Listen: Ceramic Artist Syd Carpenter on "Discovering a History: The Farm Portraits"

Professor of Studio Art Syd Carpenter discusses the legacy of African Americans' relationships to farms and gardens in "Discovering a History: The Farm Portraits." Her talk was December's installment of the Second Tuesday Arts and Humanities Cafe series.

Carpenter specializes in ceramics. Her work is in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Atlantic Richfield Corporation, Nabisco Brands, 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 Jingdezhen, China, and in numerous other public and private collections.

Sponsored by the Aydelotte Foundation, the Second Tuesday Arts & Humanities Cafes are a monthly series that highlight the intellectual relevance of humanities approaches to arts and culture on topics ranging from visual narratives in Japan, reflections on life and death in South Indian religions, and current intersections of theater, dance, and music performance in the United States. Events are geared for individuals with no formal background in the arts and humanities. The only requirement is curiosity.


Audio Transcript

Syd Carpenter:  I want to thank Yvonne and Pam. This has really been a wonderful end of the semester to get to present my work to you. As she said that I've been working on the series called More Places of Our Own, looking at African American farms and gardens. I'll just being with this first image. When thinking about farmers and gardeners in America, few of us consider African Americans among them. It's not that typical image that we think about. But my work relies on the story of black farmers and gardeners. In the process I'm attempting to shed some light on a history and legacy that has been obscured as Yvonne has said.

It's a history that far exceeds the generally accepted narrative represented by this image, of black people's relationship to the land, as being limited to picking cotton under slavery and subsequent hard scrabble share cropping. This is generally the image that most would have in terms of thinking about African Americans and our relationship to stewardship of the land, is this negative idea of what we have been connected to and how we've been connected to it.

What I also wanted to point out today is this story kind of starts in a negative, maybe possibly dower way, but it's a story with a happy ending. I guess today with all the things that are going on in the world, we could use a happy ending. This story has some positive aspects to it that speak to how a group of people are relating to their environment and to the land.

It's been predicted that the black farmer is destined to extinction as numbers continue to decline from two million black farmers on the land in 1920, to about under 30,000 today. This is the cover of John [inaudible 00:02:07] book, which addresses this predication. It's a series of portraits of black farmers, and it's a rather grim outlook on the legacy of black American's relationship to stewardship and the natural world in general.

The history of decline in numbers on rural farms can be attributed to systemic discrimination, mechanization, and the great migration north that occurred between 1910 and the early 70s. But the story doesn't end there. There were many, many farms and gardens that remained in families sustained by those who did not migrate north and who were able to withstand the pressures of a dominant discriminatory culture. There is also a slight increase right now in the numbers of rural, southern, black farms as documented in the last census. There are a number of farms that are now being repopulated by descendants of those who remained and they're slowly returning to their family farms. This is really good news, is that this decline is in a way, halted, that people are going back to the land.

Currently there exists ... I want to go back just to show you this slide again. Part of that good news has to do with different groups, different folks that are getting involved in different ways of farming, different locations of farming. On the right, we have the book, The Color of Food, which was produced, it was written by the young woman who's on the right. Her name is Natasha Bowen, and she has traveled around the country documenting where black farmers, farmers of color, are located, all over the country, and she has created this extensive map.

Then of course there are lots of writing that's going on that also references how African Americans are returning to the land, and how. It's not necessarily just going back to the farm, but also there is this movement in urban farming, as many of you may well know, that there's a large cohort of folks that are just using the urban environment as a place to establish farms.

There's also a protection that is being launched by lawyers in the south. This is one, the Land Loss Prevention Project, and it was founded in 1982 in North Carolina. It's a way of helping farmers retain their land, and at the same time become viable in terms of the economic issues around being a farmer.

The outcome of this is that our typical image of the farmer in America could easily be the gentleman on the left, or the young woman on the right, in terms of the demographic of what we think about who's doing farming. Rather than this image of the typical Caucasian mature male, we could have any number of groups of folks, including young, black women, who are very much in the forefront of farming in America right now.

