VOL. 130 | NO. 12 | Monday, January 19, 2015
By Andy Meek
Almost three years ago, former elementary school art teacher Erin Harris saw a video about children in Memphis who were working with an artist to start a sculpture garden. She still recalls the happy sight of a few boys in the video throwing balloons filled with paint at an old fence, as well as the reaction the footage generated from her.
She set to work figuring out how she could likewise start an art garden, improving one patch of land in one Memphis neighborhood, with the benefits multiplying among children, throughout a community and beyond.
The result: Carpenter Art Garden, with the name holding the double meaning of referring to its location – Carpenter Street, in Binghampton – as well as to the act of carpentry, of making something.
The art garden started with the simple idea of transforming a blighted lot across from Lester Middle School into a place of beauty. But it quickly became more than that, with more significance than that.
“I went to a friend of mine, Robert Montague with the Binghampton Development Corp., just for some advice,” Harris said. “He liked the idea and said we’ve got some properties where you can do that right here. So we got in his car and drove around Binghampton.”
After deciding on the Carpenter Street lot – overgrown and blighted, full of debris and trash – Harris said the original thought was that it might be hard to get children to participate in an art garden there and for their parents to trust what’s going on. Turns out, though, the opposite was true.
The effort started with 30 kids. That’s grown to upwards of 70 who participate in the outdoor activities. Each week, volunteers work with children on permanent art installations, take-home art and tend to garden boxes.
Supporters of the effort also tore down a blighted house next door to the garden and raised money to build a new house, where activities are able to take place indoors when the weather is bad. The effort also now encompasses tutoring, the presence of computers, and middle-schoolers have been hired to help run a laundry service for families.
That, Harris said, is so children don’t have to miss school because their clothes are dirty.
“It's just grown into way more than we all thought and clearly shows the need for things like this,” Harris said.
Meanwhile, Memphians around the city in the past month have been introduced, at least indirectly, to the work of the art garden. At the Greater Memphis Chamber’s annual chairman’s luncheon in December, chamber president and CEO Phil Trenary singled out 13-year-old Donte Davis for praise, and Victory Bicycle Studio owner and founder Clark Butcher presented Davis with a new bicycle. Davis had been the subject of news coverage for the wooden art he decorates in support of the Memphis Grizzlies and sells to raise money for the art garden.
“He’s got a savings account at First Tennessee, and somebody’s matching half of what he saves,” Harris said about Davis. “And all these other children are now seeing somebody put their talent and hard work to good. It’s helped the art garden. It’s helped him. And it’s helped his family.”
The organization is planning to develop another program through what Davis has done, something called Donte’s Bikes that will involve a bike-share program with volunteers riding with children on the Greenline. Beyond that, the rest of 2015 will see the effort continue raising money to keep running the program and to make Donte’s Bikes happen.
“We're hoping to get another house on this street for Donte’s bike shop, where it's just an ongoing place where kids can learn to repair bikes and hopefully some other kids can be employed there,” Harris said. “This has really turned into an extended family for all of us – the volunteers, the adults and the children, because it isn't so huge. We know these kids. There's a lot of love and trust here, and I think that's why it works.”