STORIES

Carrie Reichardt on Art and Craft as Vehicles for Rebellion and Change

By Jelena Martinovic on May 10, 2019

Aligning herself with the Craftivist Movement, Carrie Reichardt is an artist who thinks for herself and acts for others. She merges craft with activism and uses the techniques of muralism, ceramics, mosaic, screen printing and collage to create intricate, highly politicized works of art.

Inspired by the long-standing tradition of subversive ceramics in the U.K., Carrie creates anarchic works by combining and modifying vintage floral, royal, kitsch and religious crockery, embellishing it with skull motifs, cheeky slogans and political statements. The use of digital transfers to create custom tiles for each of her mosaics is at the core of her practice.

Carrie has been involved in community and public art projects for two decades, documenting people’s history where it happens and seeking to celebrate, educate and empower various local communities. Exploring how artists can disrupt traditional narratives, she uses her skills as a vehicle to push forward social agendas and bring about social change. Often giving voice to the voiceless, she has been campaigning for prisoners on Death Row and fighting to gain justice for the Angola 3.

Carrie has been outspoken about using her art as a form of personal therapy, while keeping it accessible to all. Therefore, it is only fitting that her house in Chiswick, where she and her collective of artists work from, is called the Treatment Rooms. Almost entirely covered in mosaics, the building is a work of art and a political statement in itself, drawing on a huge range of cultural references and associations.

PRØHBTD spoke with Carrie about her progressive practice and the power art has to bring about social change and improve mental health.

You come from a very unusual family background, with your ancestry tracing back through a long line of aristocratic eccentrics. Do you think it affected your art practice in any way?

Yes, I come from an unusual family background, but all artists are going be affected by their personal histories. My grandfather Joseph Reichardt was involved with the Tsar of Russia during World War I. He was awarded the title of Count before fleeing the Russian Revolution and returning to England bankrupt. I think most people who are born to a generation of parents who survived a World War are a bit odd. My father was evacuated when he was a child to live with complete strangers up in northern England. He is rather eccentric and not an easy person to get on with.

I think the way it affected my art practice the most is that I felt so unheard as a child, so misunderstood, that creativity became my only way to truly express myself. Nearly all of my early art was not just a response, or a reaction. It was a defense mechanism. It was my way of surviving. My way of coping. I learned from my mother very early on to engage in a form of mindfulness through craft and making things, and that has carried on throughout my entire artistic practice.

How did you start working with ceramics, and how did this evolve over time?

My background is in Fine Art. I have a First Class degree in Sculpture, but I’ve spent many years studying ceramics. I studied for eight years at Richmond Adult College, three days a week. I am very adept at slip cast ceramics and specialized in transferring images onto clay. Now I view my 2D work as a form of ceramic collage. When I was at college, I used to work a lot with collage because I had a phobia about my ability to draw and paint. I felt so insecure. I thought I wasn’t a real artist because I couldn’t draw or paint the way I wanted, which was realism. All my life, I’ve been finding ways to circumnavigate my perceived inability to draw or sculpt. I was obsessed with body casting for years, as I loved the super realism it offered.  

It all comes from the same position, though, from a need to be heard and say things, and not feeling I could draw what was in my head and finding other ways to express it. I’m very OCD. I’m also very prolific. I produce tremendous amounts of work, which is not properly archived, and people haven’t seen most of it. I have also been involved with performance art, photography, film, sculpture and mixed media. My series of work when I first graduated from college was about self-harm. I felt mentally unwell and was constantly self-harming. My friend Nigel Beatty photographed me during such an episode and helped me to document it and turn it into art. The ethos of my art practice remains the same: It is a form of personal therapy and a belief that creativity can empower us.  

Your mosaic work articulates hidden currents of dissent running beneath the cultural surface. What do you think is the responsibility of art today? How can it contribute to today’s social and political battles?

