Carole Alden: The Fish House

“Big Fish Dreams,” Carole Alden

JAC recently spoke with Carole Alden, a visionary artist currently living in Utah where she is building a creative healing space for women survivors of violence and trauma. Born in Orleans, France, Carole grew up throughout the Western US. She first began her art practice working with clay and bronze, later moving to fiber. It was during her 13 year incarceration for an act committed in self-defense that Carole began to practice her unique form of “architectural crochet.”

Always inventive and freethinking, Carole’s vision for the Fish House was born out of a need to forge a new home for herself, as well as a desire to create a haven for others. As a survivor of multiple forms of captivity, Carole’s art practice reflects a hard-fought freedom and resilience that she hopes to be able to extend to others. The Fish House will be a space where rebirth and healing are truly made possible through a fostered connection to art, the environment, and freedom from restraints of any kind.

JAC: Do you want to tell those of us who are just now meeting you a bit about your story and where you are now?

CA: About twenty years ago, I was a mom, a grandma, and a professional artist. I had a couple of personal tragedies occur and during that time a man insinuated himself into my life under false pretenses…Turns out he was a professional con-artist and had been married five times before me and all of those women are dead…I didn’t know of this until afterwards. We got married, things seemed fine, and then abruptly everything changed and he became very violent in a variety of ways. It was horrifying. This went on for about 6 months, and it came to a head during a time when I had convinced him we had needed to separate. He cornered me and I shot him after having it described to me how he was going to slaughter my children in front of me when they came home from a visitation.

Utah did not have a self defense statute at the time, so I was given a one to fifteen second degree manslaughter charge…it was an election year for the attorney general, and he wanted to make an example out of domestic violence cases. So I was basically charged with domestic violence. That’s how I ended up going to prison. At the thirteen year mark…they looked at cases where the facts of the case did not match the sentencing…they kept me eight years past when I should have been released. I would have done 5 years if they had actually judged the case on the facts. Anyway, during that time I had two young children…I did everything I could, with my artwork, to maintain a connection with my children and my grandchildren.

JAC: Is that how you came to art while incarcerated? I know you were an artist before, and an artist throughout, but that was the primary focus of your art in that time?

CA: Yes because you can say anything to family members, but it…sometimes it falls on deaf ears. For children especially, you know they don’t want to hear promises about when you’re coming home. They want something tangible. And so to be able to send them something that they could wrap themselves up in at night, or cuddle with, or play with, you know that to me, that was very meaningful.

JAC: How did that experience, and incarceration in general, alter your artistic work?

CA: It put me in a whole different mindset…the whole process is fraught with peril and anxiety, and you feel like you’re doing something subversive every time you create. So…you kinda got this guerrilla warfare mentality about just making anything…and then it’s also…it becomes a form of therapy, and it’s like a protest…it’s a connection with your family, it’s meaningful on so many different levels that are far deeper than they may have ever been if you were doing art before you were incarcerated. Sometimes you’re doing commissions on the outside, where it’s just, somebody wants something that matches their couch or their drapes, or they’d just want something whimsical or just to commemorate an event. And that’s it, that’s its meaning. So it’s very very different from the art that you create on the inside.

JAC: I’ve heard that you call your work “architectural crochet.” Will you tell us how you understand that art practice and what it means to you?

CA: When I first started doing crochet there, I was pretty much just replicating the soft sculpture work that I used to do, where it was kind of like a glorified stuffed animal. You would make a form, but the shape was held in place by whatever you stuffed it with and the hand stitching that you did. And then somebody smuggled out a uniform inside of a teddy bear, so they took the stuffing away from us and said we could no longer stuff anything…I was pretty distraught because I really liked making three dimensional creatures. So I had to develop a technique with layers so that the piece was rigid and held its own form, but it was hollow. So it’s architectural in that there’s a support system that’s integral to the exterior of the piece…it was fun. I had to make things the cops could inspect so they could see that there was nothing hidden inside of it. So that was the goal, and they’d never seen anything like it before, so they didn’t really know how to deny me doing it.

JAC: Along that vein, will you tell us about your most recent project, “The Fish House”?

CA: When I thought I was five years from getting out, I started contemplating housing. And I knew that with my charges, I would be barred from any kind of traditional housing where you go through like a property management firm. And I knew that I would not have the financial resources to rent a place or buy a place or anything. So I thought, ‘well, I would really like to just travel with my artwork,’ and I designed a tiny home that looked like a deep sea fish. And I thought ‘well I just want to live inside of this fish,’ and people will be like ‘holy crap what’s that?’ and it gives me the opportunity to connect with people and explain what I’m doing and maybe provide some interest in my artwork and hopefully an income from it.

JAC: To ask about your long term vision for this space…what is your dream of all it can and will become?

CA: On eighty acres there’s a lot of space for women to come out and they can build things, they can just gather their wits, we can talk, we can do different kinds of therapy. We can create any kind of artwork that you want out there, and it’s peaceful, it’s an hour away from any other human being, you don’t hear anything that has to do with civilization. And it’s a beautiful environment…it’s fairly flat, it’s sagebrush and wildflowers, and the sunsets and the sunrises are just spectacular. So it’s a beautiful place to gather your wits and contemplate what you want to be in your life. Where you have been, where you are going, where you are right now, how do you want that to change, what do you want it to look like. You can recreate the person that you are meant to be in a space like that. Cause you don’t have the restraints, the pressures, everybody else telling you what you ought to do.

JAC:  I know you talked about how your artistic vision was changed by your experience being incarcerated. What would it mean to you to be able to share that new vision of art and art making with other women from around the country?

CA: I feel that it’s really important to do art that has a purpose. Something that wakes people up, something that gets them thinking about the inequities and the injustices in our system. So you got the one side where you need to educate people in that way…and on the other hand you’ve got the people that are living through those things that need the support of people trying to understand…I’ve never felt so discarded in my entire life as when I went through the judicial process. Basically the state picked up where an abusive partner left off. They talk to you exactly the same way, they treat you the same way, you know, you’re made to feel like absolutely nothing…How do you expect women to heal from that?

JAC: As a survivor of these different forms of captivity that you’ve explained, what does freedom now mean to you?

CA: It means not having to justify my existence to another human being on a daily basis. It means being able to have a dream and follow it. See it through to its fruition. I mean dreams are fluid and that kind of goes to the water aspect with the fish. You know, fish live in an environment that is constantly changing and moving around them, and that’s what life is like for me right now.

JAC: Despite all the unpredictability and impermanence of life, what inspires you throughout?

CA: It’s a feeling of inner peace and being connected to the earth and the universe and feeling like you actually do belong somewhere…When I’m out there I don’t feel like my goal is to conquer the desert, it’s to blend in. It’s to become kind of one with it. If you pay attention you will survive and enjoy it…the wind blows all the time so let’s build some wind turbines, the sun is really hot so let’s get some solar, there’s no water? Then let’s figure out how to catch the dew in the morning. And the companionship that I have out there…I’ve got all these chickens, and these two gigantic livestock guardian dogs, and you know I’ve never been happier in my entire life. 

Read more of Carole’s story and help support her dream here.

Check out Carole’s instagram.

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