Then there are those who are also working in that urban location and this is Majora Carter. She's founder of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization responsible for the development of Hunts Point Riverside Park, which is a former illegal garbage dump. The New York Times named her the green power broker and one of New York City's best known advocates for environmental justice. She graduated with a bachelor of arts from Wesleyan and holds a master of fine arts from NYU. I make that point because here's a person who started out in a liberal arts college as an artist and has moved on to become also a MacArthur Fellow and has become one of the leaders in sustainable agriculture within the city limits.

Another person we should know about is Will Allen, who's in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His parents were sharecroppers in South Carolina until they bought a small farm in Rockville, Maryland where Allen grew up. He's a former basketball player for the Baltimore Bullets. He settled in Milwaukee into a marketing career with Proctor & Gamble. While there, he purchased a plant nursery, which was [inaudible 00:06:44] in the area, and started his organization, Growing Power. Now, it's a mature, urban farm with 40 ... It's a 40 acre farm, and an offshoot project in Chicago run by his daughter. In 2005, Allen was also awarded a Ford Foundation grant and a MacArthur Foundation, and for his work in sustainable food production.

Malik Yakini, he runs D-Town Farms in Detroit. He's the director of that farm. It's a group of individuals and organizations dedicated to building food security and advocating for food justice for Detroit's majority African American community. From 1990 to 2011, Mr. Yakini acted as executive director of the Nsoroma Institute Public School Academy, one of Detroit's leading African centered school. He is the CEO of Black Star Educational Management. He's a current Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy Food and Community Fellow, a Business Alliance for Local Living Economy's Fellow, and recently received the James Beard Foundation Leadership award. This is all work that has to do with urban farming and gardening.

Then Karen Washington who works in the Bronx, her organization, La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition successfully uphold Rudy Giuliani's attempts to auction off community gardens to developers. Her efforts led to many of the threatened gardens being purchased by the Trust for Public Land, ensuring their survival. She has since founded the New York City School of Urban Agriculture, offing students practice to hands on farming training at urban farms and gardens, outdoor classrooms, as well as training in sustainable agriculture, entrepreneurship, and food systems management. She also hosts the annual Black Urban Grower's Conference, working towards food justice and all about pulling in under represented folks into the agricultural community, urban and rural alike.

Another person who's also got that kind of energy and working within the city is Rashid Nuri in Atlanta Georgia. He has a Harvard degree in political science. He served as the Deputy Administrator in the US Department of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, as well as 12 years in management at the agricultural giant, Cargill. He has managed public, private, and community based food and agricultural businesses in over 30 countries. He also holds a masters in plant and soil science from the University of Massachusetts. His Living Well garden has five farm sites in the Atlanta metro area.

This is no small enterprise, this relocation of black farmers to urban areas in conjunction with what's happening in the rural south where most of those farms were located in the first place. You have this growth, this very broadly expansive extension of our cultural heritage into these different locations and sites. So why am I interested in this myself and who started all this? My grandmother did, as with many of us, we look back into our own personal histories for why we do things.

This is Indiana Hudson. She grew up in the city. I grew up in the city. I learned from her about gardening indirectly. She was a famous gardener as it turns out, in Pittsburgh during World War II. Her garden was located on the corner of a very, very busy intersection and that's its present location, which I found, up on the upper right. It's now a public garden. It continues to be a public garden. The image on the lower right is the view that she would have had while she was gardening, and it's pretty much the same when you go to that hillside and you look over. You see the [inaudible 00:11:03] steel mills that she would have seen. Learning that she was a gardener in and of itself was an important issue for me, in addition to the fact that her daughter, my mother, was also a very, very, avid, avid gardener.

With that said, I'd like to show you my garden, because this is the thing that has fueled my work, fueled my research, just everything coming out of this. The next series of slides just shows you just what I've been doing. I look at the garden as another medium. I see it as material. I see plant forms, textures, colors, as something to be manipulated and changed. This next series of slides shows you those changes and developments that happen in my garden overtime.

