It was a penpal relationship that would change the life of Carrie Reichardt. Responding to an advert in the Big Issue. She answered the question posed which was ‘Could you ever befriend a man on death row.’ Saying, “yes I probably could.”
That first relationship, with a man named Luis Ramirez, is even now commemorated on the back of her house. His prison ID sits in resin and a mosaic pays tribute to the man who would become one of her closest friends. All this whilst Carrie lived in the suburbs of Chiswick and whilst Luis was in America living in circumstances that couldn’t be more different.
“I would feel guilty” she told me. Writing to Luis she would tell him about everything. Her day to day life, her kids, her boyfriends. She would talk about her weight and anything and everything about life in leafy West London. All this normality happening whilst Luis waited in a prison cell. His response was not to feel anything like guilt. Telling her, “when I write to you it gives me my humanity. I can be the person I was outside prison.”
Art Related Noise
I’m speaking to Carrie Reichardt as part of our popular podcast series ‘Art Related Noise‘ with the Art Republic Gallery in Brighton. Speaking to artists about their lives and career I never really know where the conversation might go. Carrie is an artist the blog knows well though. Indeed her work has featured a number of times on Inspiring City. Her house too is a landmark in its own right. Covered front to back with mosaic, it is a remarkable sight.
What people might not be so aware of is the background and symbolism of the house. How it started and what inspired the different elements. It was a labour of love for over 20 years inspired partly by a comment from her father who had encouraged her to put a sign outside advertising the fact that she sold “mosaics within”. Not quite content with just doing that “I’ll just mosaic the whole god damn house” she had replied.
It was her penpal relationship with Luis though that would give the extra impetus. Not just to getting on with the house but to all of her work. She learnt about death row and about the American Justice system. Eventually she would go over to the states to be with her friend as he was executed. “It was Luis who taught me that capital punishment meant those with no capital get punished” she told me. “I totally believe he was innocent of the crime.”
The Quickest Way to Happiness
Carrie tells me about one of her favourite quotes, “the quickest way to happiness is to find a cause greater than yourself”. Adding that for her, writing to Luis was the best thing she ever did. “It changed my whole life” she told me. “I wasn’t driven in the same way I am now…. When I saw all the injustice happening to someone I cared so deeply about. It motivated me in such a way. It was only really that which directed my work for so many years… I wanted people to know about death row. I wanted people to know about my friends and the injustice and I found that the perfect vehicle in doing that was through my art.”
Her work since that point became ever more political. Soon she would get involved with the cases of the Angola 3. Former black panthers, they were condemned to lives of solitary confinement for crimes the world now accepts they never committed. One of those, a man called Herman Wallace, died two days after being released from prison. After 40 years he could never really experience freedom. He is now commemorated on the front.
In another case, that of Kenny ‘Zulu’ Whitmore, she is still championing a man who remains incarcerated. Again for a crime which Carrie says he is completely innocent of. Her tribute to him is a completely mosaiced black taxi cab called the ‘Zulu Freedom Taxi’. It can often be seen parked outside the front. A. massive collaboration effort the completed taxi has toured exhibitions and museums. She wants to make a difference and she is using her art to do that in the best way she knows how.
I ask her about the term ‘craftivist’ which is a description she is often given. First termed by Betsy Greer in 2013 she nonetheless tells me that “craftivism has always existed, it’s just that the word wasn’t there”. If anything though, now she perhaps considers herself to be more of an archivist. “I’m taking people’s history and archiving it and putting it into public art” she tells me. Certainly that’s been the direction of much of her recent work. Carrie though remains nervous about all labels. “I wouldn’t even say I was a mosaicist. I wouldn’t say I was a street artist. I’m nervous about any labels that are given to you because I’m all of those things and none of those things.”
Mastering the art of transferring images onto tile and plate has really allowed that archival work to flourish. The technique has really allowed her the opportunity to create more and more of what she describes as her ceramic collages . Providing a unique means to capture social history, those images are placed onto something permanent. A number of her recent works take advantage of this. Their completed forms resulting in a deep connection to the history of an area. Her ‘Tree of Life’ in Acton with Karen Francesca and her tiled murals as part of the Aberdeen Nuart Festivals are the result of a re-imaging of archive materials.
“I’m very aware of the fact that I’m making something that’s permanent” Carrie tells me. “If you want to remove my work you’re going to have to get a hammer and chisel and smash it off and I’m conscious of that so I want to do something that is worthy of being there.” She is particularly referencing her work in Aberdeen where mosaic collages remembering women’s history in the city blend against the fine granite buildings.
That style of work has also found it’s way into the permanent collection at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Focusing mainly of the mystery of Anne Hathaway, the woman who was Shakespeare’s wife yet about whom not much else is known. Taking the only known image of Hathaway Carrie reclaimed it for the modern day, imagining what she would have been like living in social media age. “I called it experience Anne” she told me “with the symbol for Anarchy over the A.”
The Mosaic House
It’s Carrie’s house that really stands out though. Eventually finished in 2017 it took a collaborative effort to give it the final push. Inspired by an offer of help from her friend, the renowned Chilean mosaic artist Isidora Paz Lopez. It turned out to be exactly what the house needed. Carrie put a call out to see who else might be around and before she knew it, some of the worlds best mosaic artists descended upon Chiswick.
In all it had taken 20 years. Starting in 1997 with the door. She first surrounded it with Indian tapestries and Adinkra symbols from West Africa. All with different meanings one of them represents the ‘possibility of correcting ones mistakes’. “I like the idea that when you walk through the door it’s sacred” she tells me. Layer upon layer has been added since then. The house oozes meaning and it’s glazed finish tells the story, not only of it’s numerous stages, but of it’s people and the folk who made it happen.