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How Green is Her Art

During a sabbatical year, Syd Carpenter, professor of studio art, spent two weeks visiting ornamental and food-producing gardens and farms in the South and meeting the African-Americans who cultivate the land. She then spent 18 months creating a series of sulptures, which were exhibited this summer at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia. She talks about the project here with editor Sherri Kimmel.

What inspired you to do a body of work focused on African-American farmers and gardeners?

I have a family history of farming and gardening, which I was unaware of, until recently. My grandmother, Indiana Hudson, was a well-known gardener in Pittsburgh during World War II. Her garden was not only bountiful but also beautiful. As an artist, I’ve always been interested in looking at plants. I thought I needed to find out about African-American gardening, because if my grandmother was doing this, and I was noticing plants, then there must be a rich story. That’s what got me doing research around farms and gardens and involved in making objects in response to that information. 

The work is centered in South Carolina and Georgia. How many farmers did you visit?

I went to about a dozen farms, taking photographs, doing interviews. Each one of these sculptures is a portrait of the place that represents the people and the legacy of them being on this land, sustaining themselves, and keeping this land in their families for generations. 

Some of the titles are women’s names. Some are couples’ names. How do they relate to the pieces?

The names represent the people who own that piece of land. It’s important to take away some of the anonymity that is associated with African-American farmers, because the reality is, if you were to ask anyone to picture who an American farmer is, they’re going to show the Grant Wood image of the Midwestern, grim Caucasian male/female with the pitchfork or some wealthy corporate farmer.

Do you plan to continue more in this vein?

I feel like I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this story. Metaphorically, it’s very rich. The idea of working with farms and gardens and looking at the history of mankind on the land and the kind of imagery that has come out of that, there’s no bottom to that resource. 

Are you a gardener?

I have an ornamental garden. I’m pretty much self-taught but heavily influenced by what I observe at the Scott Arboretum. It’s primarily perennials, shrubs, anything that would go into a small urban garden, and that’s what’s surrounding this mid-19th-century twin-mansards townhouse.

Was being an artist always the dream?

It was always the reality. I started making things when I was just a child and was encouraged to do so. It was just a foregone conclusion that I was going to be a visual person. In the ’70s, I was offered a place at Penn for premed. Now think about that: young African-American woman being offered the opportunity to become a doctor. But my family understood who I was.

There was no push for premed?

Right. I was an artist. That was clear. That impulse has not flagged my entire life. This is what I do.