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Working-Class Activism: An Interview with Helen Carr


Meet an artist whose work transcends boundaries and defies convention. Hailing from Lambeth, South London, and with roots in the North of England, she weaves a captivating narrative of social class, history, and activism into her art. Drawing inspiration from her family's strong tradition of political engagement, she explores themes as diverse as folk art, industry, and trade unions. Her unique creations feature a blend of materials and symbols, breathing new life into everyday objects. Join us as we delve into the world of this working-class artist whose work is a testament to the enduring power of art in addressing societal issues.

2023-11-08

Joana Alarcão

To begin, can you delve a bit into your artistic background and practice?    

There are two main strands to my work; 1. political - I come from a working class political and trade union family and I have been politicised through struggles with my housing, my job as a state schoolteacher, as a divorced single parent and in turn with wider societal issues.

2. psychic – trying to gain control over situations and my inner world of finding optimism and solace through magic, talismans, ritual, transformation, shamanism, and superstition. 


As a teenager I was painfully shy; a common Northern refrain whilst I was growing up was “Nobody is going to be looking at you anyway!!” I am still a quiet person and speaking up for myself, particularly in difficult jobs and situations has always been hard. Using my voice in my work has been an outlet; developing my visual language and making to express myself; I can be bold, confident, and rebellious. Playing with materials and often domestic, female-imbued objects to create surrealist images. Repurposing and subverting to create new meanings, double meanings, and puns.       

Influenced by my working-class heritage, I repurpose industrially manufactured ceramic objects like cup handles, lids and knobs, and domestic materials like cheap tin-foil platters, textiles, wool and lace for their intimate, everyday connection to us, and with shapes that echo body parts that are ripe for a double entendre and pun.  


The notion that I could be a professional artist was not an aspiration or something in my family history. Upon graduating my fine art degree in the 90’s recession, confidence and financial pressures impacted the time and space to make art. Nevertheless, I always found an outlet, be it by making wild fancy dress outfits and props for parties with friends or through lifestyle arts journalism. A friend of mine was the founding editor of an arts-based newspaper in Birmingham. He gave me free rein to indulge my curiosity (nosiness), and I set out to interview people doing a variety of professions that touched on themes of life, sex, death and money; I was an embalming student for the day and shadowed a dominant mistress and her transvestite maid on a working evening. It was a huge amount of fun, and I was able to enter environments that I wouldn’t normally have access to. These are themes that are still finding their way into my work.


Your art is deeply influenced by your Northern heritage and family history. Could you share more about how your grandmother's folk traditions and your father's trade union activism have shaped your artistic exploration of social class and culture?

My Gran, Mum and Dad have always been feisty and questioned authority – I often joke with them, that their legacy for me and my sister is a healthy lack of respect for authority; a ‘don’t tug-your-forelock’ for anybody attitude, don’t take anything at face value and investigate exactly where information is coming from! My Dad was an active union official for the AUEW (Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers) and an engineering fitter. He made spare parts and repaired factory machinery. I remember going on demonstrations and strike days in Northern Cities as a child in the 1970’s and being captivated by the glorious and intricate union banners and motifs. You could feel the purposefulness and intelligence and it all felt very grand, but with a great dash of humour. I loved the collective dignity and beauty of it, but that was not represented by the media and still is not.     


In Britain I feel social class on a deep, personal, and intersectional level, and anger and frustration over the inequality that still exists. The system upholds arcane prejudices, snobbery, and injustice, which often boils down to a lack of genuine opportunity for poorer/working-class people. Growing up in the 70’s I read tea leaves with my gran and always avoided going under ladders gave a glimmer of hope and a sense of control over life and things we didn’t understand.



Class War by Helen Carr. Image courtesy of Helen Carr.

As a part-time teacher for 24 years, you've mentioned that your profession has played a significant role in politicizing you. How does your experience as an educator influence the themes you address in your artwork?

After a decade in teaching, I resumed my art practice with the mindset, the discipline and sheer hard graft needed as a teacher could be deployed to my own artistic work. I rented a small studio space and began experimenting with materials, and did a ceramic evening class at Morley College, a fantastic adult education centre in Waterloo. I made friends with the tutors and likeminded students, and we founded the Associated Clay Workers Union (ACWU) to further our ambition to exhibit our work which we did with a series of site-specific shows.      

