Uh, and I did receive like a huge response from certain organizations like Glad Day Bookstore, Black Lives Matter Toronto, Trinity Store Video and the Nia Centre for Arts and a few of my Instagram friends delivered arts supplies for me. So, that’s keeping me busy.
Um … and all the ways that I’m dealing with it is I’m limiting my time on social media. Because of the anxiety and stress that I get from being on it so much, uh, looking at the violence with Black bodies, I’m looking at how the pandemic is affecting people who look like me, my age, mainly Black women who live in poverty. So, and for me this is not new. This is something, I have six decades of dealing with these issues so I had to step back for a while.
Um … I’ve created like my own little art space in my bedroom. Uh, let’s see, what else have I done … I’ve scheduled, I try to schedule time, self-care time.
[00:06:01] Because you, I’m stuck here so I don’t have the option of going out. Um … I miss that freedom. So I’ve created a space in my room to create art. And I, but I do have time to like do a lot of work that I didn’t have time to do, like I, I’m documenting my artwork. I have over 80 paintings that I’m doing an inventory. Uh … I try to stay connected to my grandchildren, but they don’t like facetime so that’s an issue! [Laughs]
Um, and I find myself, I go out every morning at like 5 am just for a walk. Just to get some air. I try to avoid the people because no one wears masks, and they don’t practice like the social distancing. And I’m in that group that is high risk group for the, uh, for the uh – virus.
GS: So I think that’s it.
YK: Yeah, I’m sure it must be – I mean, speaking from like us having a similar-ish experience, it is frustrating to be you know, taking all the precautions to protect yourself and then see other people um, in your community not doing the same um, when it is a group effort. Um, but with all those things kind of being said those difficulties um, that your, and changes that you’re experiencing um, during the pandemic, what would – or rather – is there anything um, that is changed or shifted in the world um, due to COVID that you would like to see continue after it?
GS: Uh … oh, I think a lot of community members are taking care of each other which is, I like that! I hopefully, hopefully this is not a one-time thing. Um … so, this might take me into the art spaces [laughs] where everyone’s talking, all the art places are uh, talking about their, showing support for Black Lives Matter. They’re showing support for people who are affected by the virus, um, I just hope that continues. I hope it’s not a one-time thing.
GS: Um … but it’s still a struggle, I feel like I’m doing ok. And I feel like so many people, especially older people and people with disabilities, I see them struggling. And that’s another reason I had to step back from social media. Because, it’s like you’ve seen people in pain and you can’t do anything. So it affects your mental health.
[00:09:00] So I had to step back. So …
Um, you mentioned quite a few times in this about community. How are you finding that you’re building community and maintaining community if you are reducing your time on social media?
GS: I’ve never really had a community. It’s like I’m known in different communities but I’ve never really been a part of a community wherein we come together and I don’t … for me to get that support, um, is not – it has a lot to do with age, also. Most other people that I grew up with I did things with, are no longer around. Or they just stepped out, they just fell off the earth. So, I’m so used to doing things on my own and being by myself. So I don’t – there’s not a big change for me.
KM: Mhmm. And you just mentioned uh, doing a lot of things on your own. And I wanted to talk about how that has informed uh, you as a working artist. You’ve been a working artist in Toronto and across Canada –
GS: A long time!
KM: Many years! I’m wondering if you can, yeah, it’s – I was wondering if maybe you could speak to some of the barriers that you’ve faced in the art sector in Canada. Uh, specifically relating to your identity as a uh, older Black female, Mad, artist who is unapologetically making art about your, your life and your experience.
