Henry Nelson, new director of Carpenter Art Garden, broadcasts creativity across Binghampton

Henry Nelson has a busy schedule, but he always has time for the kids in Binghampton. Now he’s taking his passion for youth development from personal to professional. On October 1, Nelson became executive director of Binghampton’s Carpenter Art Garden.

Carpenter Art Garden, founded in 2012, serves over 120 youth after school each week. On this particular day, eight kids rest on the plum porch of the art garden's primary property, dubbed the purple house, and wait for the rain to stop before walking home,

The purple house, located on Carpenter Street, faces Cornerstone Prep Lester, which serves pre-K through 5th-grade students, and Lester Prep, which serves 6th through 8th-grade students.

Adjacent to the purple house is the original art garden, which was the first piece to come together in the colorful Carpenter Art Garden campus. On the other side of the purple house is one of two community gardens where vegetables will soon be harvested for members of the community. The mosaic garden settles at the corner of Carpenter and Mimosa Avenue; it is a memorial for former Binghampton residents who have died and are esteemed throughout the community.

Connecting the Carpenter Art Garden's eight properties is a spirit of creativity and cooperation — of which Nelson is now the caretaker. 

“Hey, guys. Let’s take a picture under the love lights,” announces Nelson.

The love lights are a string of Christmas lights, finagled into the word “love.” A stampede of kids rush to Nelson and pose for the camera. The love is deep as Nelson attempts to wrap his long arms around all eight kids, many of whom live in an apartment complex within walking distance and consider Carpenter Art Garden a home away from home. Nelson too has found a home in the purple house.

Henry Nelson (center, standing) was appointed executive director of Carpenter Art Garden and began in his new role on October 1. He grew up in Memphis and has been a supporter of CAG for over 4 years. (Kirstin Cheers)

Hot Buttered Love

Nelson’s career started with a love of music and radio broadcasting. From marketing strategist to on-air personality, his dedication to Memphis music spanned from 1973 to 2011.

“I became intrigued in radio at 13,” said Nelson. “I recognized the medium as a voice of a community for various reasons like connecting people to programs around the city, fundraisers and information often overlooked."

Raised in South Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas, Nelson remembers playing near Stax Recording Studio and Royal Studios.

After spending time in New Orleans and Orlando, Nelson heard the melodies of Memphis music calling him home in 1998. Briefly after his return, he helped orchestrate the creation and launch of WRBO-Soul Classics FM103.5. A notable radio personality, Nelson hosted the Morning Soul Patrol segment and produced Hot Buttered Soul, a radio segment hosted by Isaac Hayes.

After leaving radio broadcasting in 2011, Nelson worked with Memphis Public Libraries for two years. He has also played a key role in securing endowments and advancements for major Memphis music developments including The Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Levitt Shell, two cornerstones of his own childhood.

From his time in radio, Nelson saw the need to engage communities. He saw how access to resources and information and the therapeutic potency of music and sound could empower people. There, he discovered his life’s purpose to  “build a better community, regardless of where our chosen community is located," he said.

Related: "Hugs come with opportunity at the Carpenter Art Garden"

When Carpenter Art Garden co-founder and board member Erin Harris started searching for a new executive director, Nelson applied for the job. He previously served on the board of directors for one year and had been an advocate for four years.

“I fell in love with the work being done here,” said Nelson. “This is not just a position or title to me. It’s a calling to serve in a capacity that I have been preparing for my entire life.”

“Carpenter Art Garden is a community built on love, collaboration and the power of creativity, and I trust that Henry’s experience, compassion and leadership will build upon these core values while creating exciting opportunities for growth,” said Harris.

Across the street from the Purple House is the Carpenter Street workshop. To the eye, it seems like a bicycle repair shop, but students utilize the space for vocational training including bicycle mechanics, sewing and cooking.

Two doors down is the garden's newest gem, Aunt Lou’s house, which has been newly renovated and reopened in September. The property is dedicated to educational programming and boasts three outdoor classrooms contributed built by the University of Memphis Department of Architecture students and alumni. 

Aunt Lou’s provides homework help after school with a dedicated staff of volunteers including students from Rhodes College. In the summer months, students are matched one-on-one with a tutor and meet three times a week. Year-round, volunteers from Rhodes and White Station High School work with the Binghampton kids on homework, skills training and art projects. The space also offers adult education to surrounding Binghampton residents. Nelson also hopes to soon expand an existing partnership with the University of Memphis for more tutoring volunteers and mentors. 

