From a New York office to a Parisian art house

After leaving New York’s corporate world, Swain McCaughrin pursued her passion of art and headed to Europe. Making wearable sculptures and painting her moods, she is currently in Paris for a residency at 59 Rivoli, where artists have working spaces free for the public to see.

Swain McCaughrin is sitting in her working space in Paris, in one of the many rooms in 59 Rivoli, which they call an “aftersquat.” A six-storey building filled with artists working on their projects, it is free for anyone to enter and explore. It used to be an actual squat for artists, but after the building was bought by the city of Paris, they weren’t allowed to live there anymore, only to work.

59 Rivoli has permanent and temporary residencies for artists, each of them working in their own designated space. McCaughrin, originally from Oklahoma, U,S., has a three month temporary residency, of which she is almost halfway through. After an intense work period in Berlin, she ended up in Paris through a friend.

“I had my own studio in Berlin for two years and was quite isolated from everybody, just working by myself all day. I was craving energy and connection with other artists, a sense of community.”

McCaughrin visited Paris to see a friend who happened to work at 59 Rivoli and was introduced to the place and its people. The concept was exactly what she needed, so she applied for a residency. While she is going back to Berlin after her stint in the building, she says she would like to come back again next year.

“I like the energy of a short time period here. It puts this nice pressure on me to get a lot done and see as many things as possible,” McCaughrin says about Paris.

She has been settled in Berlin for three years. When returning, she plans on getting a new studio space in a more social setting and focusing on her accessory line, Misassembled, which includes jewellery and headpieces inspired by architecture, crystals and origami.

McCaughrin has both her accessories and her paintings on display at 59 Rivoli. She is currently working on an oil painting resembling the cracked surface of a column in a New York subway station. Living there before moving to Berlin, she took photos of the columns, revealing old layers of different paint. Before they would be painted over with a new layer, she wanted to capture the unique, colourful print in a painting. She also does acrylic paintings, awash with either bright or muted colours, representing her feelings.

“I do them at night time when I come home from working. Whatever is going on in my brain – maybe I was frustrated from the day or I felt great, I would turn on some music, get myself in a mood and just start painting”, she explains.

The accessories tell a different story. It all started when McCaughrin was living in New York and working in an office, but she began questioning her corporate lifestyle. She found comfort in the city’s nightlife, specifically in the alternative subculture of Burning Man, which has a philosophy revolving around creativity and participation. Swain started making installations for the parties and got the idea of wearing something similar. She began creating sculptural outfits for herself and her friends who were performers, and headpieces and jewellery followed.

The party itself would be a colourful, beautiful place full of people who felt the freedom to be themselves. It made me feel very alive”, she says.

“It was a huge creative relief for me. It allowed me to access myself as an artist and started my journey into creating full time.”

Around the same time, McCaughrin also started to paint and realised her true calling. She had studied art in college back home in Oklahoma, but never considered it an integral part of herself. She had always dreamed of living in New York, after visiting her aunt and uncle there since childhood.

“I grew up in a pretty normal family. My mom stayed at home and raised us, my dad worked. I didn’t have a particularly artistic upbringing, but I always had art supplies and was constantly making things. I remember when I was small being fascinated by these ‘art words’ I would hear, like ‘art’, ‘portfolio’, ‘studio’. They sounded cool and I wanted all of it,” McCaughrin recalls with a smile on her face.

Listing her inspirations, listening to music is a big contributor to McCaughrin’s work. It can elevate the current feelings she wants to put on canvas or take her back in time, allowing to start from a place other than her mood at the moment. Visually she is interested in geometric shapes, the styles of musical artists Björk and Marilyn Manson, fashion designer John Galliano and makeup artist Pat McGrath.

Although her work has been featured in performances, album covers and magazines, in Paris McCaughrin has been able to show her work to a new audience through 59 Rivoli.

“All of this I made alone and no one else saw it,” she says looking at the pieces in her working space.

“It’s interesting to see how people react to it and what they say about it, how it makes them feel.”

Being open to the public most of the week and throughout the year, the aftersquat has a lively atmosphere. It mostly intrigues younger, art-loving tourists, but others as well for its accessible location. The building is the odd man out on the popular shopping street of Rue de Rivoli. The doors are open and from the outside one can see the colourful staircase leading up to the floors where artists from all around the world are working and interacting with each other and the visitors.

“There’s so many personalities and characters here, you never know what you’re going to get, but I enjoy it,” McCaughrin says.

While Paris is one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations, the unfortunate stereotype is that locals might not be the most welcoming. Though McCaughrin insists she has felt accepted and met friendly people, she is spending a relatively short time in the city and in an international, perhaps more open-minded scene.

“I‘m kind of in a bubble right now, just here to make art, meet people, and experience this magnificent city.”

With her accessory line, paintings and creating items for photoshoots and performances, Swain keeps herself busy. Even though she is doing what she loves, there’s no avoiding the stress of a creative process.

“There’s definitely a lot of agony,” she admits with a laugh.

“It doesn’t always feel good. Sometimes I don’t like what I’m doing at all, but I can’t let that bother me. If I thought, ‘I’m bored, I’ll stop now’, I’d never get anything done. I just think, ‘okay, you don’t enjoy this right now – keep going.’ That mental attitude has gotten a lot of work done.”

McCaughrin has come a long way from her native Oklahoma, living in New York for over a decade and finally coming to Europe. Her boyfriend is along for the ride, moving with her from New York to Berlin and now temporarily to Paris. She says making the transition from the States to Europe wasn’t scary, but just a lot of work. She felt ready for a change, wanting to experience a different culture and a new language. Germany had always intrigued her, and after visiting some friends in Berlin, her mind was made up.

“I decided to go there for a few weeks. I ended up staying for three months and knew it was the next place I wanted to live in. It just felt good,” she says.

She travels once a year to see her family in Missouri and would like to visit New York in the near future. She considers living back in the States a possibility, but for now, Berlin feels right for her.

It’s a big beautiful city, and I have a great life there that is productive, fun and relatively stress-free. But I think I will always be open to moving and change. I am also inspired by traveling and having my mind cracked open by new cultures, people, and languages from all over the world.