Helen Miles talks to Carrie Reichardt about the positive effect art has on herself and others, and how she uses her art to give a voice to those who might otherwise not be heard.
WRITTEN & NARRATED BY HELEN MILES
Listen to Helen narrate her article:
There is art, and then there is the artist. When it comes to Carrie Reichardt and her large-scale ceramic collages, however, there is an artist who wears her art on her sleeve. Boldly graphic, political, and colourful, her work is a statement, a rallying cry, and a commentary: notice the world around you, challenge, confront and speak up.
Whether it is the women’s movement, death row, animal extinctions, or the art of protest, Carrie’s mosaics convey powerful messages that demand the viewer’s attention. Using her trademark method of kiln firing transfers onto Cinca tiles, her mosaics are often like scrapbooks of local and cultural history, and include newspaper clippings, quotes, album covers, event tickets and photographs to draw the viewer in, diverting attention from the overall work to individual causes and lives, from her creations to the people who inspired them.
“If I were to stand behind a table with leaflets and try to engage people, it wouldn’t really work. It doesn’t change people’s minds. But when people come up to my work and see what’s going on, that’s when I can tell them my story,” says the 55-year-old artist who has mostly worked on community-based public art commissions.
After gaining a first-class degree from Leeds Polytechnic in sculpture in 1991, Carrie was not sure what she wanted to do. Feeling uncomfortable with the concept of art for art’s sake, and uncertain of her own voice, she fell into mosaic making almost by accident. Her partner at the time, a landscape designer, asked her to make a mosaic for the couple’s garden. “It was my first mosaic and as soon as I started to make it, I discovered the meditative, calming process of the craft and the therapeutic effect it had on me,” said Carrie who has battled with mental health issues for decades.
Soon afterwards, her close collaborator and fellow Leeds Polytechnic graduate, Karen Francesca, was given a grant to transform the bus station in Crewe and Carrie went to join her. Together they recruited local people to help make mosaics and since then Carrie has not looked back, covering vast spaces with her distinctive murals. Her permanent installations include a monument to suffragette Mary Bamber at the Museum of Liverpool, street art in Aberdeen, and her recent work on the Boston Buoys in Lincolnshire and the entrance to Coventry’s bus station.
Mosaics have taken Carrie to Mexico, Chile, Argentina and Norway, among other places, bringing local communities together in a common cause. She believes passionately in the power of art to change, to lift the spirits and shake up preconceived ideas. Not confined to walls or permanent locations, her work includes the bright orange Tiki Love Truck, a mosaic-covered vehicle commissioned by Walk the Plank, which features the death mask of death row inmate John Joe “Ash” Amador, Carrie’s former pen pal and friend. The truck was made in 2007 as part of the Manchester Art Car Parade. Another significant piece was a mosaic intervention on the steps of the Victoria and Albert Museum to accompany the 2014 Disobedient Objects exhibition about the art of protest. For the V&A commission, Carrie used quotes from activists and protestors, subverting the idea of establishment figures and institutions being the engines behind political change.
The word “craftivist” – someone who combines craft and activism, using craft as a tool to spread a political message – might seem an appropriate term for Carrie’s work but she is careful to avoid the label. She points out that when she’s working on a public art commission, it’s a paid job and she’s following someone else’s brief rather than her own inclinations. Similarly, she doesn’t call her work “mosaic”, preferring to refer to it as “ceramic collage” or “tapestry” because of the multi-layered nature of her art.
Carrie’s deeply rooted belief in the importance of community and of giving a voice to people who might not otherwise be heard is equally apparent in the way she works with local groups to come up with ideas for her murals. “It’s hard to go into different towns because you’re perceived as being a Londoner coming in and taking a big commission. People understandably ask why someone local can’t do it. I’m very conscious of that, which is why my work is site specific. I go to great lengths to make sure it’s authentic and really representative of the particular place and culture,” she says.
Carrie carries out extensive research, delving into local archives, following niche-interest Facebook groups, and running workshops in the local area to get people involved in all stages of the design process. Sometimes they even make elements that are included in the finished work. The South Acton tree of life mosaic made in 2017 was devised with the help of local groups, such as the United Anglo Caribbean Society and the Gunnersbury Museum, to make sure the mosaic included the history and experiences of people from the local area. The Coventry and Boston mosaics include dozens of ceramic stars and fish made by local school children. She’s particularly keen to highlight the stories of people often forgotten by history – working-class heroes, women and people from marginalised communities.
Over the years, Carrie has repeatedly witnessed the power of mosaics to change people and how they work on a therapeutic level to give people a sense of achievement and confidence. “If you sit people down and ask them to talk about something they’ll just clam up,” says Carrie. “But if you’re all working on a mosaic together, people will start talking and sharing their stories.”
