Arts·Point of View

Inside two years of isolation with visual artist Gloria Swain (aka Toronto's beloved Auntie Gloria)

"It was not easy coming to terms with the fact that the worst was yet to come. But art is what comforted me."

'It was not easy coming to terms with the fact that the worst was yet to come. But art is what comforted me'

CBC Arts visits Gloria Swain in her home studio before the pandemic. (CBC Arts)

Before the pandemic

Art has always been a form of expression and healing for me. During the pandemic and with an overwhelming sense of uncertainty, I began to document my experiences living in isolation.

I am a multidisciplinary artist, disability writer, performer, photographer and advocate for mental health and violence against Black women and trans folk. Part of the reason I have been isolating is because I am immunocompromised, and being unable to visit with my artist community in Toronto has been difficult.

Before the lockdowns, I was busy with shows in Toronto, Montreal and Southwestern Manitoba. My Toronto show closed on February 28th — right before lockdown started in the city, which was just eerie timing.

Intergenerational Trauma and Black Women, Centre Culturel Georges-Vanier, Montreal (2020). (Gloria Swain)

COVID-19 changed everything. In quarantine, I reminded myself of the importance of self-care, especially mental health. It was not easy coming to terms with the fact that the worst was yet to come. But art is what comforted me.

The early days

With lockdowns and closures of art spaces, my one-bedroom apartment transformed into an art space. I spent hours drawing, painting, taking self-portraits and trying to find the inner strength to move forward. I used this downtime to create new works. Due to limited income, I found myself working with smaller canvases and experimenting with spray paints. I was happy with the new bright colours and started a new series of future work.

Home studio (2020). (Gloria Swain)

The uprisings around George Floyd's murder were difficult to digest, along with the killings of Breonna Taylor and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, two young Black innocent women. I was angry that Floyd had been murdered, in public, by police — but I was even angrier and more hurt that Breonna and Regis did not receive the same public outcry and media coverage.

My work has always centered violence against Black women and trans folks who experience the same state violence as Black men. We all know Sandra Bland, but how many other names do we know? There is a long history of Black women's experiences with police violence yet limited outrage or coverage. But all Black Lives Matter.

Stop Killing Us, 30" x 40" PRIDE Toronto Main Office (2021). (Gloria Swain)

I wasn't sure how to express these feelings creatively. But through a commissioned piece for PRIDE Toronto, I created a colourful abstract piece centering anti-Black racism and violence against the LGBTQ community.

In the middle of it all

Months of loneliness and stress-eating impacted my physical and mental health. It became clear to me that lifting myself out of this would take effort.

I started making dance reels, to uplift myself and others, on Instagram. I also created a new account to share my art. I started eating healthy and brought an exercise bike because the gym was closed. Making these changes gave me hope.

Lost income meant less art supplies to continue my paintings, so I created an online store to sell t-shirts. I also created a Patreon account, which did not do well. It was difficult trying to adapt while witnessing other artists move their practices online and continue to work.

I was fortunate to secure small funding grants to continue my work, and through a grant from the Art Gallery of Ontario, I created my first pandemic exhibit, A Burst of Colour, at the 401 Richmond Café. (Due to the pandemic, the work was not available for public viewing.)

A Burst of Colour, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto (2021). (Gloria Swain)

I was able to sell a few pieces thanks to other shows I was part of: solo exhibit You Grow Through What You Go Through, presented at Black Artists' Networks in Dialogue (BAND) and group show BAND Onsite presented at Nicholas Metivier Gallery, and the 60 Over Sixty exhibition at the Toronto Outdoor Art Fair. It felt good to be able to sell work again after everything being shut down for so long.

Now what?

In the beginning, I tried to do it all. I still text and talk with my four grandchildren, who live in Toronto, but I haven't seen them in over a year. I have received my vaccinations, the booster and flu shot — but I am immunocompromised. I am in remission, over 60 with chronic illnesses. Double-masked and in isolation is how I am surviving the pandemic. And being able to create art has been part of my healing journey.

Untitled, 30" x 40" (2021). (Gloria Swain)

I don't think I will ever forget these experiences. I'm writing a book about my art journey and the legacy I would like to leave. But I haven't been able to write much over the last two years. Sometimes focus and fear of the unknown creates writers' block.

I am not sure what's next. I think "normal" is a long time coming. It has always been a challenge to navigate some of Toronto's art spaces and find community or creative support as an older Black woman abstract artist, but my one hope is that Toronto will offer more welcoming spaces for artists who look like me after the pandemic is over. After all that the world has been through with COVID-19, art continues to help people cope and bring communities together. Art will always be a vehicle to connect humanity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gloria C. Swain is a multidisciplinary Black female artist whose work spans the mediums of painting, photography, installation, and performance, challenging the systematic exclusion of, and oppression against, Black women and trans people. With a heightened awareness of the erasures of Black experiences and histories, Swain's work is rooted in her activism and her deep desire to highlight issues of systematic discrimination, specifically racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. Her work explores and connects past traumas of slavery to ongoing colonial violence and Black mental health. Her work has been exhibited throughout Toronto and Manitoba and Quebec. Her writings have been included in Cultivate Feminism, the Peak Magazine, Marvelous Grounds and the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies. She holds a certificate in Community Arts Practice and a degree in Environmental Studies from York University.

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