By Sarah Campbell
DURHAM — When Allison Swaim arrived back in the United States after circumnavigating the globe on cargo ships, she had more information than she could process.
“One of the challenges I feel as an artist who works in digital media is that most of the things I’ve collected live on a hard drive,” she said. “It allows me to collect all this information, but then what do you do with it?
“Sure, you can post it on a blog or somewhere on the Internet, but I did not think that was the final platform that I wanted my work to live on.”
The Salisbury native turned to her classmates at Oberlin College to help break it all down.
“I spent a year doing this in-depth field work, gathering stories in different forms,” she said. “So, I have a lot of material – audio files, photos, text.”
The result was an exhibit at the Ohio college in February.
The team of nine students created multimedia, audio, visual art, music, installation and performance pieces inspired by Swaim’s cargo ship footage and interviews.
“It kind of takes the burden off of me trying to tell the stories of hundreds of people I’ve met and care about,” she said.
Now, Swaim is bringing her work closer to home.
This time, she’s worked with nine other artists to create the exhibit “Hold Capacity: Trade Route Stories, Reimagined.”
“There are endless amounts of ways that this material can be interpreted and used,” Swaim said. “It’s kind of neat to keep recycling it and figuring out all the different ways we can engage people with the story.
“The challenge and opportunity for this exhibit was to do this kind of interactive storytelling that will draw people in and create a space where they can come and leave the world behind.”
The installation, which includes everything from poetry to collages to cyanotype print-maps, will be on display at The Carrack, 111 W. Parrish St., in Durham for two weeks starting Tuesday.
“The exhibit itself is pretty interactive, it’s not just stuff on the walls,” Swaim said.
Swaim said the crew has also adapted the pieces from the exhibit into a live performance that will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Swaim didn’t even have an exhibit when she applied to showcase her work at The Carrack, but she knew she wanted to display it there.
“It’s a zero commission art space,” she said. “They don’t charge any of the artists who show their work there.
“For somebody like me who doesn’t have a lot of money it can be hard to get your foot in the door.”
Swaim said The Carrack “meets a need that is really felt by the artists in the community.”
“These are people who might not have a chance to show in a gallery otherwise,” she said. “I’m really grateful and excited this space exists.”
It’s also rather “serendipitous” that Swaim ended up at The Carrack considering fellow Salisbury native Laura Ritchie runs the gallery.
“It’s been neat to be able to reconnect and get to work together,” Swain said.
After finding out she landed the gig, Swaim went to work putting together a team of artists.
She put out a call for help at one of The Carrack’s community shows and started networking within the community.
Swain asked those interested in collaborating to fill out an application.
“It ups the bar because you find out who is really committed and who has the time and energy to invest,” she said.
She ended up finding nine fellow artists, including Jacki Huntington, another Rowan County native.
“I’m flattered they have all taken an interest in the project and I’m really impressed with the work they have created,” she said. “As one person, I can make a certain type of art, so it’s really neat to see all these other interpretations that I would’ve never even thought about.”
The artists have spent the past two months working on the exhibit.
Swaim said the artists understood the project and have created some really moving pieces of work.
“It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before,” she said. “I hope people are inspired by the stories, learn something new about the world they thought they understand and feel the power of collaboration.
“I really believe strongly in art as a way to process the world, to engage other people and to form connections.”
Sculptor and writer Amanda Dahill-Moore has created cyanotype print-maps for the exhibit.
“Sailing has a long history of myth surrounding it, perhaps because so many facts about sailing seem to have metaphorical corollaries to our internal, emotional life,” she said. “My cyanotpe maps originate from an interest in the intersecting realities sailors and cargo ships traverse, in literal and figurative dimensions.
“The maps are simultaneously a tool for participants to navigate their journey through Hold Capacity and an invitation to explore questions of how we create meaning in our lives.”
Musician and videographer Jacki Huntington, who now lives in Carrboro, said working on the project has been very personal.
“Listening to sailor interviews led me to reflect upon my own experience of isolation, routine and being one of few women in a field; I’m a musician and videographer,” she said. “I sought to make this connection between exhibit subject and exhibit viewer explicit by conducting an “exit interview” and including portraits of reception guests in the larger Hold Capacity exhibit.”
Jacyln Bowie, a Raleigh-based multimedia artist, said she is honored to be part of Swaim’s storytelling process.
“I’ve created shadow images of the sailors, their ships and thoughts,” she said. “This work is not meant to be still and quietly observed, but rather physically engaging and participatory.
“I invite the viewers to become storytellers themselves as they display these images on the overhead projector in any combination or sequence they choose, perhaps inspired by what they’ve learned already about Allison’s journey and her friends at sea.”
Poetry mobiles in the shape of constellations are Nora Weatherby’s contribution to the show. She is a Durham-based oral historian and writer.
“The stars hang from fishing wire and have lines from transcripts and notes written on them,” she said. “They are fragments and observations that make up the universe of the trade routes story.”
Weatherby also wrote poetry for the project.
“I found the stories of the sailors compelling and mysterious and yet was moved often by the insights Allison was able to record that felt relatable – sense of home, family, loneliness, commitment, isolation,” she said.
Ultimately, Swaim hopes people will gain a better understanding of global trade from the exhibit.
“The stories that I’ve collected are just part of a whole different world that most people just don’t have much of a connection to, which is ironic because the people who live and work on these ships keep the world as we know it running,” she said. “If all the ships stopped running for three days, half the world would starve and the other half of the world would freeze.
“It’s sort of out of sight, out of mind because people don’t interact with ports.”
Swaim said the people who work aboard the ship have “really powerful” stories.
“I learned a lot from them,” she said. “It’s a hard job and I admire the folks who do it,” she said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.