A garden on a hill in West Mount Airy, which is the northwest part of the city. I don't grow food, but I'm interested, as I said, in the forms of plants and how they can be organized as a work of art, if you will. Being able to work here and teach here at Swarthmore College in this garden has also been an amazing inspirational source for my own garden and for my work. I'm not horticulturist in the sense that I know the taxonomy of the names and all of the forms and all the science. For me it's about materiality, color, texture.

It's also been an issue of audience for me, as well, because where I garden I garden on a corner and I have a constant flow of interactions with viewers and their reaction to what I do with the materials. That's also been something that is interesting as a parallel experience to making sculpture and showing in galleries and showing in museums, is that whole idea of how you interact with those who receive what you do and your access to that. It just serendipitously, I'm able to have this constant flow of viewers who can talk about what I'm doing, can ask questions, can influence in certain ways just what would be an option for me. It's just an constant conversation working in what I refer to this medium.

Speaker 2:  Can you tell us about the exposure in these shots? Is it semi shade or?

Syd Carpenter:  Okay, yeah, there's a gardener among us.

Speaker 2:  [inaudible 00:14:36].

Syd Carpenter:  Yeah. I would call this garden a woodland garden with dappled light, and I have one border in the back that's full sun, but mainly it's a woodland garden. Typical of what would be in Swarthmore.

This garden has not only been a source for myself in terms of shapes and colors, and just a medium to manipulate materials, but it's also been just a source for my husband's art. I don't have images of it, but it's just been a grounding laboratory, I guess I would call it that. It's just a laboratory where I don't compete in competitions, but it's ... That a lot of gardeners might do, but it's just one of those places that allows me to experiment to just the joy of color and texture and light.

These are some of the forms that I was doing concurrently with the garden, and you're looking at a piece that's called, on the left, Apothecary, and on the right, it's Control of Nature. I was just fine making these clay sculptures about tools that were about healing, mobility, but I needed to ... And I was thinking about these shapes in a more passive way just in reaction. These pieces are ... This piece that you're seeing here is about 25 inches high and I show that leaf underneath it because that's essentially what I was reacting to, is looking at something that was very, very two dimensional and flat and imagining what would happen if the thing inhaled, and what would it become. The inhalation, my imagining of that inhalation didn't produce something that was flat, but something that was [inaudible 00:16:52], animal-like. That piece is called Above and ... About the Skin.

So I did this series of expanded leaves that became animals and fleshy, and always about movement, because in a garden everything is, there's nothing static about a garden. Everything is tentative, changing, evolving, mutating, and so the tentative quality, the suggestion of imbalance, all of that was important in these leaf pieces that ... There's a certain kind of grotesque possibly, air to them, but that's always a part of the natural world, is from this sublime to something that's decadent and something that is in a state of decay.

This gives you a sense of scale. This was a show that I had at the Sandy Webster Gallery. It also important for me in doing this research is to find out what other artists were doing around the history of African Americans in the garden. I need to find out just how this subject was being dealt with. It's not so surprising that there ... The abundance of art depicting, there wasn't an abundance of art depicting African Americans. For the most part, it was once again, returning to that theme of African Americans working in cotton fields. It was the default perception of African Americans' connection to the land.

Ironically it's a perception carried forward by some African Americans themselves, who react to the mere suggestion of farming with ambivalence and sometimes visceral rejection, a response not unexpected given the collective goal to distance ourselves from the indignities associated with Jim Crow south and forced agricultural labor.

This is an image by Thomas Hart Benton. Winslow Homer. This one, I always look at this one thinking about him imagining these young women as these almost goddess-like figures moving gracefully through the cotton fields with ease. Just thinking of it is is this idealized, comfortable situation, which in fact it was not.

This is Earle Wilton Richardson. Benny Andrews. Romare Bearden. It turns out Romare Bearden of course, he grew up in the city as well. But his memories of the garden came from his grandmother and his mother's garden, not unlike myself. Just going back to memories and stories told about being in the garden and that connection and the importance of that connection to his family.

There of course was the photography that was done during the years of the WPA, Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans creating these very compelling images. Those photographers were artists. There is a number of films that have been produced around the subject, but the actual physical, sculptural representation of this subject. There was very, very little that I could locate. I realized that there was a niche that I could fill in creating the works that I subsequently embarked upon.