I think art has a responsibility in the same way that people have responsibility. Art should reflect the society we live in. If artists feel strongly about something, they should use art as a critical voice. When you talk about political battles, I think that the art of beautification itself can be a political act. We live in a world of visual pollution with advertising everywhere. Nothing is as empowering or inspiring as working with fellow artists and communities and facilitating them to gain agency by taking control of their environment and filling it with beautiful art.

One can also use art as a way to tell stories. A lot of my current work is about trying to tell history from below, trying to provide new narratives of history in the location of where it actually happened. I think it’s important to remember how we have won our rights: that people had to protest and die for them. Our public art has always traditionally featured the rich and the powerful and so it’s great to be able to explore the stories of people that normally get forgotten. That’s why, in the last few years, I’ve chosen to really focus a lot on women’s achievements and the treatment of women. For the Nuart Festival, I did three pieces: one for Amnesty to celebrate the spirit of the suffragettes, one about the history of the Aberdeen witch hunts and one about trailblazing women from Aberdeen. I think it’s important that the new generation grows up being aware of these stories. Sadly, our libraries are being shut down, and lots of local history is being lost.

I believe that art and creativity are powerful tools and can be important in shaping society. I think it is a unifier. If you attend a music concert and you’re listening to a band, it doesn’t matter what class you are, it doesn’t matter what religion you are… none of these things matter because, in that moment, you are all unified and you’re there to listen to music. I think that art and creativity is the one thing that can open dialogues where usually there aren’t any. Now more than ever, because of social media and how we communicate, our views have become more entrenched and polarized. Art, music, poetry, dance and all forms of creativity become a space where we are able drop our guard and possibly hear other narratives. I also think that the street will always remain a place for people to put out uncensored work. The stark reality is that now social media is becoming sanitized and censored, but at least everybody can still go out on the street, put something out there and be heard, which I think is extremely important.

Using your craft as a means of rebellion, you often describe yourself as a renegade potter, anarchist ceramicist and craftivist. What is the concept of the Craftivism Movement you are a figurehead for, and how does it extend to artistic traditions of the Arts and Crafts Movement?

Craftivism is a term I identified with around 2005. Betsy Greer first coined the word in 2003 to describe the practice of craft and activism. I read about it through Hoopla, a revolutionary craft zine started by the artist Rayna Fahey. At that time, I had just mosaiced the back of my house as a memorial for my pen pal Luis Ramirez who was executed by the State of Texas. So I was reading about this idea of craft and activism and, at the very same time, I was literally mosaicing the back of my house to raise consciousness about Death Row. And, I thought to myself, “That’s me, that’s what I’m doing,” and I embraced that whole idea.

Craftivism may have been coined in 2003, but craft has always been a way of presenting subversive information. I think if you spend so long making something, there’s often a desire to include a hidden message. I’m not even comfortable now being called a craftivist, or an anarchist or any of those things, or a figurehead for that movement. I just think of myself as someone who has aligned themselves with craftivism early on and promoted it.

I used to claim I was an extreme craftivist because I wanted to separate myself from the classic Craftivism Movement in the U.K., which is much more about ladies sewing for peace and being polite in their demands. While that’s great, and there’s a space for that, it wasn’t really what I was about. When I first went to college, I studied Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty. I was interested in the concept of shocking the consciousness of people, waking them up from their stupor and radicalizing them. But over time, I realized that’s not necessarily the best way to reach out to the majority. It may well be my age and four years of therapy, but now I am more interested in sharing people’s stories and trying to engage them in a dialect rather than shouting at them.

When I started working, craft was a dirty word, and hardly anyone wrote or spoke about mosaics, sewing, knitting and craft related actives. They were considered as just older ladies’ pastimes. You can now see that craft has become so much more in vogue and popular, and there are now many courses that one can follow. You couldn’t study craft when I was at university, and there weren’t craft sections in bookshops even though craft has always existed. My parents’ generation made their own jam, knitted and sewed everything—they had to in order to survive. Then, we stopped. We got seduced into buying new stuff. Thankfully we seem to be moving back to making things, and recognizing these activities as beneficial to mental health. Now you see all these coloring books for adults⎯it’s insane the need now to switch off. It’s an idea of being in a mindfulness place, in a zone, and happily creating something. I think it’s immensely good for one’s mental health and for one’s soul.

