Carrie Reichardt’s house may be the only house in London that stands out from the cult of a sharp cement environment and an anonymous personality. A bright mosaic curls its way up the walls in a melange of skulls, African masks and anarchist manifestoes that destroy the suburban peace of Chiswick. The scaffolding hints that the house isn’t finished yet. But the rear reveals a completed jaw-dropping façade where the mosaicked wall hides the art studio, which Reichardt and her friends share under the name of The Treatment Rooms collective.
‘Generally, people love it – they appreciate its beauty, and the time and skill it took to do. In fact, yesterday a Tory councillor, who was campaigning for the EU referendum, ended up telling me he just wanted an excuse to say he loves the house,’ Reichardt tells me after the voodoo doorbell tune tails off. Dressed in a fluffy purple jacket and high-heeled boots, the artist is welcoming and hyper. ‘Of course, there are others, not so many, who shout in the street that I shouldn’t be allowed to do this,’ she continues, as she makes two cups of tea with soya milk, while I’m looking around at the creatively-decorated living room. It’s filled with book shelves, vintage face masks and tiles spread all over the floor.
Reichardt, who loves to play with words, describes herself as an ‘extreme craftivist’, ‘anarchist ceramicist’ and a ‘renegade potter’. When I ask, why she calls herself an extreme craftivist, she answers that she wanted to divert herself from ‘the label of craftivism because it almost always occupies space where it’s twee.’ She adds that craftivism tends to be gentle and passive, sort of ‘don’t shout’, and she objects to anyone telling her how to protest or be an activist.
‘I’m an extreme craftivist because I believe in shouting, working on a deeply personal level. How you should express yourself is up to you. I don’t want any rules.’
When did you understand you wanted to become an artist? I ask, stroking Reichardt’s black, rescued cat. ‘I never really understood I wanted to be an artist. It’s not a choice,’ she replies. ‘I never saw myself as an artist, particularly because I thought I could never draw or paint, and I always had insecurities. But I loved making art. As a little craft person I would spend hours and hours making things. It would give me a great joy.’
‘But I think it came from my mother who was to knitting what I’m to mosaics. I inherited from her the love of colour and making things, and, unfortunately, not having much confidence in what I did. When she was about four, during the bombs in the World War II, she was taught to knit on four needles how to do socks for the soldiers. For her it was a really calming thing. When I had my children, she would be rocking one of them on her lap, simultaneously knitting, watching the telly and reading the paper.’
The artist says that her life is a series of turns. Once she dreamt about doing a degree in theatre or comedy, but it didn’t happen. She finished a foundation year in Theatre Design at Sheffield University and realised that she wanted to do filmmaking. At Leeds Metropolitan University, where she went to for an interview, she was told they didn’t teach it anymore. But there were the other options.
‘I thought they wouldn’t accept me anywhere and I was very cocky. I said: “Alright, give me a hammer and chisel, and I’m going to do a sculpture, mate.” And they offered me a place,’ she remembers. ‘I always thought that creativity found me because I needed it as a form of expression.’
The artist was introduced to mosaics unexpectedly, through her first husband when he was doing up their garden 16 years ago. He was a sculptor, and suggested to her that she try to lay the tiles at the sunken level he had created. She drew out the plan and had been mosaicking it for three weeks when he told her that she was sticking up the tiles the wrong way. The artist swore to never mosaic again, but she fell in love with it.
Later, she became involved in community work with Karen and ATM, the street artists, who she formed a group, Living Space Arts, with. For ten years they’ve done nothing but teach and carry out community mosaicking. Among their creations is The Revolution will be Ceramicsed on the Portobello Road and The Art of Recycling in Harold Hill library, Essex.
‘Because I have a power of creativity, I’ve done so much community work. I know the power of art to do good. That’s why I always want to encourage it and work with different communities to use it as a vehicle to make everyone feel better.’
Today, Reichardt’s public works are everywhere around the world. ‘I’m really proud of my art in Miravalle, Mexico City, because Oscar, the artist left behind, has since carried on and continues to work on mosaic,’ she says. ‘Or currently I’m doing a big project in Tower Hamlets where I’m making a huge extinction symbol on a wall. It will be there forever. Having the freedom to stick tiles on the walls makes my heart sing.’
Reichardt’s creative process begins with her drawing up a mosaic design and printing up a lot of tiles. ‘My work always evolves, but I used to do a lot of collage because I thought I couldn’t draw. I had so much to say that I would construct a narrative with photos and photocopies, and draw on that collage work.’
‘Now I feel confident that I can aesthetically put things together,’ the artist reveals. But she adds that she is about to change the way she works. Her work has been immensely influenced by her partners at the time. Currently, she has a new boyfriend and feels like changing her process.
Reichardt tells me that her first mosaic works were inspired by the 1970s cartoon porn. She loved subverting a lovely decorative art form in a similar way to Grayson Perry’s pots. ‘I used to say that I wanted to be the Grayson Perry of the mosaic world. He has taken his pots and brought them to the art gallery, showing that pot is a great vehicle for subversion,’ she laughs.
‘I think I have propelled mosaics into a new direction because I can see the influence that I have had on other artists’ work. When I started doing mosaics, I used to go online and look up other mosaics. It was so dreary, and in fact I was embarrassed to admit I was a mosaic artist. It was so filled with awful white-grafted dolphins.’
