Syd Carpenter’s newest exhibit at Rowan University, “Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners” is one of many this year to center around the idea of nature and reflection.
“I do like to approach the exhibition schedule as a series around a particular theme,” said Gallery Director, Mary Salvante. “By doing that, I can show the different ways artists approach that theme.”
What sets Carpenter’s exhibit apart from others shown this year is her emphasis on her own identity as an artist, as a person, and as a part of a collective history.
Carpenter’s artistic vision for this collection was sparked when she and her husband purchased a house together. She thought about what it really meant for an African-American woman to own land in America.
In the country’s early years, land ownership was denied to both women and Black Americans. They did not have the benefits of voting and the privilege of having something that is solely and undeniably yours. When slavery was abolished and opportunities arose for both women and minorities to have their own possessions, chiefly land, they were then tasked with deciding what to do with it.
“I wanted to know what the history of African Americans was on the land in this country, besides the legacy of slavery,” said Carpenter. “We were forced onto the land, but then when emancipation took place four million people were let loose onto the land. And so I needed to know what that history was and how we would sustain ourselves.”
In pursuit of that knowledge, she uncovered legacy farms – farms that miraculously remained in African American possession throughout generations despite deep-seated racism, Jim Crow laws, the Great Migration and this big push by former slaves to get themselves far away from the insult of the dirt they were forced to work on for so many years.
“The fact that there are these farmers are still on the land with their families… I saw those people as heroes because my thought is ‘How did you put up with that crap and stay on your land?’” said Carpenter.
The pieces on display are brilliant celebrations of the hard work, creativity and history found in the legacy of African Americans on this land. Using a range of mediums from acrylic to paper-mache to earthenware, Carpenter creates artworks paying homage to both the history of African Americans and her own family.
“My mother and her mother were gardeners,” said Carpenter. “And so I was, as a child, brought up around people who valued the land and used the land creatively and also functionally.”
Her mother is the inspiration for the central motif in this collection: The Mother Pin. Taking the shape of an old clothespin, one that may still be found on a generational farm, the Mother Pin represents the struggle and victories woven into this history. One of the earliest displays of this Mother Pin can be found in the piece entitled “Ramshackle Fence.” Made from earthenware, graphite and acrylic, this piece celebrates the resourcefulness of African Americans on the land. Aiding in assembling the formation of the fence are items you might find around the farm.
“[The art pieces] all have stories. I talk about farms and gardens. I don’t think there is a person in here whose family did not have a garden or a farm and so I hope whoever is in here walking around [that] there is some resonance. [I hope] that it sparks some kind of memory, connection, provokes them in some direction…[in] retrieving memories or family histories… and even just the interest in wanting to make [art] themselves,” said Carpenter. “They can look at this and say, ‘Well I can do that.’ So I’m thinking, ‘Well go ahead. Do it.’”
“Earth Offerings: Honoring the Gardeners” by Syd Carpenter is on display at Rowan University’s Art Gallery until March 26.
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