Schwerd explains, “My work comes out of things that I think are beautiful and intricate, detailed, awkward, and a little creepy.”
Schwerd during her art life has worked with video, fabrication and installations, and wearable art. But, like most artists I know, she gathers things. “I’m a hoarder,” she says, and laughs. (Oh, I how I know that laugh.)
“I collect stuff. And when I have enough of some stuff, I know I’ve got a project. I make a big spiral, circling around, making connections with ideas. If they’re paradoxical, I have a project.”
When the near-New York City-raised Schwerd was finishing her masters in 1999 at the University of Syracuse, a friend was completing a project involving shoe soles. When the colleague prepared to haul them to the dump, Schwerd intervened to get all those shoe tops, with their laces, each shoe holding the memory of their walkers’ gaits. She used these to reconstitute the shape and mass of a cow, suspended by wires and held in place by brick-loaded purses. “We forget where things come from,” she explains. “Leather is flesh.”
For the 2001 Piccolo Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., she made three garment-sculptures of varying heights using woven bicycle inner tubes. A friend described them as “a cross between Madonna and the Grim Reaper." Visitors could get into and “wear” them, like carnival cutouts of the strong man and pin-up girl. Later, teaching in Charleston and visiting the city museum, Schwerd discovered the history of memento mori, keepsakes made using hair sprigs from loved ones (dead or alive) These were incorporated into lockets or jewelry; plaits of hair were also pasted into books.
“This was before photography became widespread, so people could keep something of their deceased relative or distant friend.”
Schwerd studied undergrad at Tulane from 1989 to 1993 and taught at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in the fall of 2005, three weeks ahead of Katrina.
She thereafter wandered through New Orleans’ busted architecture taking source photographs for she knew not what. Then she and a friend happened by the St. Claude Beauty Supply, where a worker had been hired to haul the ruined materials to the curb. In this trash, Schwerd found her treasure: pounds of hair-weave material, wigs and other hair supplements.
She hauled the materials to her studio, where she washed, treated and flat-dried the hair; then she hung it all up, where it stayed for several months while she waited for the art to come from them.
And eventually ideas tangled together. The tradition of elaborate hair ornamentation among African-American women combined with with the ornamental hair styles of native Africans; the Victorian stages of grief; memorial T-shirts worn in urban African-American and Latin communities; and the slumped, twisted, anthropomorphic houses in the devastated city.
The daughter of an architect and an artist, Schwerd put all this together, and using metal armatures, began weaving the hair to make memorials to the empty houses, which, like those shoes back in Syracuse, bore testimony to the people who lived inside them.
The result is, well, a little awkward, a bit complicated and somewhat spooky, and I speak as someone who has been on those streets and seen those houses. Some of the most powerful components of the installation are tree-branch forms with faded Mardi Gras bead strings (actually compressed hair balls) strung through them. The filament shadows are ghostly.
But don’t let this exhibition glide past you like a phantom Mardis Gras float.
A video made by the New Orleans Times-Picayune features Schwerd, her NOLA story and the work.
And then there's a review, with slideshow, from the New Orleans Contemporary Art Examiner.
P.S. I know it's pronounced "Tre-may," not "Treem." But I made you look, didn't I?