Lost Time: Nastassja Swift at Galveston Arts Center

Nastassja Swift’s primary mode of artmaking in recent years has been needle felting—a form of textile production that renders wool into saturated, light-absorbing forms. Her dolls, figures, and tapestries of tiny faces are equal parts comforting and unsettling. But the artist’s latest piece—her most personal to date—shattered even Swift’s own assumptions about where her work was heading.

“I had this very vivid dream,” she says, recounting how she came to the realization that “clearly this work wasn’t supposed to be made of wool.” She has spent the last year creating Canaan: when I read your letter I feel your voice, an installation and performance work documenting her relationship with her brother Canaan, who is currently incarcerated in the Virginia Department of Corrections.

The installation and its component parts make up a kind of psychic transportation device, a way for the artist to place herself in her brother’s environs—if only in spirit. Swift explains that she wanted to “frame it as a collaboration, making work with him even through this distant relationship.” Their joint project will be on view at the Galveston Arts Center through October 3, with a performance scheduled on Sept. 25th.

Swift’s exhibition is made possible through a grant from the Black Box Foundation known as the Art as Activism Grant, which brings art about pressing social issues to the public. A simultaneous exhibition featuring work by Rashaun Rucker, also a grantee, will run concurrently at the Art League in Houston.

Like all activism, the work in this show required the labor of many. “Luckily I had a lot of hands,” the artist smiles. “I taught my mom how to bead; it was very much a village effort.” The central structure of Swift’s installation is a three-dimensional frame in the exact footprint of her brother’s cell. She has populated it with letters, drawings, and the pièce-de-résistance, a 46-foot-long quilt adorned with portraits of the artist and her brother as children (“We’re only thirteen months apart”) and a life-sized image of Canaan as an adult. With her careful curation of materials, Swift gives us an intimate view into how the separation of incarceration restructures relationships, tearing them apart at seams and stitching them into something new. The scale of the quilt was unprecedented for the artist, a monument of sorts to the time that the siblings have lost to their separation.

Canaan himself is not an artist of the visual sort. “His heart is in the culinary arts. He would send me and my mom recipes and ask us to cook it, plate it, and photograph it,” Swift explains. But at the heart of the quilt is a replica of his prayer rug, recreated using a painstaking drawing he made. His sister was surprised. “When he sent me that drawing of his rug it was so detailed,” she says. “He was very purposeful. It [the drawing] is framed and it’s part of the show.” Swift spent several months sourcing the fabrics for the quilt from local second-hand shops, “trying to find things that mirrored feelings,” she says.

A closeup view reveals the subtle shades of gray, blue and maroon that give the figures form. “It felt like paint,” says the artist. The details of faces and clothes are so lushly realized that Swift has received several requests for the pants that her brother wears in his contemporary portrait, but “I’m not a fashion designer,” the artist laughs.

If this exhibition has an unviewable element, an aesthetic ghost that haunts the four invisible walls of the cell, that ghost is time. It’s in the sentence itself, which was given to Canaan but also to his family and friends in the form of his absence. “I’m living the prison life, I’m not living my best life,” Canaan says in a recording of one of their phone calls.

Time is in the craftsmanship and elaborate beading of the quilt, an object of “comfort,” that despite its monumentality is still limited in its ability to provide that service. To fully involve oneself in the contemplation of Canaan: When I read your letter I feel your voice, time will be required of the viewer as well.

Viewers should linger on the recordings that Swift has made while constructing the exhibition. She and Canaan in their collaboration laugh and argue, annoy each other as siblings will, talk at cross-purposes and eventually arrive at understandings. Most of their communications are practical, they discuss everything from how the pandemic is impacting laws in the state of Virginia to the details of her project.

“My brother can be so nonchalant,” Swift explains, but “he likes to be the star of things.” In Swift’s highly autobiographical work, her brother certainly gets that chance. If, as Joyce said, the “particular is contained in the universal,” then in Swift’s small glance of lost time, we can begin to glance at the eons consumed by the carceral system.