GS: OK, um … let me say I’ve – okay. Um I’m pretty much known in Toronto most of the art spaces. Uh, but there are still spaces where I am not welcome. Uh … there are still spaces where I’m dismissed as an artist because of who I am, or what I am. And um, let me just say there are lot several spaces, I don’t call any names, but I’ve like, years I’ve been like doing proposals, I’ve been there, they know my work. Um, and then I see on social media where they’re supporting uh, Black Lives Matter, Violence against Black Bodies, they … and these are spaces that don’t have Black employees. They have maybe one or two Black artists once a year. So, it is – it’s like a joke, so it’s – I’m just, that’s one thing that I hope continues. I’m hoping it’s not like, just something to get the media off their backs, I hope they’re serious about improving. There’s a lot improvement that needs to be done.
[00:12:00] But as far as my presence, I don’t really see myself in any of these art spaces. Like I said I’ve tried to get in so many times like, at some point you’ve gotta just say meh, that’s it. I’m done.
Um … even with the funding. After four years of submitting grants, uh, applications – last year was the first time I ever got a grant. Uh … so it’s like, it was like pulling teeth. Like I’ve been doing this work for so long and I just, you know, I’m not – uh – I’m not, uh, irrelevant in the art world. So, um, it’s just like uh, most of – I think – rejections based on how I look. And, and most certainly the work that I do. Um … it’s just a wakeup call for me, put it that way. It’s a wake up call. It’s like – I’m tired. But I’m still gonna create my art. I’ve always created my art for me, and it’s often how people like, acknowledge it and appreciate it, but I don’t do art just to show people. Because it’s – you get disappointed. Um, and there’s also the name calling and the very difficult bossy, difficult to work with, angry Black woman rather than saying oh she’s passionate about her work.
Um … let me just say I don’t know if I can say this word, but there’s a lot of fuckery happening in Toronto in these art spaces. I’m tired of it, so.
YK: Yeah. Well, with all of that, and like you know, the tiredness that comes with those experiences, coupled with you know your existence as uh, incredibly talented artist and person with a lot of life experience, how have those things shaped what is now your curatorial practice?
GS: I do art, I do my work, for me. It’s like – it’s like – I’m creating my own legacy. So, when I’m gone my art’s still gonna be here. So, it’s like I don’t conform to what a lot of these mainstream art spaces expect from an older Black woman as an abstract artist. They always ask, do you do Black art? My response is I’m Black, I’m an artist, this is my art, this is Black art. So I don’t fit in any of these little boxes. I don’t know if that answers your question, sorry!
YK: It provides, I mean it provides some really deep insight into the work that you do. Certainly. But perhaps to rephrase the question, what is the difference in your practice as a curator versus an artist? When you’re curating work, um, by other artists what are you look for? Do you look for something that more sort of mirrors yourself?
[00:15:18] Or are you looking for um, experiences that … or are you looking for something else entirely?
GS: Uh because I am an older artist, and there’s not a lot of older Black artists that I’ve met who lack at it in a generational art frame of mind. So I look for, I try to find artists who maybe travelling the same journey that I’ve travelled but may not have reached a – haven’t had the same experience that I have. Because it’s like, each and everyone has a story and you can always link something together to like create a show. So, I try to find artists um, who I guess um, are well into the work with my vision. And who have a vision similar to that that we can put together and collaborate.
KM: And then to borrow from your language which I think sums up a lot of things very beautifully, um, how does your curatorial practice reject the fuckery that exists in the Toronto art world?
GS: I do what I want, I just do what I want to do. I have a vision and I go for it.
KM: Amazing. And then as someone who was able to an audience member and be a community member or other audience members of your curatorial debut back in, early 2020, Hidden, there was a really powerful written piece that you wrote and was entitled “Holding Space.” And that really spoke to artists who were not present at the exhibition, uh, due to all the negative forces in our society, racism, ableism, sanism. And can you speak, first a little bit about the choices that you made to include a written piece uh, to acknowledge ‘holding space.’
GS: I would say, because as an artist with disabilities, and a Black artist, a female artist, I’m always – I’m used to being excluded. I know that um, my work is not valued by a lot of uh, places. And we are just so easily replaced. So what I want the, the message I want to give is hold a space meant that people with disabilities who are, that they’re not … they’re not replaceable. They’re irreplaceable and that their work is important.
