Syd Carpenter: Making Her Mother’s Garden

By Shantay Robinson


In her iconic essay, “In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens,” Alice Walker writes, “What did it mean for a Black woman to be an artist in our grandmother’s time? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood.” Walker refers to Black women as they have been described in folklore as “the mule of the world” because they were “handed the burdens that everyone else – everyone else – refused to carry.” Some of our mothers and many of our grandmothers didn’t have the opportunity to sow their artistic roots. As Walker notes, instead, many of them “…dreamed dreams that no one knew – not even themselves, in any coherent fashion – and saw visions no one could understand.” Walker asks if we can imagine voices like Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, and Bessie Smith not having the space to sing. In Walker’s own case, her mother who worked in fields from before sunup to late at night, tended glorious gardens that yielded strangers who gawked at what she calls, “A garden so brilliant with colors, so original in its design, so magnificent with life and creativity…”

Syd Carpenter ( photo: The Center for Emerging Visual Artists)

Syd Carpenter knows this story well. Although encouraged by her parents to be an artist, Carpenter noticed creativity in her own mother, Ernestine, that was never truly expressed. Her mother particularly encouraged her art making. Carpenter doesn’t have a moment in her life when she was made aware that she is an artist. Her parents recognized, “This is who this child is.” So, they allowed her to pursue her lifestyle and she never lacked supplies and was even enrolled in Saturday morning art school as a child.  Of her parents, Carpenter says, “There was no concern over, is this going to be something that is going to be lucrative and productive in terms of her being able to make a living.” 

The Provider by Syd Carpenter, Clay, graphite and acrylic paint, 2016, Petrucci Family Foundation collection

Carpenter admits she adored her mother, a single parent raising three children. Her mother gave her permission to be an artist and even taught her how to draw. “My mother also was a person who was an artist, but because of the time she was living, a young black woman with children, she didn’t get the opportunity to engage in that,” says Carpenter, noting that ”was not something she had the luxury to pursue.” Instead, her mother obtained a bachelor’s and then a master’s in English, although she worked as a lab technician to support her family.  “She was one of the most creative people I could think of at the time,” says Carpenter. “She taught me how to look and to notice things.”

Carpenter created Mother Pins in homage to her mother. In these artworks she sculpts antique clothespins. “For me the clothespin is symbolic and emblematic of my connection to my mother. I still own the bag of antique clothespins that she used to hang my clothes on the clothesline in the backyard when I was a child in Pittsburgh.” Along with this connection to her childhood and mother, Carpenter notices clothespin’s likeness to the female form. “And so, this clothespin, which is one of the most mundane domestic female associated objects you could probably come up with becomes a sense of strength.” By making them large, she makes them heroic. “Each one of them represents [my mother] in some state of being.”

In addition to the clothespin series, Carpenter might be most known for The Farm Portraits. It’s a series of work she says, “would not exist without the history of African American farming and gardening.” Carpenter recollects on African American history dating back to the abolition of slavery when the newly freed people had to rely on what they knew for survival. She calls it a time when “we were all on the land.” She talks about the Great Migration and how African Americans brought to the north what they knew from the south. She identifies her maternal grandmother, Indiana Hudson, as one of those people who had an amazing garden during the 1940s and 1950s in Pittsburgh because that’s what she knew how to do. Carpenter is a self-identified “intense gardener.” She says, “All through my career when I look at the shapes, I can find shapes and rhythms and surfaces and textures that remind me of my time gardening. And the two things, making objects and gardening happen simultaneously.” She cites the urban farming movement as an aspect of our survival and our continued well-being. 

Her exhibition, Syd Carpenter: Portraits of Our Places, will open at the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, PA on October 16. The exhibition is made up of 10 free standing portraits of clay and steel honoring farm proprietors in the face of erasure. In 2012, she drove to South Carolina, the Gullah Islands, and Georgia looking for African American farms and gardens. “I interviewed dozens of folks to see what their history on the land was. I came back to my studio and made about a dozen sculptures about that experience, about meeting those people.” Carpenter talks about how farms were central to developing community amongst African Americans post-Civil War, as farmers started churches and churches became institutional foundations. “Farming is the basis of any stability we were able to achieve post slavery,” she stresses. “So, to discount that is a critical issue.”

Albert and Elbert Howard by Syd Carpenter, Clay and Steel, 2014, Petrucci Family Foundation collection

Carpenter believes a challenge of being an artist is “finding this balance between giving yourself license but at the same time being aware that you are a part of a critical conversation and to what extent do you want to be a vital contributor to that conversation.” Her intense interest in agriculture tells us that she is fully invested in this conversation. “I’m thinking about the work in terms of legacy and people when people remember me about a particular subject it would be the farm and garden series.” This work is in her bloodline. From her maternal grandmother, Indiana Hudson, who had visitors to her garden from places unknown to her intense cultivation of her own garden, Carpenter realizes the impact gardening has on African American communities. 

She wants there to be a connection when someone sees the farm portraits. If the surface reminds them of their own skin or a place they’ve been, then she thinks her work is done. That connection to the history of African Americans is invaluable. Despite the lack of sustenance in terms of material wealth, African Americans had their skills as workers of the land and that knowledge allowed them to build communities. Carpenter realized that African Americans as enslaved people built the foundation of the American economy through harvesting cotton, indigo, and rice. Understanding this is a very important source of wealth, she clarifies, noting, “So, if we as a people are not aware or beholden to that very humble activity, we would not have survived.”

Carpenter’s grandmother realized her gift, and maybe gardening was her artistic talent. Though sculpting is her profession, gardening is also Carpenter’s gift. But women like her mother, Ernestine, may not have had an outlet other than sharing creativity with their children. There are many more opportunities today that allow women to be artists and explore our history through their artistry. Carpenter’s exploration into agriculture collapses the distance between a time when women didn’t have the luxury to dream of artistic pursuits and the now when gardening and its implications find their way into museums. 

Alice Walker writes, “For these grandmothers and mothers of ours were not ‘Saints,’ but Artists; driven to a numb and bleeding madness by the springs of creativity in them for which there was no release. They were Creators, who lived lives of spiritual waste, because they were so rich in spirituality – which is the basis of Art – that the strain of enduring their unused and unwanted talent drove them insane.” Today, as an African American woman who has the luxury to be an artist, Syd Carpenter is using her occupation to bring the women in her historical lineage with her as she inserts agriculture and gardening into museum spaces. Carpenter says, “I watch what a garden does, and it gives me an idea about how to gesturally situate an object. So, the garden growth, the idea of farming, and its rhythms would be a consistent thread [in my work].” The encouragement to be an artist Carpenter received from her mother allows her to honor the sacrifices that generations of African American women have made in lives that didn’t permit them to fully be themselves. Their legacies live on in the gardens we tend, the artwork by African American women we place on our walls, and the stories we tell about them.

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Shantay Robinson has participated in Burnaway’s Art Writers Mentorship Program, Duke University’s The New New South Editorial Fellowship, and CUE Art Foundation’s Art Critic Mentoring Program. She has written for Burnaway, ArtsATL, ARTS.BLACK, AFROPUNK, Number, Inc. and Washington City Paper. While receiving an MFA in Writing from Savannah College of Art and Design, she served as a docent at the High Museum of Art. She is currently working on a PhD in Writing and Rhetoric at George Mason University.

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