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Artist Carrie Reichardt on Craftivism and the Penal System

The Museum of Drug Policy takes place 3 - 5 November at Ugly Duck in London Bridge, using art to demonstrate how drug policies impact and shape communities. In addition to presenting over 60 pieces of powerful art, the three-day exhibition will feature interactive discussions on criminal justice reform, public health, and human rights. Carrie Reichardt is perhaps best known as a ceramicist and mosaicist, working internationally on large scale public murals, and is a prominent crafitivist. Her work The Tiki Love Truck will be shown as part of the exhibition, and she writes for Run Riot on its conception and the heartbreaking story that it tells.


"Human Writes – could you befriend a man on death-row?" This was the wording of the small advert in the back of the Big Issue magazine which caught my eye back in 2000. Yes, I thought I could. I applied and within a few weeks I had my first prison pen-pal – Luis Ramires.

Over the next five years we became the best of friends. My relationship with Luis changed my life, and I was with Luis for the last few days of his. When Luis was executed, my world order collapsed. Suddenly I understood what abuse of State power actually meant. Luis taught me that capital punishment meant that those with no capital get punished. There are no rich people on Death Row.

Luis made injustice personal, he taught me to realise my own privilege and most importantly he gave me a voice. Luis inspired me to use my art to try and change the world. Luis was the reason I became a Craftivist. Until then my art practice had always been a personal therapy, a way to drown out the negative voices, a way to cope – but now I had purpose. I wanted to tell the world about the injustice of the prison system. I wanted to scream it from the roof tops. Instead I sat in my studio for 8 months and made a mosaic in memory of his life.

Two years later, I found myself back in Texas. Back at Death Row. But this time I was to be a witness to my friend, and Luis’s old prison neighbour, John Joe “Ash’ Amador’s execution by the State of Texas. His wife Linda had asked me to be there and I had agreed.

I had this mad idea that we could somehow bring light into the darkness of the situation through creativity. I naively thought that his five chosen witnesses could sing his favourite song ‘Imagine’ as they killed him. How wrong can you be?. You can’t sing as you watch an execution - you can barely breathe.

I stood and held Linda’s hand as she tried desperately to wipe condensation from the glass petition so that she could make eye contact and say her final farewells to the man she loved. I watched for over seven and half minutes as Ash struggled against the straps of the gurney, gasping for air. The lethal injection is neither quick nor painless – I can bear testament to that.

This kind of experience can emotionally destroy you. How do you come back from witnessing State murder? We were fortunate, we had a creative Plan B. Standing in the rain outside the execution chamber in Huntsville, Ash’s family played a loop of ‘Imagine’ on a loud speaker. Beside them, holding the hands of Ash’s step kids was the artist and musician Nick Reynolds. Nick is the harmonica player with the Alabama 3, a former Royal Navy diver during the Falklands war, son of Bruce Reynolds, the Great Train robber, and, most relevantly, a sculptor who specialises in death masks.

I had bumped into Nick a few weeks earlier, and having heard I was going to Death Row for an execution, he asked if he could come along. He wanted to make a death mask to give my friend an afterlife. Unbelievably, Texas is the only state in the USA that, providing you have your own body bag, allows you to transport a dead body. So within minutes of Ash’s death, we picked up his body and drove to some cabins in a wood where I assisted Nick as he made Ash’s death mask. Ash knew what we were attempting to do. In his final phone call to us he said – “Wow, a death mask! that is an honour usually bestowed on kings. You coming all this way, to do this for me, let’s me know I’m not trash, that I mean something.”

During the months leading up to the execution I had been working to complete the Tiki Love Truck. Walk the Plank had commissioned me to mosaic a Nissan truck for the first ever UK Art Car parade. This was again my therapy, crafting away as I counted down the days till I left for Texas. I had already decided that this art piece was to be in memory of Ash – but I never imagined that 10 days after I witnessed his murder, I would be riding in the Tiki Love Truck as it drove through the streets of Manchester with Ash’s death mask, a deity adorning the top of the truck and thousands of people lining the streets and cheering.

Since then, this mobile mosaic mausoleum has toured the country, on a mission to raise consciousness about the horrors of the death penalty. In 2014 the truck was displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London for six months; one of the star exhibits in the critically acclaimed “Disobedient Objects” show. Final visitor figures were 417,000, making it the most visited exhibition at the V&A since ‘Britain Can Make it” in 1946. Not bad for a show which aimed to illustrate how one can out-design authority. So now the Tiki Love Truck is to be exhibited again. For just a few days it will be on show at The Museum for Drug Policy

I will be celebrating the Mexican tradition of ‘Dia de los Muertos’ - Day of the Dead. I will set up my annual altar in the back of the truck. My own mother passed away on November 2nd, 2012, so again this is very personal for me. And as I did during the truck’s previous stint at the V&A, I am going to honour the 43 missing students from Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico. As part of my Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship I had been working near Guerrero a few days before their disappearance, so I have always felt a connection to this horrendous event. During this special time, a time when the Spirit world opens up and we can communicate with those who have ‘crossed over’, both Ash and Luis would want us to remember not just them, but others that have been brutally murdered by the state.

I hope that people will come to this free event which pushes visitors to think and act outside the box.


The Museum of Drug Policy

3rd-5th November

Ugly Duck, Tanner Street