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Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery


By Shen Shellenberger, JerseyArts.com

originally published: 02/18/2022

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter: Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners, the exhibition on view at Rowan University Art Gallery through March 26, is a many-layered experience – visually striking, historically important, and a personal, yet universal, tribute to Carpenter’s grandmother and  mother and to all of those who tend the land.

At a well-attended artist reception earlier this month, Carpenter led gallery visitors on a tour of the exhibition, sharing stories and insights gathered from her life and her connection with the land, and from a pivotal road trip to America’s southern states that she and a friend took a decade ago.

Mary Salvante, director and chief curator at Rowan University Art Gallery, said she is thrilled to be showing Carpenter’s work.

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter, Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners Installation Image, 2022, Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Constance Mensh

“Syd Carpenter was one of the first artists I met when I moved to Philadelphia,” Salvante told me. “We have been discussing having a show at Rowan for a while now.”



 
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“Curating is an intuitive process,” she continued. “It has to begin with the strength of the work. If the art is compelling, it reveals the content and context. But the viewer has to respond visually first.”

“I don’t approach it from an art-historical perspective. I am looking for contemporary relevance.”

And although the timing of the exhibition – beginning in February, which is Black History Month, and continuing into March, which is Women’s History month – seems like well-planned scheduling, Salvante said it was simply “right place – right time.”

 “I am always looking for art that demonstrates a conscious, intentional vision; work with an important social message,” she said. “I want to bring these issues to the gallery.”

Collaboration between the curator and the artist was an important aspect of presenting this show.

Carpenter opened her artist talk at the reception by extending a thank you to Salvante, saying, “Installing a show can be very unsettling, but a professional staff like Mary’s made this a wonderful experience.”

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter, Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners Installation Image, 2022, Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Constance Mensh



 
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Salvante returned the compliment: “Syd brought her own exhibition design sensibilities to the process. The palette, the format, that’s all hers.”

“There is a calmness, an earthy elegance when you enter the gallery,” said Salvante, “then you start to see the narrative emerging. You encounter the story around the ideas of land ownership.”

Carpenter’s mother, Ernestine Carpenter, and grandmother, Indiana Houston, were gardeners. Her grandmother had a farm in Pennsylvania and a renowned Victory Garden. “She was able to feed seven children and have food left for others,” Carpenter said.

As a child, Carpenter recognized her mother’s and grandmother’s love for growing things but was not fully aware of what that meant in a broader sense.

“They used the land. They valued the land,” she said. “Having land in the family allowed for community and sustainability.” 

A turning point toward greater insight came about when, 25 years ago, Carpenter bought a house. “It was significant, as an African American woman, that I had land.”

She was a landowner. She could work in her own garden, and she had something valuable to pass on in the family. But she noticed a disconnect. “Most of the people I saw gardening didn’t look like me,” she said.

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter, Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners Installation Image, 2022, Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Constance Mensh

So, being a person with a curious nature, Carpenter wanted to know who else was “out there doing what I was doing with the same passion I had developed.” 

At the same time, she wanted to explore the history of African Americans on the land in this country, beyond the legacy of slavery.



 
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“The fact that there would still be people farming continuously with their families, I saw those people as heroes,” she said. “And when you are talking about heroes, you need names, people you can identify.”

It was 2012, and Carpenter saw an exploratory road trip in her future. 

She and a friend drove south – Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina – intending to find those who, generations later, were still on Black family farms. As a guide, Carpenter referred to “African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South,” a book by horticultural scholar Richard Westmacott.

“He studied 42 farms from an anthropological view,” Carpenter said. “The book introduced me to the existence of these folks.”

The trip was revelatory. Carpenter was able to be in the places and talk with the people who lived and worked there. “I got first-hand information,” she said. “It was very different from reading and looking at maps.”

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter, Mother Pin Transitions (detail), Installation Image, 2022, Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Constance Mensh

“As an artist, I see objects in context,” she said. “I make a physical and often emotional connection.”

She offered Georgia’s rich red soil as an example: “That earth explains the colors in the room and the title of the show.”

