Topic: Articles

Clay Culture: Ceramic Craftivism

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From left to right: Carrie Reichardt, Eoghan Ebrill, and Yohanna Parketny work on the Zulu VooDoo Liberation Taxi outside of Reichardt’s home in London. Photo: Sian Smith.

London artist Carrie Reichardt blurs the boundaries between craft and activism, using mural and mosaic techniques to create intricate, highly politicized works of art.

Sometimes our craft is more than the product of our own two hands. It is a lifeline. In the case of Carrie Reichardt, it is a lifeline that also allows her to amplify the voices of others. But as with many things in life, it took her some time to find it. We sat down to talk at the end of her two-month residency at The Clay Studio in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about the beginnings of the Zulu VooDoo Liberation Taxi and then again after it was finished months later.

First and foremost, when it comes to her work, Reichardt is a renegade potter and craftivist. Her work is about more than the sum of its parts, and invites viewers into the conversation it begins. Her work first came up on my radar a decade ago, when I learned she had mosaicked her townhouse in London in part to raise awareness of the Angola 3, three prisoners who had been held at Angola State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, in solitary confinement for decades. Since then her work has continued to amaze me with its raw openness, honesty, and unapologetic wish for justice.

Therefore, when I heard she was working on a new project, the Zulu VooDoo Liberation Taxi, a London black cab that she covered in a mosaic to raise awareness for the case of Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, also an Angola prisoner, I had to learn more.

Reichardt was originally brought to The Clay Studio by Garth Johnson, who now works at Arizona State University as curator of ceramics. “I always like to talk about craftivism and political craft being a Trojan horse. The craft and the form are something that people can relate to, can understand culturally, and put within context,” states Johnson. And in mixing ceramic components with glass tiles on top of an already-iconic black cab, she is taking something highly relatable and infusing it with familiar objects that create an entirely new vehicle of education. As Johnson notes, “Carrie really gets the push and pull of being able to draw an audience in visually.”

During a visit to The Clay Studio, I helped Reichardt glaze ceramic slip-cast elements for the mosaic—bones, skulls, and babies’ heads—for the kiln. A nod to her anarchic aesthetic, these components add a bit of punk to the glass tile pieces, which also adorn the taxi. Adding these ceramic pieces to her work is important, as she says, “I think there is a real connection that if you look at civilizations for any period or any place, they’ve all got their own form of ceramic.” She places her work firmly within the history of ceramics, knowing that it is continuing the conversations of those that came before.

The Zulu VooDoo Liberation Taxi as part of Artcore’s “Esthisis” exhibition at the Crows Nest Gallery in West London. Photo: Mark R. Baker. Laying out the slip-cast and handmade ceramic components for the bonnet of the taxi.

While she makes pieces herself under the name Mad In England, the taxi was made by the collective Reichardt started, The Treatment Rooms. The name comes from a sign she found in a derelict psychiatric facility in London. “I took that sign and I screwed it to my studio door, because even then I was conscious of this [the studio] as my daycare. This is where I go to have my therapy.” In doing fairly large-scale work, such as covering a black cab with tiny individual pieces, she is quick to add that one of the benefits of making socially conscious work is that people find you. The work inspires other makers to join in, given the meaning the final product will have.

When her residency at The Clay Studio was over, Reichardt packed up her pieces, bringing them back to London to start work on the Zulu VooDoo Liberation Taxi, the idea being that the dream goal of the finished taxi was to give Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore a ride from prison to freedom. With the help of Lori Bell (also known as Lady Muck), Karen Wydler, Sian Wonnish, Eoghan Ebrill, and street artist ATM, they were able to create a moving art object that they eventually took to several English festivals in the summer of 2015. At the festivals, the taxi served well as a Trojan horse. “All these people come up to you; they are drawn to it because it’s beautiful. And it’s shiny, and it’s bling, and it’s a car. And they come up and they go, ‘Oh my god, you mosaicked this car!’” It is at moments like this where a doorway appears in the realm of political craft, where it exists as a beautiful work entirely on its own, yet with the right understanding or by asking the right questions, it also stands to become something imbued with incredible meaning and depth. Reichardt continues, “and then you show them the portrait on the front of Zulu and then you would lead them to the back, it has a statement by Zulu.” And just like that, it’s at once both a lovely piece of work along with a lesson in injustice.”

After 37 years in solitary confinement, Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore recently was allowed to move back into a prison dormitory. Right before I spoke to Reichardt the second time, she had just finished a phone call with him, another new privilege for Whitmore. He’s apparently “overjoyed” with the taxi. “He’s overwhelmed by the idea that there are so many people in England, so far away who are so committed to what’s happened to him.”

The collective took the taxi to festivals to not only share the work with festivalgoers, but also to educate them about Whitmore’s case as well as the problems with the US justice system. This is part of the brilliance of Reichardt’s work, says Jennifer Zwilling, curator of Artistic Programs at The Clay Studio, as by taking it outside of gallery walls she’s encouraging people to openly ask questions about it, giving her “a non-threatening platform to kind of transition the conversation over to causes she feels are important.” Reichardt’s journey into making work around prisons began in 2000, when she saw an ad asking people to write to death-row prisoners. When she received her first letter back, however, she wondered, “what have I done?” But when she opened the letter, from an inmate, who by coincidence was also a mosaic artist, she says, “what smacked me in the face was humanity. Every preconceived idea I had, everything I thought, just went out the window in that instance. I just realized, this is a human being.”

In the 16 years since, she has been a fierce advocate against injustice, making pieces about issues such as the inhumanity of animal cruelty and to raise awareness of lesser-known heroes such as suffragette Mary Bamber. There is an empathy and compassion that echoes through both her work and the work of The Treatment Rooms Collective, as it exists to call attention to issues and people that may go easily overlooked. That “everyone in the Treatment Rooms recognizes that art is the thing that enables them to function” is not too surprising and I think part of the lynchpin of their work, allowing them to easily connect with others. In the making, they don’t only work with items made from the earth itself, they also create connective tissue to the outside world as well.

Judith Schwartz, author of the book Confrontational Ceramics and New York University art professor, calls artists like Reichardt “visual philosophers,” noting that “any artist who is able to get us to experience the social condition that they’re trying to change makes an incredible impact on our lives.” And with her work, Reichardt makes an impact that flows from the artist to the work to the audience, and then back again, allowing her to make and connect seamlessly. What begins as therapy for the self becomes a way to help connect the ills of the world spiraling outward, raising awareness one piece at a time.

the author Betsy Greer lives in Durham, North Carolina, where she writes about craftivism and makes political craftwork. She can be found at http://craftivism.com

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