Carpenter Art Garden participants play outside the bike shop where students can learn bicycle mechanics, sewing and other vocational skills. (Kirstin Cheers)

Rising to the Challenges

Nelson sees himself in the program’s youth, most of whom attend school at the Lester campus schools. The surrounding effects of poverty, childhood traumas and the possibility of a bleak future reminded him of his own experience growing up.

“The children of Binghampton are a reflection of me in that regard,” said Nelson. “The Carpenter Art Garden is a place where children who have been exposed to various forms of trauma rush cheerfully after school. [It’s] a place of hope, a place where children are thriving in the innocence and laughter of childhood and developing self-worth by being exposed to love, compassion and creative expression.”

The garden is located in the middle of the 38112 ZIP code. In 2010, the poverty rate was 13 percent with a median household income of $33,000, according to the recently released Opportunity Atlas. For Nelson and the art garden’s staff, alleviating poverty is one of their top priorities.

A view of the Carpenter Art Garden in 2016. 

“I have always loved the vibrancy and legacy of Memphis neighborhoods and the residents, in spite of the fact that many areas are economically marginalized,” said Nelson.

Nelson hopes to continue converting blighted properties in and around Carpenter Street. They have acquired new properties and hope to expand their partnership with the City of Memphis to address other blighted properties. 

“We have acquired new property on Tillman Street where we’re planning to host a neighborhood art park similar to the mosaic sculpture park. We’re surveying neighbors now to hear what they’d like to see," Nelson said. 

What seems to work well is the redevelopment and repurposing of vacant lots into community gardens and vocational spaces where kids can grow their own produce to sell at local grocery stores. Restaurants including Napa Cafe, Tsunami, The Liquor Store, Inspire Community Cafe and Caritas Village all receive produce from Carpenter Art Garden youth farmers.

Nelson also hopes to establish art therapy classes and offer sessions to students and parents of the Lester campus. His goal is to have two licensed therapists who will facilitate the sessions for children and adults who have experienced traumatic events.

Other ongoing programs include violin lessons offered by Iris Orchestra, sewing lessons and assistance for Carpenter Art Garden’s young artists, who sell original art across the city.

Carpenter Art Garden serves over 125 Binghampton youth. Its mission is working with the children of Binghampton to promote each one's creativity and self-worth through exposure to artistic, educational and vocational programs. (Kirstin Cheers)

Looking for Long-Term Success

In six years, Carpenter Art Garden has gone from a single property to eight. Most of its youth have been members since its opening, according to Nelson, and past graduates often come back to visit. For him, offering a space of safety, stability and consistency is vital for the work they’re hoping will impact the kids’ lives for decades.

Related: "Broad Avenue shop donates bikes to Binghampton & teaches youth cycle maintenance"

“We love seeing 21-year-olds coming back to CAG,” said Nelson. “They serve as the best example to mirror success to the much younger participants, some as young as two years old.”

Cornerstone Prep's Lester campus sits across from Carpenter Art Garden. Most of the participants in CAG's programs are students of the school with grades pre-K through 5. (Kirstin Cheers)
Next, Nelson hopes to expand employment opportunities at the Carpenter Art Garden, starting with promoting five part-time employees to full-time status.

“Alleviating poverty requires putting people to work,” said Nelson, asserting the obligation he and other businesses have to impoverished and low-income communities like Binghampton.

Many residents do not have reliable transportation to find employment outside of the neighborhood, and Nelson said offering local job opportunities is one way the art garden can help the neighborhood’s adults alongside its youth.

Nelson also looks to strengthening and providing more qualitative and quantitative data about the garden's impact, which he believes will benefit with both funding and visibility, giving more people reason to visit the Carpenter Art Garden.

“People have to see [the Carpenter art Garden] for themselves and all the work that’s done here.”

Nelson said he’s also hoping to attract new volunteers, supporters and donors.

“We are dependent on people’s generosity of corporate and individual donations, and in-kind services,” said Nelson. “All of our programs are free and making impact. From our tutoring house, three community gardens and free after-school snack we provide to any child who visits CAG, every gift helps. Every penny counts.”

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Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty.