“Well-behaved women rarely make history”
Meet Carrie Reichardt’s alter ego – Unfit Mother
TOPIA enters the mosaic house – and mind – of the punk provocateur and craftivist who champions badass women on walls all around the world
How would you react if the father of your children sent you a message asking if you’d mind him creating an artwork called ‘Unfit Mother’ – while you were busy looking after the kids seven days a week? Mosaic artist-provocateur Carrie Reichardt got mad, then she got busy, mining that seam and championing some badly behaved women in her unique punk style.
Take a tootle down an innocuous side street in the leafy London suburb of Chiswick and you will encounter artist Carrie Reichardt’s glorious mosaic house – aka ‘The Treatment Rooms’ – a riot of madcap mosaic featuring sea creatures, flying eyes and tender tributes to victims of America’s death row.
Parked out the front is her mosaiced Tiki Love Truck, the star exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ’Disobedient Objects’ exhibition in 2014, and Voodoo Zulu Liberation Taxi, a mosaiced London black cab. Both were created as political interventions to bring attention to an unjust and cruel justice system.
Carrie Reichardt is the anarchist, feminist, craftivist creator of the Mad in England brand. She produces seditious ceramics, firing cheeky slogans and images, sometimes sweary, sometimes raunchy, onto floral vintage crockery.
She is renowned for her inspiring mosaic murals and tilework working with community groups around the world – you can touch her mosaic tiles on walls in cities and towns around the UK, in Norway, Argentina, Chile and Mexico.
Stepping inside Carrie Reichardt’s house, I am inside a regular, if quirkily decorated, terraced house with sofa, cuddly dog and a mug of tea. One day, I think, I will tell my grandchildren that Carrie Reichardt made me a cup of tea.
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Carrie is an artist with a busy, busy brain. Her interests – and our conversation – sprawl across subjects like the octopus mosaic on her back wall.
In the first few minutes, we traverse Libya, Russia, Ukraine and the environmental and human rights disaster that is the football World Cup in Qatar. But I’m here to talk about her work profiling some of history’s forgotten women, her alter ego, ‘The Unfit Mother’ and how she is getting on with ‘cracking life’s mystery’, because that is part of The Egg – the theme of TOPIA Season 02.
We begin with nursery rhymes and crones – the sitting room is full of boxes containing Mary Mary Quite Contrary (pictured below), a mosaic installation she has just retrieved from from Chester Cathedral, where it was displayed for a month as part of an exhibition of mosaic work by internationally-renowned artists responding to the theme: Constellations.
Consistent with her motto, “I am an artist – your rules don’t apply”, instead of producing something starry, Carrie sawed up some church pews and created a mosaic exploring the nursery rhyme, Mary Mary Quite Contrary, which is variously attributed to the Virgin Mary, Mary I or Mary Queen of Scots. All of them refer to fertility and that idea of ‘how does your garden grow?’. One theory is that it’s all about Mary’s inability to have children and her barrenness, or the pretty maids all in a row, might be three miscarriages.
“They’re all really just derogatory about women, let’s face it, all these interpretations. And that idea of history really interests me. Because we can’t date the poem before the 18th century, but all the characters it refers to are the 16th century or earlier. So it’s all myths and legends, all this kind of history.
“I like the saying: ‘History is a set of lies agreed upon’. It’s that whole idea that history is not an absolute, it’s just what gets told. What history, whose history? That’s what I like to explore and unearth.”
Carrie likes to find women who were demeaned or overlooked or blotted out of history by historians – who are mostly male, of course – and tell their stories loud and proud. “And if I can, I want to highlight them by sticking a memorial up on a wall outside somewhere, cemented forever in a place where they can be seen by all – for free.”
Let’s take a look at some of the women
Carrie has stuck up on walls…
We are the Witches
Carrie’s mosaics for street festival Nuart Aberdeen – We are the Witches, Trailblazing Women of Aberdeen, Everyday Heroes and Suffragette Spirit – are bedded forever into the granite walls of Aberdeen. They celebrate the Suffragettes of Aberdeen, led by Caroline Phillips but also Aberdonian women who blazed a trail in health, education and culture.
With the help of Amnesty Scotland and their Suffragette Spirit map, in 2018 Carrie identified modern day defenders of human rights to profile alongside an iconic suffragette image. It includes women like Kerry Wright, who successfully campaigned for free access to period products like tampons and sanitary towels in Scotland; Amal Azzudin, one of the ‘Glasgow Girls’ who campaigns on refugee rights; Jen Stewart, who works with rape survivors and campaigns on women’s rights; and Patricia Anne Rodger, an activist and advocate for people living with a mental health condition.
Carrie on suffragettes
“Although the suffragettes are now well-known there is actually hardly any visual imagery of them on our streets – we don’t have the monuments, we don’t have the statues that we should have. In fact, there’s not a lot of statues of named women full stop. Surveys in the past couple of years found there are twice as many statues of animals in London than there are of named women. And in the UK as a whole, there are nearly as many statues of men named John than there are of named women!
So it was my privilege, my passion and an absolute honour to go to Aberdeen and celebrate so many different and diverse women, unifying past and present. I relished the opportunity to create a reminder for future generations how hard women had to fight for the rights we take for granted now. The spirit of the suffragettes is alive in Aberdeen and all over the UK, if folk will only employ a mosaic artist like yours truly to give it the profile it deserves!
No woman, man nor beast
In spring 2022, Carrie was asked to create a mosaic to bring some joy back to the High Street and celebrate the post Covid reopening of shops in Ormskirk, a market town north of Liverpool, supposedly founded by a Viking called Om. Carrie dug around in the local history and found the Gingerbread Sellers of Ormskirk – a powerful group of local women. For 200 years, they baked and sold gingerbread in the town and to the passing trains, some of them becoming very rich in the process.
King Edward V11th (Queen Victoria’s son) was said to have liked their gingerbread so much he insisted that the royal train stop at Ormskirk as it passed from Preston on its way to Balmoral, so he could pick up some of their gingerbread.
Carrie on gingerbread ladies
“When I got commissioned to do this work in Ormskirk I quickly picked up on these two things, Vikings and gingerbread. But when I went there to do some research, the library and information centre there had nothing about the gingerbread sellers. I looked online and found this obscure out of print book on eBay about the rags to riches story of the gingerbread ladies of Ormskirk.
I was delighted when I read about them because they were obviously just the kind of larger than life women I love to highlight. The images we have show them dressed up very much like witches – they were big foreboding women who supposedly had to be taken home in a wheelbarrow at night because they were so drunk. When one of their leaders, Sally Woods, died, the most important man in Ormskirk said, ‘There goes a person that was feared [by] no woman, man nor beast!’.
So I created a mosaic with an image of a Viking chasing a group of gingerbread people down the road and put the ‘gingerbread women’ in the Viking’s shield. Celebrating the achievements of these working-class women, putting them in the centre of the story is my way of reminding people of Ormskirk, where you can hardly move without bumping into gingerbread, that it owes it all to these ballsy women. I bet if it was men who did it there would be plaques all round town about Mister so and so… Well, those women are up there on the wall now. I’d love to see the book get reprinted and see what others can do with their story.
The second best whore in London
Little known before 2015, Carrie’s English Hedonists blue plaque put English sex worker and madam Priss Fotheringham firmly back on the London map. Priss was described as the ‘second best whore in London’ in John Garfield’s The Wandrin’ Whore in 1661 and was the hero of The Unparalleled Practices of Mrs Fotheringham (1660). The plaque, created for the Rise of the Non Conformists Whitecross Street Party in 2015, sits proudly on Whitecross Street in Islington. It marks the spot on the corner with Old Street where Priss lived as landlady of The Six Windmills Tavern.
Carrie on English Hedonists
“Teddy Baden, who started the Whitecross Street Party, asked me if I’d do something site specific for him one year so I had a look around the local history and discovered Whitecross Street in Islington was famed in the 17th century for its gin palaces and whorehouses. The last stop before you entered London. I found this obscure blog that talked about Priss and John Garfield’s book. Firstly I thought it was hilarious there was a ‘“’Wandrin’ Whore guide’, and I thought Priss was the complete opposite of whoever would normally get a blue plaque. So I thought it would be a funny thing to do, subverting the whole blue plaque thing.
At that point I’d made a couple of other English Hedonist plaques for my own venues, but Priss was my first blue plaque about a public figure and she’ll always be one of my favourites.”
Since Carrie enshrined Priss Fotheringham on London’s walls, she’s had a lot more attention from all sorts of people, not least the fabulous sex historian Kate Lister, who features Carrie’s blue plaque on her Whores of Yore Sex Workers Timeline. So next time you’re in London, see how many English Hedonist plaques you can collect!
Not stuck on a wall but celebrated on plates, fabrics and tiles, Carrie’s ShakerspeariAnne project, produced during her residency at Stratford’s Shakespeare Birthplace Trust profiled Anne Hathaway – AKA Shakespeare’s wife – as a passionate, quirky, modern woman. To buy or not to buy?
Carrie on Mrs Shakespeare
“When I looked into Anne Hathaway, there’s not a lot about her, history doesn’t know anything and yet if you read all the scholars and all the books and all the men who have written about her, there’s either one of two things. She’s either some old trollop, a whore that bagged Shakespeare, or she’s some kind of puritanical, humourless virgin, all of the ways that people label women to demean them.
So I dug around and I played around a bit and created some work that explores Anne in a new way and looked at what it would have been like if they’d been around today. I wanted to re-invent her as a living, breathing passionate woman. We created merch, and magazine covers and we took a leaf out of Mister Shakespeare’s book and used a bit of profanity and toilet humour.
So there’s some women Carrie wants us to know about… all work inspired by a new direction. In an interview with Sophie Ellis Bextor on her Spinning Plates podcast, Carrie talks about how ‘Unfit Mother’ had become her alter ego. The title refers to a time back in 2014 when Carrie split from her partner and the father of two of her children. She told me about the work that followed.