Indeed, I can’t forget to ask Reichardt about the motifs behind mosaicking her own house. She tells me that she realised that her mosaic can be so much more political and have meaning after reading an advert in the Big Issue magazine asking “Do You Want to Write to Someone on the Death Row?”
‘I had just got divorced and was doing a community mosaic, and I was in quite a good place. I applied and received a letter. I remember it was on my window sill for three days, I was freaked out about it. When I opened the letter, it said: “Oh, Carrie I see you do mosaics, and I used to do mosaics. I sent you a picture of some that you might like.”’
As soon as Reichardt read it, the humanity hit her. The preconceived ideas, gathered from the movies and newspapers, went out of the window. Over the five-year period she has written to Luis Ramirez, the death row prisoner, who became her best friend and confidant. She tells me he was an inspiring human being and a wonderful writer, whose poems and plays were published.
‘I felt guilty writing to him about my boyfriend, the fact that I’m overweight, and this and that, and he was sitting in the cell, waiting to die. But he answered that my letters returned his humanity,’ she adds.
Reichardt flew to visit Ramirez two days before his execution. Although she was scared of flying, she had to do it for him. It was heart-breaking to see a human spirit and an unstopping positive love of a man who was to be executed for a crime, she believes, he didn’t commit.
‘At that time I realised how little power we had. You can feel strongly about injustice but when it happens to you personally, it’s a different matter. I knew it was unjust that my friend was to be executed. The whole process would send me over the edge, but I promised him I’d do a wall in his honour,’ she says. ‘I cried every day for about eight months and I think I was crying for my understanding of how the world works. I realised I’m an anarchist; this law of order doesn’t exist. It’s a fallacy like the way they construct things. Luis taught me that capital punishment means that those with no capital get punished.’
Reichardt began mosaicking the back wall for 12 hours a day. In 2005, Ramirez’s mother, sister, girlfriend and her twin-sister flew to London from Texas to unveil it.
That’s when everything collided for the artist. She decided to dedicate her life to raise consciousness about death row. Her motto became – ‘the way to happiness is to find a cause greater than yourself.’
Reichardt also befriended Ramirez’s cellmate John Joe “Ash” Amador, whose wife was the twin sister of Ramirez’s girlfriend. In 2007 the artist found herself in the same prison, witnessing Amador’s execution. Her friend, sculptor Nick Reynolds made a death mask of his face, which ended up being in Tiki Love Truck (2007), a bright mosaicked truck that was in numerous festivals and even in the V&A exhibition The Disobedient Objects in 2014.
How do you feel about being exhibited in the galleries and putting up your work in the streets? I ask. She admits that it’s completely different, and she’d rather be paid to make community art, but as an outspoken anarchist it’s not always possible. She likes the creative freedom that her public art brings. ‘I like the idea that work in the street is for everybody. It’s like a gift,’ she smiles.
But she still has to pay her bills, and some of her work goes to the galleries. On the one hand, it allows Reichardt to perfect her skill and come out with new ideas. On the other hand, a part of her feels less engaged with it because it’s monetary and she finds it quite difficult.
While we are walking in the back yard, I ask Reichardt what she thinks about the contemporary art world. Her answer isn’t surprising.
‘It’s elitist and corrupt. The establishment, white, male and privileged, is deciding who is the best artist – Picasso, Magritte, Hirst – and raises the prices for their pieces. It’s the Emperor’s new clothes,’ she concludes. ‘When you talk about the art market, the word that’s important there is market. In the Frieze art fair, people pay £50,000 to have a stall there. They have been chosen by the art fair to be there and they are curated by it. There’s very little art.’
Indeed, I can’t avoid the question about British Petrol (BP) sponsoring the major British museums. Reichardt considers the BP money evil but adds that people will always protest against it.
‘The Tate was built on money with Tate and Lyle whose entire history is based on slavery. The V&A is built on Indian colonisation and all these places we went around. Our museums are filled with artefacts – “why have we got them?” because we went to their country and stole them.
‘V&A is going to be practically privatised. We’re going to look at the golden era of these museums soon, because they are so held to sponsorships and making money, and it won’t matter if they are taking money from BP.’
The artist believes that is the reason why people love Banksy and street art. To her mind, the street artists don’t just engage in art, but change the social structure of the place.
I’m interested, if artivism can change things, and ask Reichardt about this.
‘It can change you. It’s very easy to become disillusioned, depressed and disaffected by reality. They make us feel overwhelmed, useless and asking ‘what’s the point?’ But activism is beneficial as a way of fighting back on a personal level – you feel like you’re doing something good. Robert King, who has spent 33 years in prison, said to me: “Carrie, all you can do is throw your pebbles in the pond and hope that eventually a wave will be created from those pebbles.” You have to do what you can do to advance us to a better place. And for me that’s art.
‘So will artivism save the world? Hopefully, or we are all fucked.’
Talking about her future plans, Reichardt says that she desperately wants to finish mosaicking her house. She has had scaffolding on it for three years and hasn’t got around to doing it – she always has to juggle between her projects and paying the bills. She is also supposed to do a huge public art piece in South Acton, which would take six months, but she is still negotiating the design.