Carrie Reichardt is an artist and activist, who works from her mosaic-covered studio in London. Reichardt was born in London in 1966, and trained at Kingston University. She achieved a first class degree in Fine Art from Leeds Metropolitan, and went on to be artist-in-residence at Camberwell Art College. Reichardt has been involved in community and public art projects for over 20 years, working recently in Miravalle, one of the most deprived districts on the fringes of Mexico City. She was recently the international artist-in-residence at the Clay Studio, Philadelphia. When Reichardt was commissioned to prepare an installation for the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Disobedient Objects show in 2014, she designed an installation that literally spilled out of the galleries onto the Museum’s front steps. The final visitor figures came in at nearly half a million, making Disobedient Objects the most visited exhibition at the V&A since 1946. Reichardt’s work has been featured in The Observer, The Guardian and The Evening Standard, and she is frequently called to speak on the use of craft as a means of rebellion. She has communicated extensively with political prisoners and fought for convicts on death row throughout her life, which has greatly influenced her art. In our interview, we discuss the links between creativity and madness, humanity, and the art of protest.
Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.
Well, I grew up in London. I come from quite a weird background actually. My grandfather was called Baron von Reichardt. The name Reichardt has a connection with the last Tsar of Russia, who made my grandfather a Baron for helping the allied forces in World War I. He was a billionaire, but when the Russian revolution came, he lost everything. When he arrived in England with my grandmother, they were very, very poor. They brought up my father, totally penniless, but still considered themselves as aristocrats. My Dad is practically illiterate, but went on to build an empire through real estate, and my uncle Tony Reichardt ended up being a key figure in British Modernism in the 60’s.
Do you remember when you decided that you wanted to be an artist?
You know what, for years and years, I have really struggled with the idea that I am an artist. I was that child who was absorbed by craft and making things. I was a very visual person, and art was a complete therapy for me. It helped me to communicate. But I always felt like I was winging it and never considered myself as a real artist. But over the years, I have really learnt my craft, and eventually, now, I realise that I have become very skilled in what I do.
How does it feel different, putting up work in the streets spontaneously, to preparing work for galleries?
For me, it’s totally different. Art is all about intent. I have done a lot of both, and when you’re making art for a gallery, you can’t help but have a little voice in the back of your mind, saying ‘will they like it? Will they buy it?’ I actually think it holds you back as an artist. When you’re doing work on the streets, you’re creating a real dialogue. It’s so rewarding to go back years later to see those pieces, to visit your little trinkets. I always try to put street art up where people are going to be bored, like at bus stops. I love the idea that someone might be waiting, uninspired, and that they’re going to look down and hopefully, that little thing will make them smile.
Do you believe that creativity and madness are intrinsically linked?
Absolutely. My work is all autobiographical, and I’m constantly processing everything that has ever happened to me through my art. It’s what enables me to keep the demons at bay. If I don’t create, my mental state deteriorates. But I don’t think I’m alone in that. I truly believe that people who aren’t creating, especially the ones that should, will inevitably end up with depression, or suffer from mental illnesses. In 1995, I visited Hackney Mental Health Institute when it was closed, as I wanted to film an abandoned mental hospital. The links between creativity and madness have always played on my mind. I know that I would probably be in a mental institution myself if I didn’t create. Creativity absolutely and fundamentally gives us our humanity and our sanity back.
How did it come about that you started writing to prisoners on death row?
When I was around twelve, I became fascinated by reading about convicts. The psychological and ethical questions around their incarceration really intrigued me. In 2000, I saw an advert in The Big Issue, inviting people to write to a prisoner on death row. I had written to someone in prison before, so I considered it. I thought it would be such an interesting artistic experiment, and that it would answer some of the questions I had always had surrounding who these people really were. So I signed up, and got allocated someone to write to. I sent my first letter to a man called Luis Ramirez, who was on death row in Livingstone, Texas. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter back from Luis. It sat on my windowsill for about three days. I was thinking ‘What have I done? I’ve received a letter from death row in Texas…’ But when I opened up the letter, it said: ‘Dear Carrie, it’s so nice to hear from you. I see you do mosaics, I used to do mosaics too. I’m sending you a photo of some mosaics that you might like.”
What first went through your mind when you read his letter?
You know, we all have this narrative, ‘they’re monsters, they’re monsters’. The media wants us to believe that, because then we can believe they’re not us, they’re them. It disconnects us, and we can say that they’re evil people. That way, we don’t have to look at the institutions, or the real reasons why people are ending up like this and committing crimes. I think that we’re all very indoctrinated by that, but actually, when you open up that letter, it’s humanity that hits you in the face. Luis ended up becoming my best friend and confidant for five years. We wrote to each other once a week, religiously. Luis had been convicted of hiring a hitman to kill someone, following a testimonial against him by a paid police informant. Despite new evidence being found that proved his innocence, he was never granted a re-trial, and all of his further appeals were denied. That one action of writing to Luis changed the whole course of my artistic and personal life. I used to be depressive and very self-centred. When you become friends with someone on death row, and understand what their daily life is like; it really makes you think about your life, in parallel to theirs.