That led me to doing some research and finding images, finding work, finding scholarship on that the actual subject, and it led me to this book, African American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South by a professor of landscape architecture from the University of South Carolina, Richard Westmacott. He did a study in the 1980s when he looked at 47 African American farms and gardens in Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. His detailed maps of these places became the source of my first series of farm sculptures. Using his two dimensional graphic representations, mapping the locations of built structures, tilled and untilled earth, animal pens, flower beds, I developed three dimensional forms, mostly non representational, but evocative of the things documented in the Westmacott maps. I assembled those forms as portraits of the farms and gardens and the names of each farm became the title for each sculpture. So each farmer, their name became the title of the sculpture.

What appealed to me was linking people with abstract symbols representing a specific place, and in that they became portraits. For Westmacott, the maps were sources of quantifiable data. For me, they were visual signals translated into sculptural assemblages referencing the maps, but not imitating them. This is that series that came out of that, looking at those maps. So I'll go back. The names of this, is Andrew and Magnolia Moses, and Mary Lou [inaudible 00:24:10].

I also want to say, just saying their names becomes very important to me, because there's a certain level of anonymity around these places. Their names are rarely, if ever, spoken in terms of what they did and the legacies that they were able to sustain. Saying their names to me is kind of like a roll call. Each name representing even the hundreds that I don't get to name. It's just this idea of saying the name. This is James and Fox Flemming. Percy Robinson. Irvin and Cornelius Hollyfield. One of our board members is also named Hollyfield, and so she and I have to get together and figure out if they are related. That's a little plan we have. This is Perry and Henrietta Royal. Shirley Hitchcock. Lucile and Leland Holly. This is just a few of them. These are all about 27 to 30 inches in height. They can be viewed either horizontally ... Vertically as you see them on the wall, or also horizontally as in the landscape.

The obvious follow up to those wall pieces, that early, that first body of work, was to source images from places and people that I directly encounter. I came across this organization called the Southern African American Farmer's Organic Network. Yay. Okay. They were able to give me a list and locations of farms in Georgia and South Carolina. With that, I was able to connect with farmers, do interviews, I produced a short film on the subject. I was able to more importantly, gather just idiosyncratically, I guess, just things that I wanted to look at, that I wanted to make sculpture about.

So what I'm going to show you is some of those things that I saw, odd things like using the interior of a washing machine as a planter, a steel glider, a bench abandoned in a field. It's about texture mark. Once again, not knowing what I would do with any of this stuff, but it was important for me to see what was there, what I noticed. I always use this phrase, "Notice what you notice." I talk to my students about that a lot, because that's the source of what your art is going to be, to not limit yourself by someone else's vision of what's important and what's visually compelling, but to just notice what you notice. These are the kinds of things that I was picking up on, the line of a fence, the edge of a fence, how the light hit it. A ramshackle tool shed. A roof line of an abandoned house.

The image on the right is of Rashid Nuri, who is the farmer in Atlanta, Georgia. One of his gardens is on the site of a destroyed apartment building. It has been taken down, but the site was never completely cleared, so you have these pathways and stairways that lead nowhere in among the flowerbeds and in and among the vegetable plots.

I came back and I did eventually make work about this. This is an image of the installation of the show at the African American Museum. I wanted to introduce the people themselves who inspired that work. This is Pearl Fryer from Bishopsville, South Carolina. Some of the gardeners might know of him, because he's quite famous. Because of his extraordinary topiary sculptures that he has developed in his garden over many, many decades beginning with just things that he was able to retrieve out of the dumpsters of nurseries in his area and putting them in the ground, nurturing them, and just developing ... This is the actual sculpture that I made about his place, 651. Here's some more of his sculptural topiary. He works in steel as well as in topiary. That's his art. He's also an educator, because once again, which is so much a part of what many of these gardeners do is the educational piece of sharing and conveying the importance, physically, intellectually, spiritually, the importance of remaining connected to this practice, being connected to the land.

