Hugs come with opportunity at Carpenter Art Garden

The Carpenter Art Garden provides opportunities for Binghampton children where everything is centered on the wonder and possibilities of artistic expression.
Erin Harris smiles when asked how it all started.
 
The first summer of the Carpenter Art Garden was just an empty lot, a storage container and a simple idea to paint with children in the Binghampton neighborhood. A summer of painting activities culminated with a Labor Day cook out.
 
After the boys had their fill of hot dogs – Harris said it was too many to count – one of the boys approached her as she sat on the little steps that lead to the sidewalk. He asked her how long the art garden would be there. Maybe another week or so, Harris recalls the boy asking.
 
“I said, ‘No, it will be a long time,’” Harris said. “He said, ‘So like a couple of weeks?’ I said, ‘A long time. What’s a long time to you?’ He told me a month. I said no and he asked what did I mean? I said, ‘It will be here for years and hopefully longer than I’m here.’ He just lays on to me and hugs me and said, ‘You mean it will be here that long? I’m glad.’”
 
That was the summer of 2012, and four years later, those boys still make their way to the Carpenter Art Garden on a regular basis. How the Carpenter Art Garden came into being is a pretty simple story, but one filled with importance for the transformation of Binghampton and the families who call the neighborhood home.
 
Originally from Dallas, Harris came to Memphis to attend Rhodes College. After graduating from the University of Memphis her career included various stints as an art teacher. It was while serving as a volunteer at Youth Villages that she began thinking about ways she could use her art skills in a larger way with more children.
 
Back in 2012 while teaching at Flicker Street Studio, Harris watched a video of young boys throwing paint-filled balloons against a wall. She went to an empty lot in the Crosstown area where that colorful fence sat. When she saw it, something clicked.
 
“I saw it and was like, ‘Well, OK. I want to start an art garden where kids can do art,” she said. “I didn’t know where or how I’d make that happen.”
 
Harris was friends with Robert Montague, who was then the executive director at the Binghampton Development Corp. She shared her idea with him, and the two searched for property. The first stop was in front of an empty lot on Carpenter Street.
 
It was across from Lester Middle School on what might be the hardest street in the neighborhood.
 
“There were two active drug houses. This is the only street where that large a population of children can get to school so that’s what made sense,” Harris said. “Those children deserved some type of beauty or access to something hopeful.”
 
The Binghampton Development Corp. acquired the property from the Shelby County Land Bank. Harris talked a few friends into helping her purchase a shipping container to store supplies on the property. They spent a Saturday clearing the lot, and then Harris began coming by nearly every day.
 
She had folders with drawing sheets, pencils and crayons. She talked to whomever happened to stop. She discussed what an art garden could be. She also spent time that summer at the nearby Lester Community Center leading art projects.
 
By the end of the summer there were a couple of picnic tables on the property. Harris decided Tuesdays would be art garden day. That’s when any child or adult in the neighborhood was welcome to stop by and do art projects.
 
But that wasn’t enough. One Saturday that summer the kids built planter boxes to fill with dirt. A man whose mother still lives in the neighborhood came by and built a fence with the help of a friend. That was the first art garden community event. The fence was primed so the children could paint it.
 
The Carpenter Art Garden was born, with 25 or so kids regularly stopping by to create art.
 
Within six months, it was clear that focusing only on Tuesdays would not be enough. Harris had gained the trust of parents, and children wanted more. They wanted a vegetable garden.
 
So the Carpenter Art Garden acquired another property just down the street, transforming it into a community garden. Carpenter Art Garden provides the plants and seeds, and the residents garden their own box.
 
But why stop there? A boarded-up purple house sat empty. The Binghampton Development Corp. bought it, with the hopes of rehabbing it. But its condition was too bad, so ultimately it was torn down.
 
A new house was the answer, and the Purple House opened in September 2014. Since that time, it has been home to a variety of programs. Local artists teach classes, it’s a home for tutoring and a middle school comic club meets there. The house also serves the community with a laundry co-op. Middle school boys are hired to do the laundry while parents pay for it by volunteering at the house.
 
Programming occurs daily Monday through Friday, including some occasional adult classes. Another addition also will include academic support for adults because it’s something parents have requested.
 
The Carpenter Art Garden’s growth has occurred naturally, Harris said. Everything fits the needs of the neighborhood and the children, serving up to 150 children per week through the various programs.
 
“There wasn’t a plan,” she said. “It just happened how it was supposed to happen, adapting to residents here. There are some really strong relationships between everybody that participates here. It’s like a family.”
 
Today, Harris has a full-time program director and four Binghampton residents who also work there. The Carpenter Art Garden also has a community bike shop across the street that teaches participants to be bike mechanics, employing two students.
 
What does the future hold? In one word, opportunity. And also maybe growth.
 
“In a perfect world we’d like to have one more property so that each part of our mission has its own place to function: the artistic side, educational and vocational,” Harris said. “The Purple House is designated for the art. This is where we hold small group classes. The vocational location is the Bike Shop. Hopefully this year we’ll add sewing to the program and hopefully a cooking aspect. It would be nice to have a place designated for educational support.”
 
All that, just from the idea that children should have a place to do art outdoors.

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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