“I remember working at St Bernard’s Mental Hospital in London leading weekly mosaic sessions. There was a man who used to come in who was mute and he would pop out a new mosaic every week. Everyone in the hospital would come to see his work and, after a while, he started to talk just because so many people were coming by and interacting with him. If you get a group of people together and they create and are happy, that’s when really positive things happen.”
This collaborative approach is perhaps best illustrated in the Treatment Rooms – a mosaic mural covering Carrie’s house in a quiet street of Chiswick, London. The project, which began in 2000 and took twenty years to complete, started Carrie on her trajectory as an artist with a political voice. She began working on the front of the house and then the mosaic slowly spread, including a mural on the back wall to commemorate the life of Luis Ramirez, another death row inmate. Once the Treatment Rooms got underway, Carrie began recruiting the help of dozens of friends and mosaic artists from all over the world who contributed by sending mosaic additions by post, making mosaics on site or helping with the installation.
The result is an explosion of colour, slogans, hidden references, and unabashedly political messages. In addition to containing references reflecting Carrie’s long-standing opposition to the death penalty, there’s a wall dedicated to three members of the Black Panther movement who were held in solitary confinement in Louisiana for over 40 years and a gigantic wave based on the famous Japanese print by Hokusai indicating the threat of climate catastrophe. Among other details, the mural also contains Mayan gods, a scarab beetle by Chilean artist Isidora Paz Lopez, space bugs by French mosaicist Philippe Vignal, cartoon fish borrowed from The Simpsons (pictured), mandrakes, and miniature pyramids moulded from Ferrero Rocher boxes.
Text is a key part of Carrie’s work, appearing in the form of exquisitely mosaicked lettering, as well as printed materials transferred onto tiles, which are then cut up and included in her work. Emblazoned across the front of the Treatment Rooms are her immortal words: “I’m an Artist Your Rules Don’t Apply” and a mock heritage blue plaque that reads: “The Treatment Rooms, 2002 – Now. Lots of people lived here and partied hard.”
The mural is a collective effort, driven by Carrie’s vision and determination, which also includes contributions from her two stalwart collaborators: Karen Francesca and street artist ATM. Karen, an art psychotherapist based in Brighton, and Carrie ran Living Space Art together for ten years and Karen continued to work with Carrie on many of her major commissions. She is behind several important elements in the Treatment Rooms mosaic, including large-scale representations of the double helix DNA structure with vaginas neatly hidden within the pattern. ATM, who creates giant reproductions of British birds threatened with extinction, helps Carrie with the designs and planning of many of her mosaics.
“I don’t draw or paint,” says Carrie. “I’m terrible at it, so ATM does my cartoons and makes the templates for me.” ATM’s regular work consists of highly detailed street paintings of birds and animals, often metres high, but his designs for Carrie tend to have a pop-art-like quality with strong outlines, reminiscent of cartoon strips. Carrie has the additional support of a team of expert mosaic artists and installers who often get called on to help with large projects.
Once the design is ready, Carrie immerses herself in the process of making – the process that she says has saved her many times over. “I love the repetitive nature of mosaics, the way you can sit down and work for hours and be lost in it,” says Carrie, who describes how she spent her childhood obsessively filling in Altair Design colouring books. Working from a former shop around the corner from her house, Carrie mostly uses Portuguese glazed porcelain tiles in rich colours, which can withstand sub-zero temperatures. Her work includes whole tiles, straight-edged pieces cut with a flatbed tile cutter, as well as individually crafted tesserae carefully shaped by hand with side biters.
“I get locked into the process so sometimes I feel as if I can’t stop,” explains Carrie, who has suffered from mental health issues since puberty. “I know that I’m really in trouble mentally if I can’t get into the zone with my work.” The demands of working on public art commissions often involve months of negotiations followed by a green light and a tight deadline, which means that Carrie is used to working 12-hour days.
As a general rule, she glues the tiles directly onto fibreglass mesh, working in panels that can then be moved easily from her studio to the site for installation. As for the products she uses, Carrie has long-standing sponsorship from Laticrete and says their products have never let her down.
However, the fabrication of the mosaics is only one part of the process. Carrie oversees every stage of her mosaics’ creation, from researching to designing and transferring images onto the tiles, often adding her own handmade tiles too. Slab building classes at Richmond Adult College led to learning other ceramic techniques, including printing on clay. After eight years of learning and developing her own methods of work, Carrie has now perfected the firing process whereby she permanently embeds digitally printed images onto the tiles.
Carrie employs these techniques to personalise the tiles she incorporates into her public art and also creates one-off pieces for sale – plates, t-shirts and plaques – usually using vintage transfers overlaid with her own subversive phrases and slogans. But from the tens of thousands of words that have appeared in her ceramic collages over the years, there are three that keep recurring and stand alone as Carrie’s motto: Mad In England. Simple but effective, the words encapsulate Carrie’s style: slightly tongue in cheek, laced with humour, accessible, and fun.