by Len Lear
Even in Mt. Airy, a community that is chockablock with talented writers, artists, actors and musicians, Syd Carpenter stands out. This world-class ceramic artist has had her work exhibited at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Atlantic Richfield Corporation, the University of Illinois, Philadelphia Convention Center, Bell Atlantic Corporation, Canton Ohio Museum of Art, Erie Museum of Art, Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institute, Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute in China and many other museums and galleries as well as in numerous private collections.
But Syd, who requested that her age not be mentioned “because that information tends to bias perceptions of who you are and what you’re capable of,” basically set off fireworks earlier this year with her remarkable exhibit at The African American Museum of Philadelphia, “More Places of Our Own,” which celebrated the community-uniting efforts of African American gardeners and farmers in Georgia and South Carolina.
Carpenter, who also chairs the Studio Art Department at Swarthmore College, where she has taught since the early 1990s, began working on the ongoing “More Places” series in 2008. Its first exposure was a one-person exhibit at the Sande Webster Gallery in 2010 during the National Conference on Education in the Ceramic Arts, attended by over 5000 people.
How did “More Places of Our Own” come about? “I am a gardener and have been one for almost 20 years,” Syd explained last week. “I often wondered if anyone else in my distant family history also gardened. My mother, Ernestine, filled our house with plants, and the outside garden was always in bloom.
“My grandmother, Indiana Hutson, tended a well-known garden in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression and through World War II. My aunt, Mary Schofield, who helped tend that garden, said it was productive and also beautiful. People came for the vegetables, but they also came to look.
“My research led me to focus on African American gardening since Emancipation, and I discovered an amazing story of persistence, rich family histories and of course the people and the land that has sustained them for generations. The outcome of this research was two series of ceramic sculptures created as portraits of the places, titled with the names of the farmers and gardeners that own them. There are 20 sculptures in the series.”
Syd was born and raised in Pittsburgh, but she attended Temple U.’s Tyler School of Art since she always wanted to be an artist. Even as a child, Syd “began by copying figures from the newspaper and sewing doll’s clothes. I was attracted to anything handmade because I wanted to know how to do it. I was content to draw and sew when I wasn’t out wandering in the woods near our house.
“My elementary school art teacher was pretty open minded, and when everyone else was using yellow crayons to make snow, she applauded when I shaded my snow man with blue. My mom drove me to art classes at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh every Saturday morning. For her it was a foregone conclusion that her middle child was an artist.”
Carpenter, who has also won a Pew Fellowship and a Leeway Foundation grant, feels very strongly, as you might expect, about the fact that so many art classes have been cut out of public school curricula for budgetary reasons.
“Invention and creativity fuel the well being of any flourishing society,” she said, “and our default impulse to cut these programs first when conserving money puts all of us in peril. With that said, there are countless artists all over the world whose work is not adequately recognized. But fame and recognition is not why artists do what they do …
“I have been fortunate to have my work seen nationally and internationally in museums and galleries. I have been persistent (but) I didn’t choose this path because I thought there would be a pot of gold somewhere along the way.”
In the course of researching “More Places of Our Own,” Carpenter was deeply affected by her experience with a community in Ghana and her visit to African American farms in the Deep South. “My visit to Ghana was my first,” she said. “I went there as part of a project to build a western style kiln in the northern village of Zaare …
“The people were reserved but welcoming, and the three weeks spent provided new friends and continued contacts. The art that came out of the experience was mostly in the form of photography. This was in contrast to the journey through Georgia and South Carolina, where I was intentionally looking at the people and the land for content for my sculptures.
“Everything I encountered had the potential to be incorporated into a sculpture … and I should add that everyone I talk to has a family farm story to tell. Family farms are another thing we as a culture take for granted, allowing them to pass away too easily. Again, we do so at our own peril.”
Syd has lived in Mt Airy for most of her adult life. After planning to live in New York, circumstances prompted Syd and her husband to move back to Mt Airy.
“Mt. Airy,” she said, “is a lively and interesting place to live that has not been spoiled by over development. It’s rich with extraordinary people engaged in any number of surprising pursuits.”
For more information, visit blogs.swarthmore.edu/syd-carpenter/.