So 165 is Pearl Fryer's address. It used to be, anyway. He took, it took several years for him to grow these plants and eventually carve them into this very, very precise address that probably could be seen from space by now, because they're so large. Then the city changed the numbers on the streets and this is no longer his address, but there it is. I have put it in the sculpture that I made of his.

Speaker 3:   What's the scale of numbers?

Syd Carpenter:  The numbers? They're about five feet in length. It's pretty huge. It's pretty huge. This is Troy Johnson, and he's in Monticello, Georgia. This is the sculpture I made of him. What I liked about Troy Johnson's farm was just all of the different ways he used to water his plants. The importance of putting the hose in and also this [inaudible 00:32:07] that you're seeing here, it's not that he had a real [inaudible 00:32:10] in his garden. What he had was a fake one that he kept encaged in this strange water feature with wire around it. His fences, very interesting use of materials. Nothing was ever wasted. He was the one who used the washing machine containers to use as planters.

Then this is Helen and Joseph Fields. They're on St. John's Island, South Carolina. They are organic farmers. They speak just intensely and passionately about the importance of organic farming and the fact that their farm was certifiable organic. The two of them were just models in the community, and they have a very, very thriving operation down there on St. John's Island. This is the piece that I made about them. The hanging utensils came from seeing these frying pans hanging in her garage.

This is Mary Howard, also of Monticello, Georgia. That was her glider. These sculptures are about, a little under five feet. So a child can sit in that glider.

Rashid Nuri, once again Atlanta, Georgia. Truly Living Well farms. He has five of them in Atlanta. The use of the raised beds and the architectural element there that looks like a church and the chair. There's the chair, just things that are noticed and incorporated. I'm collaging all of these different elements in to the sculpture, not necessarily trying to reproduce the actual place, but to be evocative of the place. Hopefully if and when the actual farmers see the piece they recognize their place.

This is a studio shot showing some of the pieces in progress. That would be one of those paths that was at the Living Well Farm in Atlanta that led to nowhere. This is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King's church, and that's important because I also include part of that in the sculpture as well. The truly Living Well Farm was directly across the street from this church.

This is O'Neal Smalls. He's the professor, O'Neal Smalls. Retired from the University of the South Carolina. He is the director of the Freewoods Farm, which is a farm museum, the only farm museum that curates objects on the original land of an African American farming settlement. I would recommend if you are in Myrtle Beach to go visit this place, because it's quite beautiful and he is quite eloquent in his descriptions of the place. He grew up on that farm. This is the sculpture that I made. The rifle comes from that going into one of the buildings and there was the rifle, which of course for me represented several things, not only the need to protect yourself from animal varmints, but people varmints as well. It represented to me that need to protect your land in a hostile environment.

Also in the piece there's an animal's leg in it. What's unique about this farm is that it is preindustrial. There is no mechanization on this farm at all. All of the power comes from either these mules, this is Jake, or people. The museum itself is run exactly as it had been for a hundred years. This is just a view of that farm.

Laurie Mason in Douglasville, Georgia, a backyard garden. Laurie was very interested in raising chickens and producing eggs of different colors. All of these things for me provided information about texture and coming back to the studio, collaging them.

This is Sarah, [inaudible 00:38:13] Reynolds, Marsh View Farm. That bench that I showed you earlier, that became the base for her piece. The baskets. Right now the current work I'm doing includes a lot of baskets. This is a detail of her piece.

This is David and Cassandra Williams of the Muscadine Vineyard, also in South Carolina. That was their [inaudible 00:39:12] line. Their family owns a very large, beautiful piece of land and on that land, which they have been on for over a hundred years, is their original house in which they raised 21 children. They have since built a new house, but this is the remnants of this house that becomes a monument to their ability to sustain themselves and to stay on their land.

This is Albert and Albert, and they are twins. They are cattle ranchers. Albert and Albert Howard. I did this piece to talk about the two of them as twins supporting this farm. The bottom section of that is to represent a rutted road, and they're cattle ranching. That's where it all starts, for me, in the garden. Thank you.