Carrie Reichardt, artist and Craftivist on a picture of Serena in the Tigveni Orphanage Romania, September 2000.
GB Tell me why you chose this.
CR For me this picture represents beauty on so many different levels. There’s the fact that Serena herself is so beautiful and you can see that beauty through the happiness that’s radiating from her. But there’s something else that gives me a lovely feeling when I look at this picture, that creates beauty in my heart. She’s holding the first painting she had ever done. She was in an orphanage that I worked at and she’d never even seen paint. She’d never seen those colours. She’d barely been held. For me this represents the transformation that art can achieve. It can change someone’s whole world.
GB So was this at a workshop you were doing there?
CR Yes, I went with a group called Living Space Arts that included my best friend from college and her brother. We went for two weeks to work in Romania. It was one of those orphanages that you read about at the time. Kids were strapped down. It was horrendous. It was like going to a concentration camp. They had special needs kids there and when we arrived they wanted to choose only the most able children so we’d work with their best students and we said no. We said we’d work with every child in the entire school or nobody. We had them all brought in. Serena had a hunch and she couldn’t look you in the face. She was like the runt of the pack who was picked on and we were told she was subnormal. But the moment that girl was given a paintbrush she came alive. I’d never seen that in my entire life, that someone could have this connection to creating and working and she just started to do this amazing work. We did go back and work with her over the next couple of years and over that period of time we saw this child start to stand upright and take real value in herself and become a child that everybody else was responding to differently because they could see her talent. The local paper found at about our project and the mayor came to visit. It ended up on the national news out there. So peoples’ perceptions started to change.
GB What’s the number 6 on her shirt? And why is her hair so short?
CR It represents her room. When we first arrived, the children all had shaved heads to stop them getting nits. Also, a lot of the girls who were sexually abused would try to look as masculine as possible. At nighttime the only people who supervised the place were homeless people who got a free bed if they looked after these children. They lived in ruins. They had to drag themselves from the place they slept to the place they ate through human and dog excrement. I saw children repeatedly shoving pencils into their ears so they could get into the sick room. It was truly horrendous. And the only way I could cope was with the art and the beauty we were creating in that situation. You’re creating beauty that everyone can see, that makes other people see the humanity of these people that they are treating so badly.
GB It’s remarkable that she painted such a positive image.
CR Children are such vessels of innocence. Regardless of how tortuous their lives were, the joy they got from sticking tiles down and painting and drawing was incredible.
GB Did the therapeutic benefits of art become apparent to gradually or is that something you’ve studied?
CR My own history is that I did a degree in Fine Art at Leeds. I’d originally wanted to do film but I didn’t get in. For me, art was always cathartic, a way of being able to deal with my emotions. All my degree work is very autobiographical. It’s about having an abortion, splitting up with a partner, my relationship with my father. It was my way of addressing all these fundamental ideas about myself. I’ve had two breakdowns and during those times the only thing that really kept me from the brink was turning some of those experiences into art. It wasn’t art that was seen by anyone or made for an audience but somehow, being able to remove myself from the situation and try to analyse it in a creative way, saved me. After these experiences I got into mosaicking and community art. It’s been said that the quickest way to happiness is to find a cause greater than yourself. That has been my biggest learning in life. When I started to care about people in situations worse than mine it alleviated my own depression. So I started to be a community artist, then I decided to write to someone on death row. Those two things coming together totally changed my life.
GB Your work has such an immediate visual appeal but then it makes you think about these intellectual and emotional issues.
CR I’m always trying to make things as beautiful as I can and now I’m more conscious that I’m choosing to let some of the aesthetics go for the politics. But I think that in the finished object, the politics are what give my work its beauty. The only thing that interests me in art is the artist’s intent. If the intent is honourable and good, I believe that speaks in the work.
GB So you think you can tell when an artist’s intentions are good, even in an abstract work?
CR I would like to think that on an innate, sub-conscious level, yes. My personal experience has been that when I like work and I’ve got to know the person or more about the background, I’m validated in my choice. I think that our minds have been corrupted by popular notions of beauty, in the same way that we no longer know what’s good to eat. We don’t really know what beauty is because we’re so pre-conditioned by advertising. In my work, when I use certain cartoon imagery or icons it’s because they are the most aesthetically pleasing to me. But I’m so conscious that it’s an aesthetic that’s been defined for me as a child. It’s what I saw. Sometimes I wonder if I should use certain images, so I put the politics in because without that it might propagate this line of determining what’s beautiful.
GB A lot of successful art makes people look inward. You’re using beauty to make people look at something that’s often outside their own experience.
CR I like to see most of my work now as an information leaflet in a sense. I’m trying to get people to see what I see and I know that the aesthetic can seduce them in to look at it. When you’ve captured their attention you can show them something. I like doing this for the sake of practising my craft, continually making something new – but really I’m interested in how art can change society in a positive way. The work I’m most proud of, more than the public artworks, is work I’ve done with communities. I’ve seen from working in places like Romania, Argentina and Chile, how powerful art and in particular ceramics and mosaics are for a community.
GB Why those in particular?
CR I think mosaic is a fantastic metaphor for taking broken things and putting them back together to make a whole. It’s so physical and however it’s done, people will love it. I also have the belief that we’re so connected to clay and to earth that we love it. Mosaic is the most popular art form there is. But things that are popular don’t necessarily become valued in the fine art world. It’s a medium that makes you an outsider as soon as you work in it. Nicolas Serota, who runs the Tate, has gone on public record saying he won’t allow mosaics into the Tate because they’re a decorative art form. It’s such a maligned art form. Yet having the truck in the Victoria and Albert Museum (in Disobedient Objects) has brought mosaics back. I’ve wanted to legitimize political mosaic making for years, to do what Grayson Perry has done for pottery – to show that as a medium it can say really powerful things.
GB I still can’t get over the fact that a gallery director would disregard any medium of creating art in this post-Duchamp age.
CR We’re working knowing that the establishment won’t accept this as art. I think the Turner Prize will only show that it has any real meaning in terms of what contemporary art is the day they give it to a community artist and acknowledge that there’s art beyond this ideal of the single genius working alone. Now everything is about a selfie and a narcissistic view. I’ll be too old for the Turner Prize in two years. But how can you possibly say that people can’t do their best work after fifty? It’s ridiculous. I don’t see how you can get worse as an artist. You only get better. I don’t think you should be allowed to win the Turner Prize until you ARE fifty.
GB What makes something worthy of the word Beauty to you?
CR If it makes your soul a little lighter. If you feel something in your heart and it makes you smile.