PramDepot: Karen Lois Whiteread

It was from the goodness of her heart, and her artistic flare that lead Karen Lois Whiteread to start her new charity project. PramDepot is an arts-lead installation that explores donation, recycling, and austerity, linked to the other organisation Birth Companions, which supports vulnerable pregnant women and new mothers who are, have been, or are at risk of being detained. I had a chance to interview Karen and ask her more about her PramDepot journey.

How did PramDepot start?

Basically, Pramdepot started because I started training as a birth companion. Birth Companions are an organisation run by volunteers who support women. It was originally set up for women in prison and it’s to support women who haven’t got anyone to be with them while they’re in labour. Its about a years training, every weekend, and part of the training was that people started recycling baby clothes and giving baby clothes to women that didn’t have any money. Then that got really problematic because they then started a community service, where it wasn’t just women in prison it was women in the community that were referred to us by people leaving prison, mental health services, vulnerable midwife teams etc., and a lot of the women that were being supported through the community had much fewer resources than women who were in prison or leaving prison. So it would be women that had no access to child benefit and that sort of thing because they’re waiting for their asylum outcome or whatever. The community aspect started building, so the needs for the people to get this recycled stuff started growing.

What inspired you to do this and how is it art?

I went to Paris to visit my daughter and we went to the Palais De Tokyo which is a contemporary art museum and saw a piece there by Christian Boltanski called The Museum of Children. It was a room filled with these shelving units all the way round with just thrown in clothes, stuffing the whole thing, and it was about memory within the garment and storing these memories within the four walls of the museum. It just really struck me, it really hit a nerve and I found it very moving and just thought ‘hmm, that looks like something that I could think about’. I’ve always worked in a participatory way so there have always been people involved in the work that I do, but I wanted it to be people participating, not necessarily in the art, but in the process of the idea of turning something that isn’t art into art.

So from your practise as an artist, what are you exploring through the project?

I project onto buildings and do that sort of stuff, so I just wanted to come into the studio and do something more meaningful and more connected to the other aspect of my life which is the Birth Companions thing, so it’s bringing a lot of different things together. I never exhibit in galleries, or do that sort of work so it was a bit more engaging, with a different type of person other than, I don’t know, why do you do anything? There’s no deep meaningful answer to that, it’s more of how things progressed in my life.

How many women does Birth Companions support?

I’ve got no idea, but I’ve been running this since November and since then probably supported 20 or 30 people. What we do is usually give people a Moses basket with blankets, sheets, and enough clothes for at least a week for a new-born. Then at the end of supporting them, which is usually 6 weeks, we give them the next age so 3 to 6 months and some toys for both ages. Then, if they need, things like sterilizing units, bouncy chairs, buggies, etc.

Where do you get donations from?

Well, one of the birth companions posted an ad on free cycle 2 weeks ago and I’ve had a couple of emails from that. A lot of people are just curious and will Google and we come up occasionally. I keep meaning to hash-tag everything more so that PramDepot comes up and, I’ve also been thinking about doing a website. We’re on twitter! @PramDepot

What happens to the clothes after the women are finished with them?

Some of them give them back and some of them pass them on to their friends that are having babies. Most of the women are either in hostels, temporary accommodation, or living in bedsits where there are other women in their situation, so we’re happy for them to pass them on or sell. A lot of the women are living on £36 a week, so if they can swap it for other stuff or whatever, we’re more than happy for them to do that.