Sculptor Syd Carpenter uses clay, wood, glass, and steel to tell stories that reflect her personal history and the African-American experience as literal and figurative gardeners of the American soil. “I myself have been gardening for many years and wanted to have a better understanding of who I was: Why was I doing it? What was the history? What are the stories that come out of the experience of gardening? It became an incredibly rich resource of imagery, history, and community as an artist to draw on and source for the pieces that I make.”
Based out of Philadelphia, where she practices in addition to teaching at Swarthmore College as a professor of Studio Art, Carpenter is also a current fellow at the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. Carpenter sat down with Artrepreneur to reflect on how her gardening practices inform and inspire her studio practice.
KV: Tell me about yourself. How has your experience as an ornamental gardener informed your work as a sculptor?
Syd Carpenter: I am a studio artist in Philadelphia working in clay and mixed media. I have been working on a series of pieces that documents and makes observations about African-American farms and gardens.
Gardening has been something that in the beginning was parallel but not integrated. It was something I did but it wasn’t something I was using as a resource for ideas or processes or forms. My mother was a very active gardener. Her mother before her was a prominent gardener in Pittsburgh. She had a victory garden and was able to supplement her income and feed her family with the garden. So that was something that was already a part of my history. In a way, I backed into it. I had been fortunate enough to purchase a house and the more I got involved in improving the exterior appearance of the house the more it became apparent to me that I found this as an expressive mode. It was a place to think about color, light, and form and it was something that became very important to me in terms of the rhythm of the year. I look forward to the spring and the fall. As my information and my experience developed, it became influential in my work and my studio practice. This was about 20 years ago. It has been over these many years that the garden and my work as a sculptor have crossed over.
KV: What was your practice prior to this?
Syd Carpenter: The subject matter was dealing with memories from my family, experiences from travel–things that were more generalized and immediate as opposed to something like gardening which was a practice in itself. I began to see that as a resource for form and delving into my own family history as gardeners and looking beyond that to see if there were stories in the broader community.
KV: Tell me about that process of diving into your own story and those of your community.
Syd Carpenter: It was about four years ago that I started driving through the South. I went to Georgia and South Carolina looking for African-American farms that had been in families through multiple generations. And then I started making portraits of those farms that I was visiting. I wanted to identify those families and name those names. It was important to bring those names out of obscurity and show their passion and their tenacity to stay on their land during very trying, dangerous times. And then be able to pass that down through the generations. That is an act of courage and affirmation of a group of people as farmers.
During the Great Migration, which lasted from the turn of the century to the 1970s, farming wasn’t something that people glorified. African-Americans were trying to get off those lands. I was interested in those that stayed on who endured and persevered. They have become the foundations of their communities. They have found churches and schools and have added a layer of dignity to the community and to me that is a real act of courage.
KV: How have you reflected those stories in your sculptures?
Syd Carpenter: I made portraits of the actual land itself and gave those portraits the name of the people who tended that land. To me, that was something that had been ignored. Even African-American artists were not turning their attention to that subject matter because what was preferred was promoting a certain level of modernity. You were urban. You were living in the city. And that represented progress. The land represented a past that needed to be moved away from. So I was interested in those that were left behind but still provided a foundation for the community. A small but steady number of people are returning. It’s a wonderful kind of cyclical direction to all of this. And so the work I am doing is a way of acknowledging those people and that cycle that is in play.
KV: You have been living and working in Philadelphia since the early 1980s, what are the changes that you have seen in the art community?
Syd Carpenter: It really has changed. I was in graduate school in the mid-seventies and typically what people did was go to school with the goal being to leave after graduating. Everyone wanted to go to New York or the West Coast. Really, go anywhere that wasn’t Philadelphia. At that time, the idea was that in order to be a credible artist you had to live in New York. And over the years that has changed so much. New York is still the center of the art world but with the internet, people can now be an artist and live somewhere else.
Philadelphia is a viable place to live as an artist. You have a better cost of living, you can rent studio spaces here and you can even buy a home. People are more likely now to actually stay in Philadelphia if they were educated here and now I see people from New York moving here because this is a place where they can actually sustain themselves.
So a lot of people are here that weren’t here before. That has changed the kind of art that is being made in Philadelphia. There is a different sense of intellectualism; there are more innovative uses of material. Who is making art is so expansive? You can’t make assumptions anymore about who the artists are because demographically there is such an enormous range in terms of gender, race, and age. It is making Philadelphia a really rich place to be an artist. The need to be elsewhere is less of a necessity because here you have a very rich environment in which to make your art and be heard and seen. There are significant artists that are choosing to live in the city and not just visual artists. There are writers, musicians, poets.
KV: How have you seen the art community and the city change with one another?
Syd Carpenter: Thinking in terms of the influx or attraction of Philadelphia, it brings people to the city and that puts pressure on the neighborhoods. Issues of gentrification are tied to how the city develops as a creative destination and there is a push and pull around that as the city evolves. It depends on how well community leaders are able to make those connections and find common ground so that those who have been here a long time can participate and benefit from the changes to come. I think that is the challenge that now we have to take on as a city.
KV: What do you think are specific challenges for the Philadelphia artist?
Syd Carpenter: I think that the challenges are more universal. It is always going to be that reality of getting the work seen in the art world. We know that having your work written about and seen is the most important thing when it comes to being considered as a part of larger conversations. In Philadelphia, the challenge is around publications. Who is writing? Do we have enough good writers covering the city? Right now we are in need of more and different kinds of publications and writers and critics that are looking at what is being done and documenting that.
We need the work to be observed and integrated into the larger platform of what is happening in the community. That makes the art something that is a part of the community rather than it being elite and exclusive. How do you do that? How does the artist become an integral part of a larger community? Especially today, it’s important for artists to be seen as a common link in bringing strength and improving the well being of the community.
KV: How did you become involved with the Center for Emerging Visual Artists?
Syd Carpenter: I am one of their fellows for this year and next year. They are interested in how they can assist me as an artist. That is what their goal is. I will have a one-person show with them in their gallery. They are helping me fund some technical things, like working with glass. They are helping me make links and see what opportunities are available to me at this stage of my career.
KV: What do you think is the benefit of participating in fellowship programs?
Syd Carpenter: I always tell my students that they need to find ‘their people’ meaning people who will be supportive of you as an artist. It is important to find people who have other capabilities and interests and learning to integrate that into what you do. You can do that by locating organizations and art centers that can to focus and direct you towards like-minded people. That is the key thing: finding an organization that enables you.
That is what I think is important for younger artists. You can back into that by accident or you can be more proactive in looking for people and organizations that will help you build your platform and create your community. This stereotype that life as an artist isn’t viable, that you can’t make a living or participate in larger dialogues is real if you let it. But when you learn to move through networks you’ll find that you can find employment, a place to live and ways of finding and showing your work. Otherwise, you become marginal. Be vital. Be strategic. Just don’t be passive.