Carrie on Unfit Mother
“At the time I had three kids and I was heavily in debt. I mean, it was difficult – I was a single parent on my own. He wrote me an email that said, ‘How would you feel if I made a piece of art and called it The Unfit Mother?’ I was like, ‘How dare you! You don’t get to do that. You can’t call me unfit because I’m looking after our kids!’ At the time, I wasn’t getting money, I wasn’t getting help. I was so angry about it that I thought, ‘Do you know what? I’m having that.’ If you’re gonna call me an Unfit Mother I’m gonna live that role.
My friend Lady Muck makes fabric patches and I asked her to make me one that said Unfit Mother and I’ll wear it forever more. She made me the patch, and we took them to the Art Car Boot Fair and it was the biggest selling patch she ever made, because it’s one of those things that hits a nerve. Because what’s the equivalent for a Dad? You wouldn’t even call a Dad ‘Bad Dad’ or ‘Deadbeat Dad’. That guilt is always attached to the mother.
I’ve spent a lot of my life feeling incredibly guilty as a mother. I would argue you can’t have a career, you can’t be an artist, you can’t do all these things and be a mother. You can’t do these things as a single parent, so something has to give. For me, I couldn’t be anything other than an Unfit Mother. I had to be an Unfit Mother, struggling to be a single parent on my own, with kids. If a father goes off to India for 6 months because their career takes them there nobody cares. But me? What, going away for 2 weeks? What about your kids? That guilt is only attached to the mother. And I thought it was so wrong of him So I started making a whole series of works, putting it on plates.
And Unfit Mother has informed a lot of the work I have done since then. It informed ShakespeariAnne. It was part of all of that, exploring women and womanhood and what gets said about women. And it’s informed almost everything that’s come since.
In a way, a lot of my work, especially as I get older, a lot of my personal work and the work I’d like to do exploring crones is about those negative external things that are said about women. Think of the names attached to women as they get older. Hag, crone, battle axe, they’re all derogatory.
I think, as you get older, women get to a certain age and they become an old crone and they try to shut us down. As they get past the menopause they’re no longer fanciable, or fuckable, they become the old crone. Historically you can see they’re usually asked to shut up and I think you can see that now in today’s climate.
And as for cracking life’s mystery…
Carrie has had some pretty big ups and downs in her life, you can hear more about that on the Spinning Plates podcast – she talks about a nervous breakdown, too much of what she calls “self-medication”, relationship breakdowns and plenty of single mother plate-spinning guilt. I asked her, does it feel like she’s got it cracked now?
“We started off today talking about the crone and going through phases of your life. I think life’s mysteries, in a way, as you get older, the things that you think, and the way that you feel changes and where you are in life changes. And it’s not so much about solving mysteries necessarily, it’s just about unravelling your own self and becoming more content. I’ve been in therapy with the same therapist for six years now and that’s really helped me with that.
“There’s a saying something like, ‘If it’s hysterical, the chances are it’s historical’. So if an experience causes you to react severely it’s probably linked to a historical life experience. In the past I’d have just reacted. Now I can take a step back when I feel a strong reaction and give myself the time to think about where that reaction comes from. I’ve learnt to take a look at it and sit with my emotions. I can have feelings and understand that they don’t have to overwhelm me. I can create enough distance from the feelings to be able to think about it. And once you have that ability it makes a much healthier place to be able to explore things.”
How’s that for words of wisdom folks? So, life’s mystery is not exactly cracked, but beginning to do some unravelling, what’s next from Carrie Reichardt? I know, because I asked her, that if whoever decides these things fancied some punk mosaic on the Fourth Plinth at Trafalgar Square, this Londoner would be interested…
In the meantime, Carrie will be travelling back to the north of England to work with Heart of Glass on a project celebrating the strong women of St Helen’s, and to Brazil with the British Council to work with some female ceramicist Masters of Culture. And here’s the last word of advice from a woman who knows…
Carrie’s favourite badass women
1. Karen Francesca – environmental artist based in Brighton
2. Lady Muck – maker of Stuff and Things
3. The Subversive Stitcher – making you think with a needle and thread
4. Whores of Yore – Kate Lister’s timeline of sex workers throughout history
5. Solitary Gardens – Jackie Sumell begs us to imagine a landscape without prisons
6. Lady Gonzalez – unique textile-design based fashion and lifestyle brand by Celia Arias-Gonzalez
7. Guerilla Girls – anonymous artist activists
Want more from Season 02 of TOPIA?
What’s so good about this?
Carrie Reichardt turned ‘Unfit Mother’ into a badge of rebellion – inspiring passionate, fun and touching tributes to some fascinating females, past and present. For a decade, she’s led the charge for better representation of women in public art and she’s not stopping any time soon. If you’re lucky, she could be sticking some tiles or plaques up on a wall near you…
Meet the writer
Richard Byrne is a writer, educator and psychogeographer who wants to share the best stories that no one else is looking for. When he’s working you might find him @p_diversity. When he’s not working, he could be exploring the underworld with his kids on Minecraft or hanging out in Stardew Valley. Richard regularly spends an hour or two walking a very short distance while following psychogeographic instructions. He occasionally has euphoric experiences while walking and is trying to figure out how to have them more often.