Arts·Black Light

It can be tough to break into a youth-obsessed art world. But in her 60s, 'Auntie Gloria' is shining

Amanda Parris visits beloved Toronto artist Gloria Swain (and her cat Patches!) in studio.

Amanda Parris visits beloved Toronto artist Gloria Swain in studio

See Gloria Swain's art at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. This Too Shall Pass is on to March 21. (CBC Arts)

Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.

For a special edition of Black Light this week, I stepped behind the camera and worked with my colleague, video producer Lucius Dechausay. Together, we created a short video profile of artist and activist Gloria Swain.

I've written about Swain before, but I always knew that her story, her personality and her art needed to be shared on screen. Here's a little background on the woman I like to call Auntie Gloria.

There's a quality about Swain that makes her stand out in every crowd. It might be rooted in her laugh — a large sound that comes from deep in the diaphragm and fills the room. Or perhaps it's her smile — warm and inviting, encouraging you before she says a word. It could also be her dance moves. I'm telling you, this lady in her 60s has more rhythm in her shoulders than most people have in their pinkie toe. I'm not sure what it is, but I know that her special magnetism and creative energy is finally finding the audience that it deserves.

I call her Auntie Gloria not because we're related, but because that's how I was introduced to her. Standing in the middle of a Black Lives Matter protest, trying to stay warm in the freezing cold, there she was dancing happily as the crowd chanted: "Go Auntie!" Swain's an activist, a mother, a grandmother and an artist. And it's that last title which may have been hardest won.

Amanda Parris visits 'Auntie Gloria' in studio. 4:55

Swain grew up loving art. When she became a mother, she would pick up her paintbrush and create while her children were in school. The work was private, made at home and put into storage once complete. Friends and family were her only audience, but they recognized her talent and encouraged her craft.

Over the last decade, though, Swain has begun to share her work with the world. Although she creates in a variety of mediums — photography, video, installation and performance — it is her abstract work that took the longest to find a platform. 

Swain's paintings are often filled with angles, sharp edges and layered colours. Texture is an important component to her creations and hints at the unspeakable stories that lie underneath the surface of both the art and the artist.

Gloria Swain talks about her abstract paintings with CBC Arts. (CBC Arts)

"There's always something beneath the painting. And there's always gonna be stories beneath the stories that I don't want to talk about, that I can't talk about, that I'm not ready to talk about," she says.

When Karen Carter, the co-founder and director of BAND (Black Artists Network Dialogue), asked to do a studio visit, Swain was ready to show and discuss her installation and photography work. She was stunned when she realized that Carter was not only interested in her abstract creations, but she wanted Swain to exhibit them in the BAND gallery.

"For her to be a Black woman, to own a Black art space and to invite me in was very empowering," Swain told me as we sat in the gallery the day she was scheduled to take down her work. "This is the first space that really welcomed me."

Creating art is one thing, but navigating the institutions, practices and deeply embedded cultural limitations of Canadian art has been another challenge entirely. "It's like the art world, especially in Toronto, is very youth-oriented," she says. Swain has often found herself in rooms wondering where all the older artists were. Although it's been a challenging journey, Swain is determined to fight against the invisible barriers that shut so many older artists down and create space for herself and her work.

In this video, we visit Auntie Gloria and her cat Patches in their home which also doubles as her studio. We also see her close her exhibition at BAND.

Since filming, her abstract work has travelled to the Prairies, where it is currently exhibiting at the Art Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba in the show This Too Shall Pass. She also curated a show at Toronto's Tangled Art + Disability gallery. The exhibition is called Hidden and it explores the experience of Black artists with hidden disabilities. It's on to Feb. 28. Auntie Gloria is booked and busy, finally finding her audience.

Work by Gloria Swain. (Gloria Swain)

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays, watches too many movies and defends Beyonce against all haters. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.