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Carrie Reichardt – Strong Women – parr, St. Helens

The mere mention of public art can draw responses ranging from profound disinterest to outright hostility. En route from St. Helen’s Central station to the Connie Club in Parr the taxi driver didn’t stint, “The trouble is, you see, the Council or someone might fund something like that, on the side of a wall, but what happens in five years’ time? It looks like shit, that’s what… No, I don’t like it. They should be spending our money on better housing, not on bloody wall art or whatever it is.” It’s an understandable point of view. Often sited with little or no regard to its host community or neighbourhood. To many, public art installations are an out-of-kilter eyesore or, at best, baffling intruder. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. Heart of Glass, the Merseyside based community arts organisation put socially engaged practice at the forefront of their many and varied commissions. Whilst the charity works to promote their – “participatory, interactive and collaborative by its very nature and informed by accessibility, inclusion, diversity and difference” – activities nationally, internationally and online, the Strong Women programme brings them back to a place that’s part of their origin story, namely St. Helens. 

Running from March 1st 2023 to Dec. 31st 2025 Strong Women launches in Parr, to the East of St. Helens. After initial research trips in 2022, 2023 saw months of consultations and workshops with residents’ groups – including Parr Children’s Centre, The Connie Club, St. Mary’s Care Home and local Holy Spirit Catholic Primary school – whereby artist, activist and mosaic craftivist Carrie Reichardt navigated the wariness towards public art with aplomb. When we met at the unveiling, she recalled an early confab with a Parr local, “So what do you think the work should be? What do you want to say on this wall?” asked Reichardt. Quick came the reply, “’You Can Kiss My Fat Arse’, that’s what it should say.”  


Words by Adrian Burnham

The pithy quip from the Parr resident was, of course, proffered partly in jest. It raised a laugh. But equally it reiterates that conception of public art as something that really doesn’t say anything to or about the people upon whom it’s visited. A scatological quip at least affords a communal giggle. And the Parr native’s words also say something about what public art often communicates to passers-by, that is, not a lot.

However, Reichardt is a very strong woman, a whirlwind of inspiration and not shy of being forthright herself. So, when faced with what might be thought of as an early dampener on the Parr art project, she rode it out, laughed along and then got on with doing what she does so well. Using her wit, warmth, and boundless energy, she wins round group after group of sceptics. “What about something celebrating ‘Strong Women’?” was her proposal. “There’s a mural down the road all about strong men, the miners, their history, and trials. Why don’t we honour local women who’ve had an impact, on us personally or who’ve achieved wider recognition or deserve to be recognised in some way?” 

Now Heart of Glass, Reichardt, her team and 450 locals have created something beautiful, permanent, and genuinely meaningful for the community. So, it goes to show that public art can be valued, naysayers can be won round. What’s more, they become integral to the works’ origin, development and realisation. There’s a reason why all the local contributors to Parr’s Strong Women mosaic more than rose to the occasion. It’s because Reichardt found them to be very inspiring and loved working with them, “This has to be one of my favourite ever projects. The only other one that comes close was in Mexico. Everyone there was so polite, respectful, enthusiastic, and so engaged, so willing to contribute to something that celebrates local people, their histories and what’s important to them personally. And that’s what it’s been like here. These really have been my favourite people to work with.” 

Another factor that suggests Heart of Glass are in it for the long haul is their sponsorship of mentee Clare Eddleston. This too is important to Reichardt as it’s part of the legacy of the project, “Another piece, a sister mosaic is planned for Knowsely in future and I’d like Clare to be doing a lot of the outreach practical workshops where locals produce elements of the next installation.” It’s all very well leaving an artefact, a material paean to local heroines, even better to equip and train a local who can, in turn, pass on her enthusiasm and emerging ceramic skills to the wider community. 

Anna Kronenburg, one of Heart of Glass’s Creative People and Places producers, described the work’s multivalent quality, “It looks really great from far away. And then, as you get nearer, you see more and more details. Close up you begin to realise how many individuals have contributed to the mosaic. So many hands have helped.” 