In 2011 – 2012, subverting the reverent royal memorabilia of a commemorative King George 6th coronation lace plate owned by my Mum. With the consent of the students, parents and the Pupil Referral Unit I was working at, I made a series of portrait lace plates of some of my older students off the back of the 2011 British city riots. I was horrified by the press coverage that entailed. Some of my students had become involved in the rioting and were depicted in a very one-dimensional way, whereas events leading up to it were complex and involved poverty and inequality. Because I knew and liked the students, I wanted to depict them in a warm and humane way. From this work, I built up a portfolio and applied to do MA Ceramics at the Royal College of Art.


Your work often delves into issues of social justice and collective action. Can you elaborate on how you use art to voice your concerns about gentrification, economic inequality, and the impact of the current economic model on the majority population?

I am a key activist in the sustained campaign to fight the ‘regeneration’/ demolition of the estate where I have lived for the past 21 years which is in Lambeth, South London. With neighbour friends and residents we designed and made a large textile banner, celebrating our lovely estate. It has an outing each time we demonstrate or collectively attend a council meeting. The estate was designed by the eminent GLA (Greater London Authority) architect Ted Hollamby in the 1970’s and it is a model of perfect and healthy social housing. When the demolition was muted in 2012 there has been a concerted implementation of ‘managed decline’ by the council so that the properties fall into serious disrepair and then can be classed as no longer viable for renovation. Many long-term residents have already been moved off the estate and out of London. As residents who are not high-wage earners to residents who are living in poverty, we have really felt like ‘low hanging fruit’, not having the power of money behind us to fend off the ‘regeneration’ for good. There have already been estates that have been demolished and rebuilt and this has not solved the housing crisis, it has just produced a few more homes that are unaffordable for most.    



Money by Helen Carr. Image courtesy of Helen Carr.

Could you explain how you use food symbolism and diet as recurring motifs in your art to draw connections to the dispossessed and disenfranchised?

Food is a basic and universal axiom; but it is also one of the most complex and powerful signifiers of status, social class, cultural background, gender identity, socio-economic position, personal history and fashion. On a visual level I love the motifs, shapes and ubiquitous nature of food objects and on a visceral level how it feels, looks, tastes, the fleshiness, coarseness and refinement. Carnal, it taps into our most basic and venal nature, and I love that. It can be a source of comfort or horror.


On the ‘Food Project’ as a student at the Royal College of Art, 2015 to 2017, I made a collection of work based on the fried chicken shops of South London and my own Northern food history. As a very enthusiastic home cook, it was a gift. I began using and casting discarded fried chicken bones and chicken pieces from the chicken shops, and they became icons of the disenfranchised for me – cheap and easily accessible food that many of the poorer youngsters of south London eat. In addition, bones outlive us and the shape and texture of them really appeal to me, tapping into life and death. Finding them on every street curb, they are like modern archaeological finds.      

                      

It also links with my own childhood of cooking and allotment growing with my Gran and a source of great interest, learning and pleasure. Having lived through both world wars she had a very creative and resourceful approach to cooking, using everything and anything. She would put the most improbable things together and somehow it would always come out well. A notable dish was cow-heel pie which tasted delicious but made your lips stick together.

In times of difficulty, it is always a solace for me, and I will cook my way out of a personal crisis. 


Lambeth Delftware serves as a significant source of inspiration for your work. Can you tell us why it serves as a source of inspiration?

Lambeth delftware was at the height of production in potteries all along the South bank of the river Thames in London from the 17th century through to the beginning of the 19th century. Initially, the glaze and production methods were devised to cheaply produce and mimic very expensive blue and white decorated porcelain from China. Because it was produced quickly, a lot of the patterns, motifs and drawing has a very energetic, enjoyably naïve and funny quality. 


During the 17th and 18thC there were a lot of commemorative plates and jugs produced celebrating politicians, and political campaigns and humorously mocking or celebrating royalty Using the style as inspiration has suited my motives with an ‘Up Yours’ to the local council who have been hell bent on erasing my community and in its place building un-‘affordable’ housing in partnership with a housing developer. I have produced a series of Delftware ceramic pieces for friends and neighbours on the estate; Pets Against Demolition plaques, Bufo Toads Against Demolition, banners, and a Lambeth Delftware tile panel picturing Cressingham and landmarks of Lambeth (the piece was stolen a few years ago).  