Something else Carpenter noticed was people still hanging out clothes on the line. “I have the bag of clothespins my mother used to hang my clothes up,” Carpenter said.

And from that memory and association came Mother Pins. “They are an embodiment of her; they represent her,” she said. “An old-fashioned wooden clothes pin – that’s her showing up in different guises.”

There is Mother Pin Afire, strong, fiery, beautiful, elegant; Mother Pin Arise, indicating how Carpenter’s mother rose above things that held her down; 3 Mother Pins on a Vine, to honor her mother as a gardener, and more.

The monarch, perhaps, of the Mother Pins is Release, a floor work that Carpenter made in 2021, using a variety of materials – some new, some reworked – such as steel, digital print, clay, wire, paper mâché, a round, wood-framed window, and a cluster of birds, which is a nod to her mother’s ceramic bird collection.

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter, Release (detail), Installation Image, 2022, Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Constance Mensh

“It’s a memorial to her,” Carpenter said, “finding peace after struggle.”

Salvante mentioned Release to me when we talked about the show, and I observed the positioning, the spotlight-like illumination from overhead, and the platform that is lower than the others in the space. This highlights the art and, as Salvante describes it, “provides a visual shift in the sight-line.” 

“It has a presence,” said Salvante.

And then there is Ramshackle Fence, one of the earliest in the series and what Carpenter calls a “compendium.”

“What I saw on a lot of the farms is this sense of being resourceful and using everything,” explained Carpenter. “You found what you found, and you made your fence.”

In addition to the remarkable Mother Pins, the exhibition features seven Farm Bowls. These stoneware sculptures showcase objects one might see on a farm – eggs and chickens, horses and cows, houses, swings, and fences – as well as some that are named for people close to her, like her grandmother, and the farmers and families she met.

But, why a bowl? 



 
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“A handmade bowl is a universal form with equivalent examples in every culture. Bowls can serve ritualistically or mundane utilitarian objects,” she said. “In whichever use, the bowl presents its contents accessibly as an ideal form for representing African American experiences and connection to the land.”

Artist Syd Carpenter Identifies and Honors African American Farmers and Gardeners at Rowan U. Art Gallery

Syd Carpenter, Farm Bowl with Orchard, Installation Image, 2022, Courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery. Photo Credit: Constance Mensh

Although the number of farms owned by people of color is still modest, Carpenter acknowledges some victories.

“Many African Americans are at the vanguard of an urban gardening movement now,” she said. “And the idea that working the land as a lower aspiration has changed. To be a farmer now has a certain distinction”

Reflecting on the time that has passed since that trip in 2012, Carpenter commented that the experience continues to resonate all these years later. 

“These are not statistics,” said Carpenter. “These are the people who are doing this. Here we have stewards of the land. This exhibition is about that.”



Syd Carpenter: Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners is on view at Rowan University Art Gallery, 301 West High Street in Glassboro,  through March 26.

“Honoring the Land,” a conversation with artist Syd Carpenter and South Jersey African American farmers and food activists Sonya Harris (Founder and CEO of Bullock Garden Project), Kyle Smith (Owner, Smith Poultry), and Paige Vaccaro (Founder of C.R.O.P.S.) is happening on Tuesday, February 22, 11:00 AM – 12:00 PM at the Art Gallery. RSVP for the program at artgallery@rowan.edu

 

Photos in header include: Close-up of Ramshackle Fence by Syd Carpenter, photo by Shen Shellenberger; and installation image of Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners, courtesy of Rowan University Art Gallery, photo credit Constance Mensh.




About the author: Jersey Girl, music lover, and culture geek – Shen Shellenberger has made a career of her life-long love of the arts. From her jobs at WXPN-FM and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, to her 25 years as a freelance writer, she instills her Jersey-born roots in all she does. Whether it’s the beauty of a classic painting, the dynamics of contemporary dance, or the raw energy of rock ‘n’ roll, Shen brings her perspective to whatever she covers.

Content provided by Discover Jersey Arts, a project of the ArtPride New Jersey Foundation and New Jersey State Council on the Arts.




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