Throughout your life, you have been writing to political prisoners and convicts on Death Row, all while being an outspoken advocate for their rights. Could you tell us something about the friendships you formed with them? How have these experiences changed the course of your artistic and personal life?

Writing to prisoners on Death Row changed the whole trajectory of my life and my artistic practice. Before I started that, I had suffered from mental health problems. I think it was because I wasn’t being creative. I had a lot of problems. I suffered from depression, although having my first child alleviated a lot of that.

When you write to people in those situations, others often think that you’re this nice, kind person, their counsel, but my experience of writing to prisoners is the complete opposite. They guide you. I used to write to my first pen pal, Luis Ramirez, “I feel so guilty because I’m writing to you about my weight, I’m writing to you about my boyfriend, and you’re waiting to die in a cell.” Luis used to write, “Look, Carrie, when I write back to you, when I advise you, you give me back my humanity, and I can be that man I was outside of prison.” It was a really beautiful relationship. Writing to Luis and feeling the injustice of what was happening to him was a powerful experience.

I had no idea about Death Row. I thought it was just full of mass murderers. I didn’t understand the criminal justice system because I had no personal experience of it. Since I’m very OCD, when I got involved in it, I researched it. Luis told me that capital punishment means that those without capital get punished. Writing to Luis inspired me to mosaic my house, inspired me to be creative. I couldn’t be depressed when I was writing to this amazing man. He was a gifted writer.

It was after Luis was executed that I mosaiced the back of my house and became really productive. Before, I had a weak ego and didn’t really know what the point of making art was, what I was doing, why I was doing it or who it was for. When I found a voice to try and talk about Death Row, I became very prolific and very sure of what I was doing. Before, I was someone who couldn’t publicly speak because I’m famous for messing up my words, saying them wrong and struggling with pronunciations. But, I found a voice and I would go on stage, I would go anywhere. I would try to tell people because I felt strongly about it. It was really my only way of coping with the fact that they murdered my friend, whom I absolutely believe was innocent of the crime the State murdered him for. Then I started writing to his best friend who was in a cell next to him, John Joe "Ash" Amador, and then I witnessed his execution and helped create the Tiki Love Truck to honor him.

After my friends on Death Row were executed, I started writing to Herman Wallace, who was a revolutionary Black Panther and a member of the Angola 3. He was held in solitary confinement for more than four decades in Louisiana State Penitentiary. Anita Roddick, the founder of the Body Shop, informed me about his case. Herman Wallace helped me because, at that point, I was really upset about the murder of my other pen pals on Death Row. He taught methods to organize and help the local community. I learned so much from Herman. He was one of the funniest, most intelligent people I’ve had the pleasure to call a friend. I’ve spent years writing to prisoners, protesting, doing my best to raise consciousness about the injustice of the prison system. I always believe that if you go to the darkest place, you will find the brightest light. I reached out and tried to befriend someone in prison and found my own salvation. It was a life-changing experience.

For more than a decade, you have been mosaicing your own house in Chiswick, London, creating a unique display of public art. Can you tell us more about this process and the work that results from it, as well as the activities of the Treatment Rooms Collective that is now centered around your home?

My ex-husband James Newell was an artist and landscape gardener. He built a little area in the garden, like a mini Stonehenge. He created a circular concrete base and suggested I mosaic it. I hadn’t mosaiced before and wanted to try it. I did it, and I loved it. I was hooked.

Next, in 1998, Karen FrancescaATM Street Art and myself set up a community arts group, and we got involved in teaching mosaics. Then I got together with Thayen Rich. He was a storyboard artist working in advertising. We would get stoned and discuss ideas. I would say, for example, that I wanted an American graffiti-style memorial on the back wall, and it’s got to have a sexy lady saying, “You gotta fight for your right to be arty,” and I would rip out pictures from magazines that had design ideas I wanted to incorporate. He would draw up the final templates, and I would make them with a team of artists and helpers. It all happened over many years.  