What happened next?
When Luis’ execution was drawing nearer, I decided to go and visit him. It was the first time I had ever visited death row. I had a fear of flying, but at the last minute, I just thought, ‘I have to go’. By me going to him, I had to overcome all of these different barriers and fears. I spent two days with Luis before he was executed, and we just sat and chatted. He was the loveliest person. You see what the human spirit is really capable of when you go through those moments. It was so uplifting, but in another way, it was the most traumatising thing ever. After he was executed, I came back to London. Up until that point, I had kind of abandoned my own artwork and had just been doing community work. But going to see Luis inspired me to start a brand new project, and I decided to mosiac the whole back wall of my house in dedication to him. I would spend about 12 hours a day mosaicing, to help me get it all out. I mosaiced Luis’ last words onto the wall: “I did not kill your loved one, but I hope that one day you find out who did. I wish I could tell you the reason why or give some kind of solace. You lost someone you love very much, the same as my family and friends are going to lose in a few minutes. I am sure he died unjustly, just like I am. I did not murder him.” Creating the wall for Luis was when my work moved from being about me, to being about causes, humans, and the things that I cared about.
How did people react to the wall that you dedicated to Luis?
I had such encouraging reactions to it. When I had finished the wall, Luis’ mother, sister and girlfriend came over to London to see it. They were so touched. Luis’ girlfriend’s twin was actually married to the man in the cell next to Luis. He was called Ash and he was also on death row. I began writing to him, and two years later, when it became clear that all of Ash’s appeals would be turned down, Ash invited me to be with him and his family for his execution. When I heard this, I happened to be with my friend, Nick Reynolds. Nick is a sculptor who specialises in death masks, and also son to Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind behind the Great Train Robbery. He’s also known for being the harmonica player in the cult band Alabama 3. Nick asked me if we could do a mask of Ash’s face. We said that that way, he wouldn’t be forgotten. He would have a sort of life after death. So, we flew there together for the execution.
What was it like being present at Ash’s execution?
I talked to him for hours before he was killed. He told me: “It’s called capital punishment because it’s for people with no capital. There are no rich people on death row.” I sat with his family and watched him, spread-eagled on a gurney, while he was given his last rites. He was killed still protesting his innocence. While his arm was being filled with lethal sodium penthathol, he said, “God forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It was just so surreal. Just before he died, he said, “Freedom… I’m ready”. I remember him looking so peaceful in that moment.
Where did you make the death mask?
Well, Texas happens to be the only state in America in which you can legally transport a dead body from A to B if you have your own body bag. With Ash’s family, we picked his body up from the morgue, and drove it to a small cabin in the woods that belonged to Ash’s widow. We unzipped the body bag and took Ash’s arm out so that his wife could hold his hand. Texas is a non-contact prison, so Ash hadn’t been touched by anyone for 12 years. When they executed him, the priest just held his leg. Other than that, he had only been manhandled by guards. We cast his face within about two hours from when he was killed. On the mask, what looks like it should be stubble are actually goosebumps, because he was still responding the the coldness of the plaster. That’s how alive he still was. We brought his death mask back to London, and put it onto a Tiki Love Truck. The V&A chose to exhibit that piece because it was supposed to symbolise how one can protest in death.
What did Ash think about the death mask prior to his execution?
He just kept saying that he couldn’t believe that we had come all that way, just for him, and that a death mask was something normally bestowed on kings. He said: ”Now I know that I’m not trash, I’m someone.”
How has being friends with prisoners on death row changed the way you live your life?
My first visit to death row was when my life stopped being about me. It was when I realised what true injustice meant. I’m a white middle class person, I don’t know what true personal hardship is. All of the people that I have written to on death row and in prison, they all write poetry, they all make things out of matchboxes. They do this to stop themselves going mad. That work is saving them, and my work has saved me at times in my life where I was in and out of hospital. If I hadn’t had been creating, and turning that pain into something positive, I’m not sure that I would have gotten through those times.
How did it come about that your work was exhibited at the V&A?
The show was called Disobedient Objects, and it was on for six months in 2014. It was one of the first exhibitions that examined the role of objects in the art of protest. Seeing as my Tiki Love Truck was already part of the show, Curator Catherine Flood approached me and asked me to do a temporary ceramic installation on the front entrance of the museum. I created two huge mosaic panels that would be put up over the original stone pillars. They also asked me to cover the steps of the museum with mosaics, and let me write whatever I wanted. I wrote the most rebellious quotes I could think of, including a plaque for HermanWallace.