[00:18:09] That they mater and that Holding Space indicates that there is no judgment. It shows compassion and supports what they’re going through when people have a difficult time.
Um, and I wanted to be like a healing process.
KM: Mm! Can you speak maybe a little bit more about uh, this healing process? That’s shown up in your practice?
GS: Sorry, what do you mean?
KM: Well you spoke about how holding space can be a healing process, and I’m wondering if you could talk about maybe some other ways in which your art practice or curatorial practice um, is healing?
GS: I think it’s cause it’s inclusive. Cause a lot of people, that are going through a trauma, they need to feel like they have a place. They need to feel that they’re included. They need to feel that they matter, that they’re important. Uh, that what they’re going through is not overlooked. So, for me being included, uh, being surrounded by people who care about you, people who create spaces for you, is healing. In other words, knowing that somebody cares about you is part of, good, part of the healing process.
YK: Absolutely. Um, so this concept of holding space is it different um, or rather how is it different from um, taking or you know, giving space? Like what’s the … yeah, how’s that sort of work out?
GS: OK. Well, for me in my opinion, holding space allows someone to heal and feel relevant. Um, wherein taking space is like showing up and reclaiming space and place where you’re normally not welcome. Or you’re normally not invited. It’s like guerilla art, you just go in and be seen and be heard.
Um, and then you go back to – for me – a giving space is about sharing space and making artists feel like they belong in that space. Uh, so anytime I do get space I like to bring in artists who don’t normally get space, who aren’t normally included in different communities. And I include that in my art practice, um … because I think everyone needs an opportunity to show their work, to be a part of the work.
YK: Those are all important things to make sure the community I guess is fully emersed in, by having the community fully emersed in the work or the event of something, it takes you know … it just widens and opens up so many more opportunities for everyone else by doing that.
[00:21:10] GS: It invites different community members into the space, so. It’s not just about the artists, it’s about the audience also.
GS: I like to create spaces where people come in and they feel welcome. They feel like they belong there. So for me, that’s what art is. That’s why I like to have a piece where people can touch. You go into a lot of these – you can’t touch, there’s signs: don’t touch, don’t touch.
KM: That’s a really great thing that you just brought up about art as uh, being a place to feel welcome and feel a belonging. Um, in addition to having tactile artwork, what are some other things that you’ve brought into your art practice that you believe make people feel welcome and that they belong when they interact with your work?
GS: I think photographs. I think seeing the artist, I don’t like a lot of Black art photographs. I think to see the artist in different emotions, it says to the audience that ‘ok, this person went through or is going through something. And created this piece.’ And I hope that, I hope my work empowers other people to find creative outlets for what they’re going through.
Oh yes, and I like to uh, throw in a little uh, music to help people dance. [Laughs]
` Oh yeah.
GS: I like that.
I know when, we had the um, one group came for Hidden and I think they were from the Toronto uh, some school. But they enjoyed the art, but then I turned on the music and we just started to dance!
YK: Yeah, I can attest. I’m not a, I’m not a huge dancer myself. I like to say I have two left feet, but um, when, whenever I’ve been in a room and you start you know, dancing or putting on music you have such joy in it you kind of make it contagious for everyone else.
GS: Well, music to me is like art. It’s – it’s – good for you. It’s healing. I know I had posted something on Facebook about uh, I talk about my mental health a lot. And, uh, I got a response from this, another Black woman, saying that when I talked about my mental health she’s like, ‘well, you don’t look like you say you feel because you’re always dancing.’ And I was like, ‘excuse me? [Laughs] I’m like – dancing is part of the healing for me. So.’
KM: So, I’m going to start talking about some hopefully healing questions.
[00:24:05] Um, and I think um, you mentioned earlier in this conversation um, that you are creating your own legacy by creating this art work. Are there words or feelings or emotions, like, what do you believe to be the strongest and most powerful Gloria C. Swain legacy? How do you want your legacy to be remembered by us?
