THE CARPENTER ART GARDEN
Nestled along a quiet street in Binghampton between Mimosa and Hale avenues is a beautiful, visual example of a “rich, well-cultivated region.”
“The term garden is symbolic, it’s where kids grow. What is happening here is so organic. There was no plan to have six other properties here, but it has been dictated by the needs of the community,” explained Henry Nelson.
Nelson may be better known to Memphians as a Memphis radio legend, serving up the sounds of jazz, blues and soul for various radio stations since the early 1970s. However “Executive Director” has been his title since October of 2018.
Carpenter Art Garden (CAG) began in July of 2012 with one blighted lot on Carpenter Street, a vision in the heart of founder Erin Harris. That vision was to lay out an environment for the children in this Binghampton neighborhood to form long-term relationships with their community, adult mentors and each other; to create art in an area that historically had not had any.
Henry Nelson, a native Memphian, shares founder Harris’ heart for the community of Binghampton and the children who call the area home. “I started hearing about this project in the fall of 2012,” Nelson recalled. “I was hearing stories of children rushing out of school as soon as the school day was done and running over here to work in a community garden and to do art projects in a place called an art garden. It sounded transformative, and I wanted to be a part of it all.”
After serving in various volunteer positions over the last 4 years and serving on the Art Garden Board for a year, Henry was ready when the position of executive direc- tor became available. He sent in his resume and the rest, as they say, is history.
It is a history that is still being written, with the purchase of an eighth property on Tillman Street and plans to extend the Art Garden into that neighborhood as well.
The Binghampton neighborhood has been around for a long time – 126 years to be exact. And it has seen its share of change, both good and bad.
Carpenter Art Garden is committed to neighborhood revitalization. It employs an asset-based model, which promotes organic and community-driven projects that use what’s already available and of value in the neighborhood, in new and creative ways.
One of the ways is in the form of a bike repair shop in one of the homes on the campus. The shop employs two of the teens that have been active members of the garden since the beginning, providing them a job and teaching them a skill. They have an open bike workshop on Wednesdays where mem- bers of the community can bring in bikes that need repair. This service has helped the area become much more bike-friendly, with the children being taken on two supervised rides a week.
The shop building also has a kitchen. Produce from the community garden is cooked there, and cooking lessons are given in the process.
“A lot of the kids in this neighborhood have never even seen a squash. Watching their faces as they pick the produce, prepare it and then eat it can be pretty humorous,” Henry said with a smile.
They also have fabric art classes, which will consist of a yearlong series of classes that culminate with a possible job opportunity at Theater Memphis, Playhouse on the Square or Opera Memphis.
Another contribution – which is rather amazing – is the Mosaic Sculpture Garden, located on a lot that was once home to a drug house. After being torn down by local police, renowned artist Lily Yeh came in and, working with members of the Art Garden, created her signature Tree of Life mosaic. This brightly-colored creation is not only a thing of beauty – it also taught the volunteers the skill of masonry.
Surrounding the lot is the mosaic wall of remembrance. A space three years in the making, each decorative stone that borders the wall was handmade by members of the community and honors those who have passed away. When it is complete, it will contain picnic tables and landscaping to encourage community interaction and fellowship.
The first property built, called The Purple House, is home to small group art classes led by a local artist, and to violin lessons led by Iris Orchestra.
The Art Garden is an energetic, vibrant place full of love, laughter, and life, serving approximately 125 children a week, with Art Garden Tuesday averaging anywhere between 40 to 50 eager artist and creatives.
“Over the past 7 years, there have been over 24,000 impressions, and 80% of these impressions come back repeatedly,” said Henry.
At Aunt Lou’s house, the most recently-developed space on the campus, children have access to after-school tutoring – they are led by volunteers Monday thru Thursdays during the school year. Aunt Lou’s house was donated by the family of Lou Pate Koeing Jones, an educator and U.S. Navy vet who died just shy of her 100th birthday. It is a place of community and relationships, a safe space for children to grow and develop the life skills they need to overcome the many obstacles they face in their lives: obstacles like generational poverty; lack of adequate nutrition; instability within families; and trauma – barriers that make learning in the traditional sense next to impossible.
The Art Garden in an oasis of hope for these children, with a holistic mission to come alongside families and empower them to raise emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually-healthy children. “We work with the children of Binghampton, and the goal is to tap into their creativity – which is a very big deal,” said Henry. “It is our hope that all this leads to them creating their best future, whether it is in the artisticfield or not.”
