Her garden, her art, in a creative symbiosis

Syd Carpenter, a ceramic sculptor and gardener, in one of the beds at her home in West Mount Airy: "It's difficult to separate the two." (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)

Syd Carpenter recently discovered "some amazing, wonderful news. Granny was a gardener!"

Before you nod off, know that this revelation delighted Carpenter, a ceramic artist in West Mount Airy, because she's a gardener, too - quite an amazing and wonderful one, though not a food-grower like Granny.

Actually, Granny had a fabulous name - Indiana Hutson, and, according to Carpenter's Aunt Mary, a prodigious gift: She was a minor celebrity in 1940s Pittsburgh, all because of her Victory Garden.

It was said to be one of the largest in the city, along Fifth Avenue, a big draw for gawkers, who marveled at its size and heft, but also this: All seven of Hutson's children worked the rows of vegetables, which were so plentiful, they fed the family for an entire decade, with enough left over to sell.

Carpenter's garden, up the street from Weavers Way Co-op, is not about physical sustenance. It's an expression of her artistic soul, a flourish of color, light and energy, movement, form and texture, perpetually changing and, like her sculpture, open to spontaneous interpretation by whoever happens upon it.

"It's right out there, engaging the community," she says.

Sure enough, neighbor Kay Wood, also an artist but not a gardener, ambled by the other day and was immediately engaged. "Syd's garden is delightful," she said. "It's always different, changing colors. There's always something to look at."

While it cannot be said that Carpenter's art and garden are one, they are, as she suggests, interdependent. Each is essential to the other, linked in deep and mysterious, sometimes tangible and obvious, ways.

Explains Carpenter, a studio art professor at Swarthmore College who has been represented by the Sande Webster Gallery at 20th and Walnut Streets since 1981: "The garden itself is my art. The forms and processes are shared, and without the garden, my sculpture would not reflect . . . as much insight as it does now. It's a back-and-forth for me, and it's difficult to separate the two."

That delicate interplay underscored "Garden as Muse," a recent show at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville, Ark., which included several Carpenter pieces that were inspired by a 1992 book she discovered a few years ago - African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South (University of Tennessee Press).

Author Richard Westmacott, a landscape architect and now emeritus professor of environmental design at the University of Georgia, studied the history of black farms and gardens in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. He traced their evolution from the arrival of West African slaves, who grew their own food for survival, to the late 20th century, a period that saw growing interest in ornamental plants for social and aesthetic purposes, even in the poorest rural communities.

At the end of the book, Carpenter found her own muse.

There, Westmacott maps out every feature of the 47 properties he studied closely - from homes, crops, and fences to smokehouses, privies, and compost heaps. He plotted tire planters and children's swings, abandoned stoves and washers, even birdhouses and satellite dishes, an abundance of treasure and trivia to thrill archaeologist, artist, and gardener alike.

Carpenter chose the Georgia farm of Buddy and Rosena Burgess as the model for her eponymous sculpture of clay, wood, and graphite. It is undulating, rutted, and striated, like cultivated land, and it glows earthy brown, like the weathered faces of the farmers themselves.

"I was inspired by the designs, the mundane and the practical. I find them incredibly beautiful," says Carpenter, who imagined the mapped boxes, lines, and circles as three-dimensional forms.

Andrea Packard, director of the List Gallery at Swarthmore, who also curated the Arkansas show, said Carpenter's Southern-garden works were a major influence on the show's theme. The Burgess piece, in particular, she said, "looks at the different ways land can be articulated. It can be smooth, plowed, rough, and rugged. It can be mulched, piled, and fenced.

"Syd is harmonizing the multiple uses of land, the creating of boundaries, and the breaking of boundaries. Something is always in flux."

Those words - "in flux," especially - also describe Carpenter's garden, which has been reinvented many times since she and her husband, artist Steve Donegan, moved into their 1870 twin 18 years ago.

There is no lawn. The front, side, and back yards are tilled and mulched, the plants selected, in mindful fashion, for their unusual qualities.

Carpenter likes ligularia's huge, leathery leaves; 'Caramel' heuchera's apricot blush; the limey liquidity of Japanese hakonechloa or forest grass; and the "exploding delight" of burnt-orange daylilies beside purple-pink oxalis.

"I love color and drama, and I don't depend upon the flowers. I really select more for leaves," Carpenter says.

She plants tightly and keeps the beds almost weed-free. Springtime finds her building paths, adding new plants, and moving or removing old ones.

This spring, on the side of the house, Carpenter and Donegan took out the old lilacs, "a monster yew," and pachysandra. He made a bluestone wall. She planted - a tiny Japanese maple and yellow-twig dogwood, dwarf butterfly bushes, toad lilies, and low-growing crape myrtles.

"Like a work of art, you are not going to receive all its information in a first look," Carpenter says of her garden. "This thing . . . will reveal itself over time and therein lies its value."

The garden should be more than a collection of plants shouting, "I'm here and I'm orange!" There should be "subtle clues and entrances and holding places for the viewer over time," Carpenter says.

The conversation turns to pineapple lilies. How to describe their fleshy, upright leaves and dusky color? "Not really purple, more like eggplant," Carpenter says deliberately, "and the leaves are robust . . . like . . . gravity-defying . . . strips of eggplant!"

She laughs and laughs. So, yes, this garden is about artistic subtlety and shared processes and insights and all that. It's also fun.


Read gardening writer Virginia A. Smith's blog at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/


Hear Syd Carpenter talk about the relationship between her garden and art at philly.com/syd.

Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.