GS: I want my story to be remembered because my art is broken up into my history. My present.
GS: And how I want to be remembered. So, I think – in my performances – I talk about my ancestors. That’s uh, and how their lives affect my life today which is lived intergenerational trauma. And I want people to look at the future, how do we uh, make life better for the next generation? And like – I have like six decades of what’s happening in the world today. So I like, I’ve been fighting this for six decades and it’s very um, I guess … traumatizing. Hurtful to see that this generation is experiencing the same thing that I experienced. Which is the same thing that my parents experienced. And I’m just hoping that my work brings all of these stories to light and hopefully there can be like some type of solution. Because we can’t depend on the man at the top, the government, to like do anything. It’s up to the community, community members to like change the way things are.
So I just hope my, my art makes uh, change – makes changes.
KM: And, I mean, I will say as someone who has worked with you as an artist and curator and had been an audience member to your artwork, it’s definitely – it has definitely changed me, um, and changed my perspective of how I see the world and specifically see the art world. But also just for me, I feel like your work has been a catalyst for me to more um, lay the ground of what I believe to be a true truth in myself of how I want to operate in the world. Um, so I mean … thank you for your work and it is so intentional and I believe it does illicit this type of response that you want it to illicit.
Um … I was also wondering if you could speak a little bit about your dreams for future. In your dream, what does the landscape of the Canadian art sector look like?
GS: Ah, okay! I got a good response for that one.
[00:27:13] In my dreams. I wrote, I don’t dream about art I create art. Um, and [inaudible], I have insomnia. So there’s my superpower. But I do have a vision for the future of Canadian art. Um, I would like to see older Black female Mad artists, artists with disabilities included as part of that landscape. We shouldn’t have to fight for space. We shouldn’t have – you know – the struggle to get into spaces. We should be proud to stand up and tell our stories when we’re ready to tell ‘em.
Um … and I think, my history in art, mainstream art Canadian galleries, not only seeking young artists but also older artists. I’m hoping funding forces, not – will not only favour young artists – will also equally fund other artists who look like me. I’m hoping that awards, like you don’t see anyone over forty receiving art awards. Because um, the application has a age cut-off. We need to get rid of the age cut off.
GS: And I’m hoping that art spaces include intergenerational practice as part of art making. What I mean by that, the transfer and sharing of general knowledge and skills invites different um, creatives into the space. And it brings in different um, community members. Um … and I, I just noticed that the, um, art galleries and museums in the space are now opening up to older Black artists. So I’m hoping that Canada follows suit, uh, and then my – another thing I’m looking at – artists who have um, made a name for themselves in the industry. And if they would just reach back and pull up other artists. We can’t really just depend on the art galleries, funding art organizations to bring us in. it’s up to us as established artists to bring in artists who aren’t established yet. That’s my future for, that’s my thoughts for the future. A better art world, an inclusive art world, a non-judgmental art world.
YK: I would like to be a part of that art world. Take me with you.
GS: Thank you. Right? Where you’re looking at the art, not you. Oh another thing, a lot of these funding organizations, they have like the peers who approve the art funding applications. So say if you’re in a group or a community, you go out and like – you’re going to find your friend.
[00:30:13] So I think, I think that maybe these art organizations need to find like maybe people who aren’t within the art community. Maybe community members. Let them go over the funding applications. So you hear that Toronto Art Grant?
YK: They’ll definitely hear it when the episode comes out, hopefully!
GS: No, but it took me four years to get one grant. Um, and there are other artists who have been applying for years because but because they’re not known or they’re not within a certain community or a group and they’re not gonna be, they’re not gonna get funding.
YK: Mmhmm. And you can’t only fund emerging artists as you’re saying. You have to make it available for the wider community because those emerging artists, even if they get those grants, they’re going to, they’re going to stop emerging at some point. But they still need support.
GS: It’s like, I’m still considering an emerging artist – when does it stop? So.