But this is not only a garden for the children – it is also a garden by the children.
Everywhere you look, there is art made by the children:
Signs hand-painted by participants hang on fences and adorn sides of buildings all around the campus; the picnic tables, built in 2012 for the original art garden space, are still going strong and tell the stories of creativity and relationships with their paint-spattered surfaces; discarded tires are painted with bright colors and become planters for colorful flowers. In all, reusing and repurposing what was already there, revitalizing a neighborhood.
A post hole-digger and some scrap lumber became a Little Free Library under the direction of an Art Garden volunteer. As Henry says it, creativity leads to prideand self-confidence: “The Art Garden isabout empowering the children of this neighborhood, and with that empowerment comes change, organic change, the kind that lasts.”
“It takes a village” is a cliche that has been thrown around so much and so often that it has lost some of its luster. But there is so much truth left in the phrase, and it is evident when you account for the number of volunteers and staff it takes to run Carpenter Art Garden.
Those volunteers come in many forms. The staff includes 5 residents of the neighborhood; Mr. Ricky, Property Manager; LaTonya Hunt, Community Garden Coordinator; Latanya Jones, Program Coordinator – they all actually live on Carpenter Street. Volunteers come in the form of collaborations with local businesses and schools.
Nelson explained one such partnership. “We have a partnership with the University of Memphis. Beginning last May and con- tinuing thru September, students and alum- ni from the Architecture department of the University came every Saturday from 8am till 4pm in the 100-degree heat, and they didn’t just build something artistic, they did it cheerfully, and with wonderful attitudes. That is something we can never repay.”
The end result was a space for outdoor classrooms that is both visually appealing and useful. The University also helped build the main stage in the original art garden space.
Another local business that stepped up to the volunteer plate this summer is Triumph Bank, who will be working with a group of teens who have been active participants in the Art Garden for several years and are hired by the Art Garden to work around the properties. The employees from Triumph are providing Professional Development to give teens the tools they need when they begin to look at their post high school path. They are also teaching life skills that many of us take for granted and that the kids in neighborhoods like these don’t have access to: financial literacy; budgeting; open- ing and balancing a checking account; and planning for the future. There are collaborations with 5 local restaurants – Napa Cafe, Tsunami, Inspire Community Cafe, The Liquor Store, and Caritas Village – to provide locally grown produce from the 3 community gardens on the campus. The produce from the community gardens is also sold in local grocery stores and at neighborhood farmers’ markets.
Volunteers also come in the form of local artists who donate their time and talents to lead small group art lessons, music lessons and who oversee long-term projects.
Sometimes volunteers come in the form of individuals within the greater community who have items they believe can be of use to the garden. Recently, a gentleman arrived with several empty fertilizer containers that, after cutting off their tops, were transformed into tomato cages.
But there is always a need for more people to help. As Nelson said, “Everyone who comes here, whether a participant or a volunteer, is transformed by the interaction.”
After only 7 years in operation, the Art Garden is already beginning to see a harvest from all the hard work. With some of theoriginal participants completing their firstyear of college, and others stopping in to visit with staff members, their work serves as a beautiful example to the younger art garden members. It is like a passing of a symbolic baton, as the older students take the younger ones under their wings and train them as they too were once trained.
In describing the process, Henry said, “There is an entrepreneurial spirit that happens with the kids when they see how to interact with customers, how to plan your deliveries, how to plan what you are going to deliver, how to write an invoice, the entire process. The spirit is contagious, and the younger ones see it.”
There are many more projects in the works at Carpenter Art Garden. One of the biggest is a beautiful mosaic sign – “Welcome to Binghampton” – that will be created by the kids and the volunteers that will be assembled at Sam Cooper and Tillman.
But more visibility is always welcome. To truly understand the growth and the subsequent harvest of all Carpenter Art Garden is doing for the lives of the kids of Binghampton, one has to see it up close.
“Awareness for the Art Garden has been growing at the pace it is supposed to,” Henry said. “But awareness is the key because you don’t really ‘get it’ if you don’t see it. People have to see the garden for themselves and all the work that’s being done here.”
The poem, written by founding Art Garden member Trayvius Butler, sums up the spirit of Carpenter Art Garden pretty well. <>
Written and photographed by Kelly King Howe