Donovan Swann’s Bittersweet Photos Unearth Generational Trauma and Sugary Memories
Dark truths often lurk beneath the surface of a photograph. In her latest body of work, lens-based artist Donovan Swann digs through her family photo albums, unearthing a treasure trove of mental illness, drug abuse, generational trauma, and sugary memories made bittersweet with time.
Swann uses found photographs to create the collages in Scéalaì, a project that borrows its name from the Irish word for “storyteller.” Working across multiple generations, Swann weaves, manipulates, and reassembles her photos, collapsing time and trauma into a single frame. “By adding and removing elements, juxtaposing a variety of environments and subjects, and playing with materiality and depth, I attempt to unpack our shared generational trauma to create a safe space to begin my own healing,” she writes in her artist statement.
Layering personal journal entries over each work, Swann expresses how her emotions have changed over time: “[these] words express my resentment and anger in a way I was never able to,” she tells NOT REAL ART. “Through the combination of the manipulated images and the journal entries, I stripe away the facade of the ‘perfect’ family.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Donovan Swann discusses shared, generational trauma, maintaining momentum throughout her career, and finding catharsis in her deeply personal archival projects.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Donovan Swann: After Art by David Joselit, The Social Photograph by Nathan Jurgenson, and Art-Write by Vicki Krohn Amorose.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
DS: Family, identity, home, memory, and nostalgia all play huge roles in my work. In the last year I have also brought in undercurrents of grief, trauma, and loss, as they relate to my previous interests. My family and our shared experiences and trauma have greatly impacted me.
What are you trying to express with your art?
DS: In my current practice I am expressing my frustrations with the false representation of the "perfect" family facade in vernacular images. Looking at my own family archive is bittersweet, since I know that the big happy family we seem to be through these images is not an accurate representation. I look at them with love and longing, wishing we could have been or even currently be more stable, yet I love the images anyway.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
DS: The best advice was to make work about the things I care about, am interested in, and excite me. And not to make things that I think would be impressive or for other people. I was given this advice at the very beginning of grad school when I was going through the first semester growing pains. The worst advice was that I should be willing to put myself into massive debt, otherwise it meant I wasn't invested in my education and career. Which I think is just a bunch of B.S. You can be invested and care deeply while at the same time being mindful about your financial situation. Most everyday folks aren't made of money.
What's your biggest barrier to being an artist?
DS: Access to facilities and a studio space to work. Since I am graduating in a month's time, I will have to leave my current studio space and everything in it will have to go into a storage unit until we can move to a new place with space for me.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
DS: I don't believe I will ever be one of the lucky few who make enough money to not have to have another job of some kind, but that's okay with me. I think having another avenue of work is actually good for me because it forces me to take a step back and think about other things for a while. And if I could have that, and also have a healthy relationship with the people closest to me and my other hobbies, I feel balanced. But it can be really hard sometimes, especially close to deadlines.
What does generosity mean to you as an artist?
DS: Generosity for me is more than monetary, which I think most people equate it to. For me it can be time and energy spent with other artists, giving them your full attention. Maybe it's a friend or a visiting artist or talking to someone at a gallery; either way the art world functions because we all talk and connect with each other. And if we are generous with that connection, then how does anything happen? I think it also comes back to you, because people will see that you care and are invested, so they will invest in you too.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
DS: Success for me would mean that I am able to maintain a regular practice and output of work, and regularly be active in the artwork and showing. It doesn't have to be big, flashy galleries or museums, but as long as I am showing somewhere, being published maybe, and being involved with the art world, I will feel successful.
If you had to pick one, would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist? Why?
DS: This is such an interesting question because I'm not sure either is what I want. I do want to make an impact, but I also know that I enjoy having a job that is separate from my art-making (but still in the art world more or less). So I guess historically significant? I don't feel the need to be hugely famous by any means, but if I can inspire other artists like so many have inspired me, I would love that.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
DS: My current bodies of work all relate to one another through use of my personal family archive, and for me that has been so exciting and cathartic. I began digitally archiving the images a year ago after my grandfather's passing so that all my family could have copies. And through the archiving and then the art-making, I have had these close, personal, familial experiences with the images that are hard to explain. But the work naturally came from these experiences in a way I have never experienced before.
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
DS: This is hard. In my undergrad I had a terrible work-life balance, and that took a toll on my mental health. In grad school I worked really hard to not let myself fall into bad habits. It's hard to have that balance, but as long as I get enough sleep, and have alone time to recharge, play a game, or read a book, I do OK. For me it's important not to give up the other parts of my life; it's all about the balance.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
DS: I really dislike the idea that your success really is about the people you know. While I completely understand the importance of networking, it bothers me that if someone just happens to know the right people they can just jump ahead, without the hard work. I mean, I think this happens in other fields too. If I could change it, I would want it to be about hard work and putting yourself out there more than if someone knows the right person.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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