But then real life took over, and I didn’t have the time or money to finish the front of the house. Some friends of mine had put scaffolding up for me, but it stayed up for four years. My mum died, and I then split up from my partner. I became a single parent to three kids. I had some kind of breakdown, though now I realize I was also starting to go through menopause. I spent two years fantasizing about hanging myself from my own scaffolding. I thought the house would never get finished. But I sorted myself out, I cleaned up my act, I went into therapy and life got better.

Then my friend Isidora Paz Lopez, an amazing Chilean artist living in Germany, offered to come visit for a week and help me finish the house. When she came, I organized an international event where more than 30 artists came to assist.

So there are all these different sections. The scarab beetle has been made by Isidora, a Disney-inspired Cheshire cat by Tamara Froud, space bugs by French street artist Philippe Vignal. There were also flying eyeballs sent in from around the world by artists who couldn’t come here in person.

It was amazing. The scaffolding finally came down, and I could see the completed front of my house. But I still have a section at the back of my house to do, as well as the garden. It isn’t really finished, it’s still a work in progress.

The name itself, Treatment Rooms, reflects your belief that art should be used as a form of personal therapy. How do you see the connection between mental health and art making?

The name the Treatment Rooms came because I got access to City & Hackney Centre for Mental Health years ago in the late 1990s. It was derelict, and I stole a sign off a door that said "Treatment Room." I recognized my art was a form of art therapy, and I stuck it to my studio door. As I started to engage in a form of craftivism, friends came to help me, and they referred to themselves as the Treatment Room CollectiveWe used to say, “The Treatment Room Collective - Radicalizing Our Community Since 2002,” because they had just introduced a law around that time that you were not allowed to radicalize your community.

Most of the people I work with are amazing artists and beautiful people, although often slightly broken, which a lot of artists are. We were all very conscious of the fact that art was our own personal form of therapy and that made it easy for us to want to encourage others to discover the therapeutic value of creating.

It is just so basic that being creative and making things is going to help people’s mental health. It is proven that 45 minutes of some form of crafting lowers your cortisone levels. I know that a lot of people like myself have constant negative thoughts in their head. Addiction is one way to silence those voices, but another is creativity. Once you get engaged in some kind of art or craft, you get into a zone, and the only thing you’re really thinking about is the creative process. It shuts the mind down, it’s a form of meditation.

It’s so worrying to see the rise in ADHD and autism. I think I would have been labeled with all of those things if I grew up in the world we live in now. I’m glad I grew up in an era when we finished the day at primary school with half an hour of cross-stitching, and every school had a kiln. Creativity in schools is so important because some children’s minds work a different way and this is what they excel at. It’s a moment to shine and feel proud of. When you take that away from our education, which is very much what is happening in the U.K., you’re denying something that is so good mentally for our children.

Making mosaics is a labor intensive practice. What does your working process look like?

To be honest, my working process has changed. I was a total workaholic, lost in the world of making things. I could easily spend all day mosaicing, seven days a week. But when I split up with my partner, I really had to focus on looking after the kids, paying the bills and sorting myself out. Being in therapy for so long has helped me to understand that some of that workaholism, as much as I love it, is another form of addiction, and another form of not being present and not dealing with shit.

Now, my life is different since I have to dedicate quite a bit of time to other actives such as domestic drudgery, paperwork, finances, sorting out the kids, etc. Also, I have people who help me make my work now. But generally, once I’m involved in a large project, it takes over my life. My house gets messy and everything else goes to pot. I’m locked into it, it’s all-consuming, it’s hard to even work on more than one project at any given time because it can be so intensive.

At the moment, I’m working on a project with Karen Francesca for the new City North development in Finsbury Park, and I’m lost in the research and history of that area. For the next three to four months, it is going to be a very intense period of production.

