In the Blog
Gloria Swain and her Mad Room
Illustration: Shelby McLeod
Gloria Swain’s life is as multifaceted and complex as the discussions of race, mental health, community, and disability present in her artistic work. She is a visual artist, community builder, researcher, student, advocate, and facilitator as well as the current artist-in-residence at Tangled Arts. Her solo show, Mad Room, opens on September 22nd and will be showing until December 3rd at Tangled Arts.
Swain’s creative journey has been long, iterative, and illuminating—but not without compelling challenges. When given the opportunity to speak with her at her workspace in 401 Richmond, the passion, perspective, and brilliance of this artist humbled me. As we sat in the studio that Swain regularly uses to host community art-making sessions, she explained her passion in some detail to me. “I have always found comfort in art. My creative journey started at a young age but things happened in my life and my art was put on hold.” Dealing with chronic pain and the subsequent ordeals of the mental health care system created the impetus to revisit art with impressive, prolific zeal. “My bedroom is for my paintings,” Swain joked, and then added, “I realized I needed an alternative to dealing with anxiety and chronic pain. Art has a way of relaxing you…it also made my chronic pain manageable. My return to art saved me.”
As we stood together in her studio space, Swain graciously showing and sharing stories about several of her paintings, she explained, “My mother’s trauma is my trauma. We all have secrets that we don’t share, that we’re told not to talk about. I’m also going to talk about violence against women—especially black women and trans women.”
The range of mediums Swain works with speaks to the fluidity of her skill as an artist with a message. She has worked in photography, ink sketching, video, installation, as well as abstract and geometric painting. This variety compliments and enriches the subversive ground she chooses to cover in her art. She explains, “As an aging Black female artist, I recognize a lack of economic resources for marginalized people living with mental health issues and my hope is to reduce the stigma of mental illness through art.” .
The works in Mad Room unflinchingly explore issues of inequity, exclusion, and marginalization—viewers will have the opportunity to deeply reflect on racism, sexism, disability, transphobia, stigma, and mental health. These experiences enrich Swain’s multi-disciplinary work.
“I believe that living with an ‘invisible disability’ and being an artist with lived experiences is a powerful tool for self-growth and transformation,” Swain shared, adding, “I chose the title ‘Mad Room’ because I think it speaks for itself and I aim to raise awareness, open conversation, and promote effective coping strategies and self-care for mental health. I also like the title because yes, I am mad…I’m mad about art. I’m mad because of the way certain groups are treated when it comes to mental health. And ‘art soothes the soul and frees the mind.’ It allows me to tell my story without text and it definitely opens up conversations about mental health.”
Swain characterizes her work as “therapeutic, political, feminist, and aesthetic.” The pieces in Mad Room weave together a narrative that include personal as well as community experiences.
Amidst works encompassing her own life, Swain makes space to honour the lives of slain black and trans women.. “No one talks about them and no one talks about mental health in the Black community,” she remarked, solemn.
The memorial is one way that Swain will create space for dialogue, reflection, and connection with her broader community. On Mad Room’s opening night she will make room for a community arts-making table, to help viewers connect and “process everything they will see.” This generosity struck me as an unusual act, one that is increasingly uncharacteristic in an art world that can often feel alienating, competitive, and primarily commercial. “To me, mainstream art, especially the million dollar ‘blue chip’ market is a boys club controlled by white cis-men. I would love to see artists, especially disabled artists, continue to produce professional quality art and confront the notion that disability art is “just” something we create to make ourselves feel better. Yes, art is therapeutic. All art forms are therapeutic when it’s done with passion.”
Many of Swain’s pieces are provocative, emotionally heavy, and unsettling. They also have a strong element of healing and evolution. “When we acknowledge [hard] things, we can heal…you can look at these as negative, or positive. People are afraid of what they don’t know.” Reflecting on her momentous solo show, Swain remarked, “This is an opportunity to share my work that I never really planned to share with the public; after realizing the necessity of shared experiences, to inspire others is a dream come true.”
We ended our conversation reflecting, again, on the importance of representation in the arts, and the power of inclusivity to transform norms. “We all go through a lot of the same stuff,” Swain stresses. “When I was a space co-ordinator at York University, and there wasn’t a show, I would always call an open house for a week or two weeks and invite people in. It was a safe space—we did art, a jazz singer came in, we did karaoke. We had space to breathe. Any time I get the space to create, I bring in other artists.” Swain thinks it is an artist’s duty to assist and lead budding creatives.
“Art is important. Art is healing. Art opens up communication,” Swain insisted, with firmness. When asked what advice she would give to artists who have shared her experiences, Swain responded, “It’s extremely important to approach spaces that we would generally not be invited to, and position ourselves in these spaces (e.g. as audiences, as artists, as community members, etc.). Step one is always getting your foot in the door. The rest can be history.”
Mad Room will be showing at Tangled Arts, in 401 Richmond from September 23-December 3rd.