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Coming back to Richmond was a homecoming of sorts for visual artist Nastassja Swift. The Virginia Commonwealth University alum is currently creative in residence at the Children’s Museum, spending many of her days crafting a one-of-a-kind sculpture for the museum.
Swift is the museum’s first creative in residence in nearly two decades. “When we decided to bring back this program we didn’t want to call it artist in residence,” says Cameron Booth, the museum’s art exhibit and program coordinator. “We decided to bring in a creative person in a unique medium. We wanted a large pool of applicants. We had actors, magicians, painters, sculptors, etc., apply.”
The museum was looking for someone whose work was strong visually and offered a sense of storytelling that would connect the art and artist with the world around her. “We wanted the kids to connect with the artwork on a different level … to coincide with what is going on in their lives,” Booth says. “Nastassja works with a wool medium that has been used for centuries. She was the perfect fit.”
Swift’s masks and dolls are displayed at Wa Na Wari Art Space in Seattle and The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia.
She inherited her love of art from her mom who also was an artist. “I spent the earlier part of my childhood around her art and drawings,” she says. “It was an intimate activity for her. She became my first art teacher in a very casual way and it stuck with me.”
Swift attended a special academy program at her high school in Virginia Beach that offered visual and performing arts. She had participated in a similar out-of-school program in middle school. “It was heaven sent to have a full day of art,” she says.
Those experiences led her to VCU. After graduating in 2015, she completed a 9-month residency through VCU in Doha, Qatar, that concluded with an exhibition.
Swift has been working with wool for the past six years. “I don’t paint often any more, but I still believe I am a painter at heart,” she says. “Wool is a very exciting medium. I’m still learning the material.”
Her entry into working with wool was through dolls. Over the past six years, the dolls have grown larger in scale. She began making masks in 2016 as a way to expand her art. The following year she collaborated with another VCU alum on a mask in motion.
Swift’s installation at the downtown Children’s Museum will have three large- scale heads made of wool and chicken wire and suspended in air. “They will have something going on around them,” she says. “The chicken wire makes them light and easy to work with.”
The installation will be unveiled at the program’s conclusion on November 16.
During her residency, Swift, who is the owner of D for Dolls, an online collection of handmade needle felted figures, will be visiting the museum’s Short Pump, Chesterfield, and Fredericksburg locations. Visitors to the museum will observe Swift’s open-studio sessions and can also experiment with felt and other art materials to help create a community art project, felted keychains, and more.
The creative in residence program is an “opportunity to enhance early learning and introduce families to creative and cultural arts, along with providing the unique experience of seeing an artist such as Swift actually create in the moment,” says Shannon Venable, the museum’s president and CEO.
The program helps the museum broaden its focus from STEM to STEAM learning. “This is something we will carry on,” says Venable. “We would love to do it more than just one time of the year.”
Swift is enjoying talking about wool with museum visitors. “People are intrigued with what is going on,” she says. “We are all familiar with wool [as a common material]. People see it applied in a different way, and they see the flexibility of it. People have access to see me working and I have access to the community. I’m definitely having fun.”
For more information and a full schedule of Swift’s workshops, visit the Children’s Museum.