Image courtesy of Helen Carr.

You've utilized ceramic and textile materials in your art. How do these materials contribute to the narrative and themes you explore in your pieces?

I use ceramic and textile for their historical connection with process and industry and as materials that are often viewed in a hierarchy of value and social class that is very familiar to us. 

I am currently introducing textiles in a more significant way into my work to accompany my ceramic sculpture and learning the dying folk art of corn weaving.


Your art often bridges the personal and the political. Could you discuss how your experiences as a single mother and your own encounters with 'low social standing' influence your creative process and perspectives on societal challenges?

There has been a conservative narrative that single parent equals bad parent, although it is a message that has dissipated somewhat over the last few years. Bringing up my daughter as a single mum, the main feeling I got was being very aware though of how our society caters for a traditional male, female children unit. Again, it boils down to economics: you are much more protected and financially better off in a couple. 


Living with the condition OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and dealing with personal and professional challenges, I inherited and built-upon my grandmothers’ superstitious ways; creating ritualistic actions, and using found objects such as penny’s, chicken bones, feathers, playing cards and false nails (it’s London!) as totems and lucky charms that might herald better times. These have become motifs in my work, sometimes for shamanic type transformation and feminine energy. Found pennies have also become a metaphor for chance in life and the concept and power of money in general. who has got it, who hasn’t got it, how it corrupts, how it taps into gender norms and our superstitions and psyche. One of my rituals is the common ‘find a penny pick it up and all day long you’ll have good luck’.


We are often more secretive about discussing money than we are about sex. Being on the receiving end of harsh political and economic decisions in my job as a state schoolteacher, as a single mum and where I live; I quickly came to realise it is never personal, it is always about the cold hard cash.



Up yours by Helen Carr. Image courtesy of Helen Carr.

In your perspective, what role does art play in the movement to bring awareness to social and political issues?

Visual art makes us think about society and culture in very different ways to other media like news journalism for example. A powerful performance, photograph, or sculpture can much more subtly expose aspects and limitations of society. Who can make a professional career as an artist is also something that I think needs to be talked about more.     


To make art in a serious way, financial support of some kind really helps, which many working class artists do not have. In London renting a studio can cost as much as your monthly housing rent. 

Working class voices are generally under-represented in the art world and as an artist from a working-class background, I see it as an opportunity to champion that and show social issues that both concern me and have had a direct effect on my life. I try to do it stealthily, lightly and with humour and think that my experiences of being in the rough-and-tumble of a very difficult job, conveys a perspective that is not always seen. In addition, all the ways that you are disrespected comes out in my art whether I like it or not! 

    

Lastly, what message would you like to leave our readers?    

Wherever you are from, be tenacious, believe in yourself and be fabulous. 


Know more about Helen Carr here.


Cover Image:

Trouble At Mill by Helen Carr. Image courtesy of Helen Carr.

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I am a working-class artist and part-time art teacher based in Lambeth, South London. Originally from the North of England, I herald from a strong and proud family tradition of political activism and trade union involvement. My father was a shop steward for the Associated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) and I accompanied him on demonstrations and strike days. I explore concepts of social class, cooking and food history, superstition, and my trade union roots, with work inspired by folk art, industry, and my family. I play with mixed materials and symbols, for e.g., fabric trade union banners, chicken bones, feathers, coins, false nails and playing cards. I repurpose ubiquitous ceramic objects: handles, spouts, and knobs, for their intimate, everyday connection to us, and shapes that echo body parts.

I am a key activist in the sustained campaign to fight the demolition of Cressingham Gardens, the Lambeth council estate I live on, and a stimulus for my sculpture is 17thC Lambeth Delftware. Lambeth Delftware was processed very quickly, and crockery editions were made for electioneering campaigns, support for-and-against laws and to commemorate or mock Royalty. Observing the continuing gentrification of London, the multitude of fried chicken bones discarded on pavements I include in my work, also act as motif for the disenfranchised.

I use ceramic and textile for their historical connection with process and industry and as materials that are often viewed in a hierarchy of value and social class that is very familiar to us.

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