Driving East along Broad Oak Road, from a distance the bold words ‘STRONG WOMEN’ immediately catch attention. Drawing closer, we can make out the scrolling phrase – a quote from renowned writer and mathematician Ada Lovelace – ‘MAY WE KNOW THEM. MAY WE RAISE THEM. MAY WE BE THEM’. Either side of the scroll motif are bold hearts, one carries the phrase ‘I LOVE PARR’, and the other just the word ‘LOVE’. Surrounding the text, embedded in the hearts and the undulating scroll, hundreds of handcrafted stoneware hearts. Each bears debossed lettering, stained with oxide, individual names, family names, familial nouns: mum, grandma, daughters. Butterflies and smaller hearts abound, flecked with subtly colourful glazes. Small 3D birds, flowers, tiny golden features… All in all, these heart shaped tiles crafted by the community are – as one heart specifically states – a testament to the ‘love and courage’ Parr’s women have demonstrated through the ages. 

On yet closer inspection we become aware of the local, historical detail that populates the larger letters above the scroll. Reichardt shares her exhaustive research via glazed and fired ‘decals’, the specially prepared paper transfers that let photographs, designs or text be reproduced on the tiles that make up the large letter forms.  

One tile in the ‘S’ reproduces a local newspaper headline, ‘Tributes paid to legendary sister Kathleen Duffy’, a woman who devoted her life to the people of St. Helens. In the ‘T’ there are rag trade reminiscences along with QEII and the Queen Mother’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. ‘R’ remembers female wagon depot and munitions workers. ‘O’ features women’s ‘Coal Not Dole’ protests in support of the miners’ strike and Pimblett’s Bakery and Confectioners founded by John and Mary Pimblett in 1921. ‘N’ marks transport workers and family history. ‘G’ highlights local business, past: ‘Beecham’s Pills – Worth A Guinea A Box’ and present: ‘Momo’s – Coffee, Cakes, Books & Butties (and, according to Reichardt, currently run by a witch who’s also a champion of the community). And, in a snippet of facebook chat transposed onto ceramic, one Margaret Dunn remembers a 1955 Parr event about which she says, “I loved walking day every Whit / Monday it meant a new frock and / the year I was chosen to go on the / banner was fantastic, happy days”. 

Tiles that make up the ‘W’ commemorates the women of St. Helens who have been wrongly accused of witchcraft, with a contemporary reminder to ‘ALWAYS TRUST YOUR INNER WITCH’. ‘O’ details more women in the workplace – I’m sure the proprietor had her tongue firmly in her cheek when she named her hair salon ‘Jan’s Clip Joint’! And there’s Ellen Bishop (1831 -1889) whose father left a fortune to her with the proviso – in keeping with laws at the time – that when she married her husband would control her finances. She refused to marry. Instead, she used her inheritance to support the young people of St. Helens. ‘M’ celebrates locals who supported women’s suffrage and unionism.

‘E’ and ‘N’ are all about women’s football. It was banned, of course. In 1902 the British Ladies tour was banned, then Kent F.A. banned mixed football, in 1914 women’s teams were banned from playing together and in 1921 the English F.A. banned women from playing at all. I learnt this not just reading the tiles but by talking to a fellow visitor Steve Bolton. His grandmother was international footballer Lizzy Ashcroft, a local – her old house is only five hundred yards from the mural – who made her debut for St. Helens Ladies team in 1921. Steve took a photograph together with three generations of his family and was genuinely moved to see his “little old granny” celebrated in such a bold and beautiful way in her hometown. Bringing the theme up to date there’s a lovely concluding note celebrating the Knowsley St. Helens school girls team winning the national championship in 2021.   

So, this is a community artwork that’s spectacular from a distance, glinting gold highlights on capital letters. Then it’s compelling and informative up close, a mine of information that wouldn’t otherwise see the light of day let alone be emblazoned across a wall. And then, in the folds of the scrolls we wouldn’t normally pay attention to, there’s more tales, rendered in ‘best’ pencil handwriting, describing why some local schoolchildren rate their female heroines: ‘The strongest woman I know is / my nan because she took me in when I / got took away from my mum and dad. / I am really gratefull she cares for me / and makes sure that I have / everything I need. She gives evryone / a smile and passes her smile on to me / and my 2 antis She’s my role modale / She is very brave.’ 

If good public art is said to properly, comprehensively, and inventively involve a cross-section of the community in which it is sited. And, if it should help those people to see a bit of their own world in a different, more detailed, unexpected way, if that’s the case then thanks to the thoughtful, energetic support of Heart of Glass, Carrie Reichardt, her team and so, so many local contributors have worked wonders on a wall of the community hub that is The Connie Club in Parr.

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