YK: Yeah! When does it stop? ‘When do I stop emerging?’ [Laughter]
KM: So in this pandemic time that we’re in, there’s a lot of monotony in the world and a lot of sadness. And we really want to have these conversations um, with our friends who we admire and respect, but we also do want to celebrate them. And so I wanted to ask you, what has brought you joy recently?
GS: To be honest, I don’t believe in joy. Um, cause – ah – I’m the type I guess, I’m the type that says the glass is half empty. Because I’ve been through, I’ve experienced things that were high but all of a sudden just crumbled down um, but I have to say that the last few years I’ve been blessed as an artist. But I’ve worked hard um, I shouldn’t have to work hard, work that hard, but I did. Um, and I was fortunate to like find like other Black people to support me. Uh, Karen Carter from BAND, the Black Artist Network. Alyce Feron from uh … Amanda Parris. It’s hard to find that support and I, that brought me joy to just be lifted up by other Black women.
Oh, I just had a fifth grandchild. That’s joy.
YK: Oh, congratulations!
GS: Why thank you! Granny got it going on, boy!
[00:33:15] And uh … [laughs] and I’m able to create art. Like I have over 80 paintings, even with the isolation like uh, uh … this isolation and dissociate identity is nothing new to me. I’ve always been alone, I’ve always found ways to create uh, when I’m alone. So … creating art brings me joy. I dance. I make – I dance – I make dance videos. [Laughs] So, just … enjoy life is like, um, but I know sometimes when I’m feeling down I take that time to like let my body and my mind rest. And a lot of people don’t have that opportunity, so for me I’m … there are blessings. So …
KM: Amazing. And thank you for sharing that with us. Um, so now I get to basically have you talk about how our audience can find you. Um, so you could just … I know you had a Patreon, and an Instagram. Uh, and you can maybe give an overview on how our audience can find you and what they will uh, be engaging with if they want to engage with you on the internet?
GS: Ok, let me pull up my little phone here and find it. I should have wrote it down! Ah, for my like I said I’ve stepped away from a lot of social media platforms. But I do use Instagram for my um, to showcase my artwork. And it’s @gloria_swain_artist, uh, so I will be using that to showcase all of my art. Um … my patreon is gloriacswain. And I’m doing like, I’m doing – I want to create and online art gallery that I’m setting up in my bedroom to show my work because I don’t know how long this um, virus pandemic is going to keep the art galleries closed. So I’m trying to find other ways to get my art out there in the world.
And I want to create an art book to, I want to – I’m doing an inventory of all my art pieces – and I want to write from each piece to my journey.
KM: The art book sounds absolutely incredible! I would love nothing more than to have a Gloria Swain artbook in my home.
[00:36:10] I feel like this has been such a brilliant conversation and I’m really excited that I get to put it out into the universe, to the world, to hear. But I would also like to have it being ended, ah, Gloria with your words and your wisdom. So here is an audience, what would you like to say to our community, our listeners in the world?
GS: Mm, what do I want to say? Um … I want people to like uh, I’m hoping that people … how do I word this … um, share their, share their stories. Their experience. I want people to feel safe talking about their experience. I know when I talk about my mental health and my art and how art is healing, and how mental health is political, I know I get a lot of responses like, do you feel exposed? It’s like no. I feel in control because I’m telling my story. We have to tell our own story.
I do mine through different um, creative outlets. But I’m hoping people listen to my story and feel the, and overtime feel it’s ok to tell their story. And not to be afraid to um, speak the truth. I’m hoping that the world is, people are more acceptant of those that are different from them. I’m hoping that people stop judging other people for – we all have a past – accept people for who they are not where they come from, or not what they did before. It’s all about uh, accepting each other. And not judging each other.
KB: Crip Times is presented as part of the Wheels on the Ground podcast network. This podcast is produced by us, supported by Tangled Art + Disability and Bodies in Translation.
If you enjoyed this interview we release new episodes every Monday wherever good podcasts can be found.
[January 12, 2021]