How did you become interested in The Black Panther movement?
Well, I found out about the Angola Three after visiting Dame Anita Roddick, who founded The Body Shop. She told me about the three prison inmates – Robert King, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace – who were put in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary, (Angola Prison), in 1972, after being accused of killing a prison guard. Angola Prison is a former slave plantation, now a prison. Wallace and Woodfox became Black Panther activists, and helped organise petitions and hunger strikes to protest segregation within the prison. Their case was very controversial and Amnesty International became very involved with it, as these three men were convicted despite there being no physical evidence linking them to the crime. DNA evidence had been lost and the testimony of the main eyewitness had even been discredited, so it was very widely followed.
How did you get in touch with Herman Wallace?
Well, when I was researching him, I saw that it was soon going to be Herman’s 65th birthday. By this time, he had been in prison for about 36 years. I thought I’d send him a birthday card, because I knew how much it meant to prisoners to receive letters. He wrote back to me, and he became one of my closest friends. My 11 year old daughter went out to visit him, and he sent her a necklace as a present that was exhibited in the Disobedient Objects show at the V&A. When Amnesty called for Herman’s release in 2013, he was 71 years old and had advanced liver cancer. He tragically died three days after being released as a free man. Robert King, part of the Angola Three, was exonerated in 2001, and he came to unveil the mosaic dedicated to them on the back of my house. He stood on my garage and pulled off a blanket to unveil it!
You have worked tirelessly for the community. Which project stands out in your mind?
Yes, I spend a big proportion of my life doing community work and street art. A very small proportion of my time is spent trying to sell. It’s so hard to choose one, as they’re all so rewarding and wonderful. I really loved the projects I did in Mexico though. I’ve been back there twice and worked in a place called Miravalle, which is one of the poorest barrios on the outskirts of Mexico City. It’s run with revolutionary principles in mind, and it’s just an honour to go somewhere like that and to work so creatively with such amazing artists.
Do you have any goals or dreams as an artist?
I dream of one day having a commune, to work with all of the people I collaborate with. We would have sculpture, ceramic and mosaic workshops, and we would bring the local people in and do wonderful things for the community. With local west London artists, we have founded The Treatment Rooms Collective, which is a community focused, socially-conscious, art collective. The people I collaborate with are so gifted and motivated; Lady Muck, ATM, Karen Wydler, Linda Griffiths, Eoghan Ebrill, Sian Wonnish, all of them. I’m so lucky to work with such diversely talented artists.
How did the mosaiced taxi come about, that now stands in west London?
The mosaiced taxi was created in dedication for Kenny Zulu Whitmore. Kenny is now in his 40th year of incarceration for a crime that he didn’t commit. He was a poor young black kid at 19, who was beaten for 10 hours and made to sign a confession that he couldn’t have written, because he was illiterate. Kenny spends 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cell. I have been writing to him since 2009 and he has become one of my best friends. We managed to obtain a black taxi, which was perfect as it’s such an iconic symbol. With the Treatment Rooms Collective, we mosaiced it for Kenny, including things he had said to me in his letters – “the more they try to hide me on this plantation, the more visible I become in the struggle for justice.” The dream, if Kenny is ever freed, would be to drive his taxi to pick him up at the airport!
What does being a free spirit mean to you?
Feeling like a child. Remaining true to who you really are, which is actually a very hard thing to do these days. Whenever I travel somewhere new, which is nearly always related to making art, that’s when I feel truly free.
What’s the best piece of advice that you have heard, that you try to repeat to others?
In Herman Wallace’s second letter to me, he wrote something that has kind of been my mantra in life ever since. ‘The essence of your life is only measured in the way that you can help others.”
I think that there is something significant about the innocence of a child. Being only 11 at the time, when I stepped into the visiting room of Louisiana State Penitentiary and ran up to Herman Wallace to give him a hug, I was completely unaware of how strange this must have been to everyone else in the room. It was only a long time afterward that I realised. A white, 11 year old girl running into the arms of a convicted murderer, a peculiar sight to the other inmates, their families and prison guards alike. Yet I was unable to see it that way, I was not familiar with the prejudices and injustices of race and class that I now see very frequently. I saw both Herman and Albert as people, not criminals. It never once struck me that I was in a dangerous place, surrounded by dangerous people, despite the fact I was sitting in one of the most notorious prisons in the whole of the United States.
– Reichardt’s daughter Poppy recalling her experience of visiting two members of the Angola Three in prison when she was 11 years old.
Rosie Osborne is a writer for Free Spirit Homes.
Do you love or loathe this contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.