The logic of late capitalism that controls our time is to sublimate any potential rebellion and turn it into its very opposite, and the art itself has long become a commodity to be bought and sold. How do you think art can reclaim its unique voice and free itself from the constraints of the art market and monetary value?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Art in the art market is always going to be a commodity. You can’t change that. It’s like that song from The Clash, “turning rebellion into money.” The art market is a market, it’s corruptible. If you want to be an artist and earn a living from it, you have to be a part of that. I do sell my art privately, and I’m grateful for it. People who buy my art give me an opportunity to perfect my skills because I always try to make the best work that I can.

But art isn’t just about buying and selling. We cannot free it from the constraints of the art market because that’s all embedded in capitalism, but we can see the power of art to give people agency in their communities. Public art should engage more in a community art ethos. We should stop closing down our youth clubs and create more intergenerational projects. When we invest in public art, we should be investing in local people coming together to create and having a much bigger voice in what happens visually in their community. We need to be advocating for taking back some of that space, to beautify it and change it and see art as a tool to bring about social unity and mental health.

You have spent a big proportion of your life doing community work. What are some of your favorite and most rewarding projects?

I’ve done so many community projects and they’re all really special. For example, there was a project involving Karen and ATM Street Art where we visited Tigveni in Romania to work in an orphanage. We went a few years in a row and made mosaics and paintings with children who were really perceived as less than human. It was barbaric. The work we did there allowed some of these children to show their true potential. When locals saw what these children could do, they changed their perceptions of them. They couldn’t believe the artwork we had created with them, and then the press came and reported their achievements. Over the time we visited, the children went from having numbers scrawled on their dirty clothes to having uniforms. When Romania joined the EU, they had to close down the orphanages, and some of these children would have been resettled back into the community.

It was also a very distressing thing to do because a lot of children showed such distress when we were leaving. They would rock backwards and forwards and hit themselves. It’s very difficult to know if what you are doing is right or wrong in these situations, but we were young and naïve and desperate to help. We believed we were setting up a long-term project and that we would visit annually, but the charity we went with closed down. Seeing a whole room of children mixing red and yellow paint to form orange for the first time, never knowing the joy of color before, was truly mind-blowing and humbling.

Also, there were the trips to Argentina. I went twice to Berazategui to work on group public art projects. On the second visit, I helped to facilitate an amazing community/public art piece to honor those who had gone missing in that town. I also loved the community mosaics I help to create in Mexico with Said Dokins and Oscar Perez Jimenez. In 2013, I won the Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship that financed trips to Mexico and Chile to study best practice in community mosaics.

All the community projects that I’ve done are important to me and have a special place in my heart. I really enjoyed all the work I have done abroad as it’s such an honor and so inspiring to go to another country and to be in a position where you are facilitating people in making a permanent piece of public art.

What is next for you?

As I’ve already mentioned, I’m working on a project with Karen Francesca to create a large piece of public art, a ceramic tapestry, which would go into the new City North development in Finsbury Park. It will be unveiled in September. Also, I’m working with my partner, Bob Osborne, on a second edition of Cash Is KingIt’s a book where we invited more than 100 artists to deface a banknote of their choice as a form of rebellion in itself. Now we’re working on Cash Is King 2, which will feature more than 200 artists from around the world, including Palestine, Ukraine, Russia, etc. The book launch will be at Saatchi’s in August, and prior to that, in July, I’m going to participate in a group exhibition curated by Ollystudio at Saatchi’s with Helen Bur and Broken Fingaz. Then next autumn, I will start a major project in Boston, Lincolnshire to mosaic two large navigation buoys.

Images (top to bottom): Voodoo Zulu Liberation Taxi, Members of the Treatment Rooms Collective at Coventry Transport Museum with a Voodoo Zulu Liberation Taxi, Victoria and Albert Museum: History Is a Weapon, Ceramic Slip Cast Spraycans, Back of Carrie Reichard House, and South Acton Tree of Life (credit: Humans of London)

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