All Heart: Carpenter Art Garden Cultivates Community

By Aisling Maki

A hand painted sign marks the entrance of the Carpenter Art Garden. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

Children and adults look at the available artwork for sale at the Carpenter Art Garden’s anniversary block party. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

On Valentine’s Day a few years ago, a Binghampton boy named Donte Davis combined two of his great loves – art and the Memphis Grizzlies – when he painted a wooden heart featuring the face of his home team’s mascot.

The Grizzlies heart yard sign has become a common sight in Memphis, and has its orgins in the Carpenter Art Garden. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

Tariq Muhammad makes portraits of guests at the Carpenter Art Garden’s fifth anniversary block party. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

After he planted it in a neighbor’s yard, others began requesting their own hearts. To keep up with the orders, he recruited his fellow young artists from the Carpenter Art Garden, a community space located in formerly blighted lots in the 300 block of Carpenter Street.

One of two plots dedicated solely to food in the Carpenter Art Gardens. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

The Purple House—an indoor space for kids to work on art projects. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

Two MPD officers enjoy the food and artwork at the Carpenter Art Garden’s fifth anniversary celebration. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

More than 3,000 of the hearts – proudly displayed in yards throughout the city – have since been sold, with proceeds generated going back into the neighborhood garden that first gave Donte, whose school didn’t offer art classes, the opportunity to explore his creativity.

The Art Garden’s rules are simple and insure a postiive environment for all participants. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

Donte, now 15, has grown to become a painter and sculptor who has worked under the guidance of prominent Memphis visual artists such as George Hunt, and has recently begun teaching younger children in the neighborhood the fundamentals of painting.

Signs like this one can be found throughout the Carpenter Art Gardens. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

The young artist also helps build and repair bikes across the street at the Carpenter Street Workshop, a vocational training center that also belongs to the program and includes sewing and furniture restoration in its curriculum.

“To describe this place – it’s like a flower,” Davis said. “First you’ve got to plant the seed. This place was a small, abandoned field and lots. Now it keeps growing.”

Since it was founded in 2012, Carpenter Art Garden has grown to include six properties. In addition to the art garden – an outdoor art classroom – and the workshop, there are two community gardens and a building called The Purple House, a multipurpose space for tutoring, art lessons and other community-oriented and skill-building activities.

“The garden is so hard to describe,” said Erin Harris, director of the Carpenter Art Garden, which is under the umbrella of the Binghampton Development Corp. but raises its own funding. “It’s something that needs to be seen and felt in person.”

She said half of the block was blighted when the garden began.

Another facility assoicated with the Carpenter Art Garden is the bike shop, where kids can complete a program in which they become a certified bike mechanic. (Daily News/Brandon Dahlberg)

“Now properties have been turned into places of beauty, places the neighborhood is proud of. … People who did not know each other before now have meaningful relationships.”

The Carpenter Art Garden was born in June 2012 out of one blighted lot in the heart of Binghampton. The neighborhood quickly took a great interest and ownership in the project, embracing this communal space to grow fresh vegetables, make art, and build community.

Approximately 125 children are served each week through various programs provided at the garden. The children who were there from the beginning are now high schoolers, passing their acquired knowledge and skills on to their littlest neighbors.

Volunteer Andrea Morales, a writer and photographer, teaches children to capture everyday life in their neighborhood. She recently helped compile the children’s work into a book.

She described the Carpenter Art Garden as “a joy factory” and “really special place.”

“This place has grown in such a beautiful way,” Morales said. “When you look at what Donte has done, a kid who had this untapped interest in art, and he’s started teaching now.”

Some parents who started out as volunteers are now employees of the garden, and seven of those eight adult employees are Binghampton residents.

In addition, the garden employs 12 students during the school year. This summer there’s a youth staff of 24, who, in addition to their regular work, attend a weekly professional development speaker series that has included prominent Memphians such as chocolatier entrepreneur Phillip Ashley and Andre Fowlkes of StartCo.

The garden has a volunteer base of about 100 people, including parents of children involved in programs. Volunteers play a critical role in its success, assisting with art projects, planting, running errands, tutoring, and supporting special events like holiday dinners and musical performances on the outdoor stage by groups such as Mighty Souls Brass Band and the Grizzlies drum line.

“We have volunteers and employees who have been with the garden for years, offering stability and continuity, which creates an environment built on trust,” Harris said. “Children feel loved and supported and this helps them to learn and to grow their talent.”

On Friday, July 21, Memphians from across the city joined the Carpenter Art Garden’s 5th anniversary celebration. The annual art show featured artwork for sale by the children from Binghampton and by local artists who have taught them throughout the years.

The event allowed visitors to tour all garden properties and see the impact of these community art programs on the Binghampton neighborhood.

Guests toured the verdant gardens, ripe with raised beds of okra, tomatoes, watermelon, cucumbers and peppers, marked by the iconic wooden hearts – these painted not with Grizz faces, but with the names of the crops.

Teenage staff members take the produce around the neighborhood – a food desert – on a traveling vegetable cart, built by the University of Memphis architecture department, to sell to the Binghampton community and at the Overton Park Farmers Market.

The youths’ latest project is a mosaic sculpture garden, which is being created to honor late Binghampton residents who made significant contributions to the community.

“The garden truly is a place where the children and adults are working together each day to bring about beauty and positive change,” Harris said. “The children often say there should be an art garden in every neighborhood.”