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After A Pandemic-Induced Delay, Group Opens New Home With Exhibit By Famed Artist

Contemporary Craft closed the final art exhibit at its longtime home in the Strip District more than a year ago, in August 2019. The gallery was on track to open its new headquarters, in Upper Lawrenceville, in April, 2020.

That plan, like so many others, was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. But the five-month delay will be worth the wait for fans of Swoon. A retrospective by the internationally known artist, titled “The Heart Lives Through the Hands,” is the group’s first at its new space, which opens Thu., Sept. 3.

Born Caledonia Curry, Swoon is renowned for her large-scale portraiture rooted in street art. Her best-known style incorporates vibrant, joyfully detailed hand-drawn portraits rendered on paper in styles reminiscent of woodcuts and Indonesian shadow puppetry. The portraits are then cut out and wheat-pasted on walls in public spaces.

But while her images first got noticed on the streets of New York City, Swoon has also been exhibiting in galleries and museums worldwide for more than a decade, in venues from the Venice Biennale to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. Though based in Brooklyn, Swoon also has a longstanding Pittsburgh-area connection. She’s played a key role in creating and running the Transformazium, a collective effort to turn a dilapidated church in Braddock into a community art center.

Swoon’s time in Pittsburgh has resulted in some of her art being shown here – but always informally, on the street. “The Heart Lives Through the Hands” will be her first gallery exhibit here. It, too, whas been as postponed since April by the pandemic.

The exhibit includes portraits as well as hand-printed wallpaper, sculpture and stop-action-animated video. The moving-image work is “very much as if the world that gets created in my drawings were to start unfolding over time, and become a space, and have an atmosphere, and a story, and a flow of events,” she said during a December visit to Contemporary Craft’s new space, which was then still in under renovation.

The work in the show is a mix of her street art and studio work from over the years. It’s “about sort of reflecting on myself and other humans and humanity, and sort of connectivity to our interior self,” she said.

Swoon also created “Braddock Steelmural,” the artwork on the exterior of Contemporary Craft’s new home.

The former industrial building sits on Butler Street, near the 62nd Street Bridge. It’s 13,000 square feet, or roughly the same square footage as Contemporary Craft's old headquarters, in the Strip’s Produce Terminal, which the venerable nonprofit group had occupied since the mid-1980s.

Contemporary Craft, which turns 50 next year, is best known for exhibits showcasing art made with traditional craft materials, including wood, fiber and ceramics. It also holds workshops and runs a retail store.

During normal times, Swoon would have helped install the exhibit, and it would have opened with a big reception. But due to the pandemic, Swoon simply sent Contemporary Craft staffers her instructions. And instead of the traditional reception, Contemporary Craft will just open for business Thursday, with safety precautions that include limited hours for now and timed entry during the pandemic.

Contemporary Craft is located at 5645 Butler St. Admission is free. More information is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: bodriscoll@wesa.fm
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