Arts & Artists

Retire from teaching? Yes. Retire from art? Never!

by Frank D. Quattrone
Posted 4/1/23

Last fall, after more than 30 years of teaching ceramics classes at Swarthmore College, Syd Carpenter finally retired from academia.

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Arts & Artists

Retire from teaching? Yes. Retire from art? Never!


Last fall, after more than 30 years of teaching ceramics classes at Swarthmore College, distinguished sculptor Syd Carpenter finally retired from academia…

Time to put her feet up and rest after decades of creating original and commissioned works of art for countless galleries, museums, private businesses, and personal collections all across the country?

Not on your life. The 70-year-old Mt. Airy artist, when asked if she misses academia and the tireless road trips she’s taken as inspiration for her prodigious catalog of work, says, “You’ve got to be kidding.” (The question itself was obviously facetious, as you soon will see.)

“Why would I retire?” she said. “I’m still doing the things I love. It’s a continuation of the things I already started before retiring – without the other responsibilities. But don’t get me wrong. I loved teaching at Swarthmore. It’s a great school and I had great students.”

In fact, Carpenter feels more than satisfied with her career as a teacher. She says that she’s taught more than 1,000 students, many of whom are still friends. How can the connection be over, she insists, when many of them are now teachers themselves, or are winning prizes in various art competitions, or have their work hanging in galleries across the country?

“The reward is my ongoing experience with them,” she says. Besides, she’s too busy to retire. Presently, for example, she is working with fellow sculptor Jack Larimore on an art installation at Rowan University in New Jersey, focused on the Pine Barrens. Using repurposed trees, the two artists are creating a unique ecosystem adjacent to a new building at the university. She calls the Pine Barrens “a mysterious space but an endless source of imagery.”

But that’s not all that’s occupying Carpenter’s time. With her artist husband, Steven Donegan, with whom she shares a home, garden, and studio in Mt. Airy, she is also working on a new hugel (from the German word hügelkultur) at the Berman Museum at Ursinus College in Collegeville, similar to the one they built behind Woodmere Museum in Chestnut Hill in 2021.

A hugel is a centuries-old horticultural technique in which a mound is constructed from decaying trees, compost, soil and other biodegradable materials. Colorful perennials are grown on top of the mound to create an amazing tapestry of color and texture for visitors to enjoy.

And if that’s not enough to take your breath away, Carpenter has also been commissioned, with three other African American artists, to create new ceramics and other clay sculptures for the redesigned garden at the Colored Girls Museum at 4613 Newhall St. in Germantown.

“The garden itself,” Carpenter says, “holds an important place in my creative process and imagery. Just being outside, working with the earth, observing the rhythm of the seasons, how the land changes over time. Because of that, I never feel I don’t have an idea. All I need to do is walk through a gallery of trees and plants. Every form I see suggests the potential for making something.”

Much of Carpenter’s recent work, she says, “is located in her African American research in farming and gardening. My mother and grandmother were master gardeners, so that’s always been a part of my legacy.” 

Speaking of that legacy, she says she is trying, through her ceramic sculptures, to illuminate the African American experience on the land. “Beyond slavery, I want the record to show that we [African Americans] are connected spiritually to the stewardship of the land – from the great migration following the indignities suffered by my people to their newly emancipated farms and gardens, including urban gardening today. No longer victims of the land but proprietors.”

Carpenter’s pre-pandemic exhibitions “Places of Our Own,” at the James A. Michener Museum in Doylestown and “More Places of Our Own,” at the African American Museum of Philadelphia, are reflections of this experience, as is her own meticulously cultivated garden at her Mt. Airy home.

Carpenter believes that artists are not made but born. Asked about her first inklings that art would be her lifelong passion, she said, “I never had a eureka moment. I was always making things as a child, and my mom encouraged me to do so. Some kids sing or are literate and love to write. But my mom always got me supplies or found them for me.

“I could always sew or fold paper in intricate shapes or build things with my sister,” she continued. “We didn’t watch much TV. We were always outside looking at things. And later, when it was time to consider college, I received a letter from the University of Pennsylvania inviting me to enroll in their pre-med program. But my mother never objected to my desire to go to art school. So I did. I earned two degrees from the Tyler School of Art.”

Ernestine Carpenter, the artist’s mother, was also a terrific artist, whether it was sewing, drawing or anything else. But raising three children made it difficult to make art her life’s work. “Still, she enabled me to live her dream and always appreciated everything I did and who I was as a person,” Carpenter said. “She was my greatest inspiration.”

With collections and installations of her sculptures at museums and galleries around the world – including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Boston’s Fuller Craft Museum, the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design, the Frederick R. Weisman Collection in Los Angeles, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Jengdezhen Ceramic Institute in Jengdezhen, China – Carpenter has created quite a legacy of her own.

Asked what she is most proud of in her long and distinguished career, this unretiring artist said, “I remember when I was younger, wondering what my mature work would look like, so I feel satisfied that my work is good. Rather than a reversal or decline, I feel that my work is still growing. I feel more freedom, more articulate in the making.

“It’s been an ascending journey,” she said, “and I’m still surprising myself, with fewer self-imposed restrictions. I’m still engaging my aspirations. I’m very grateful for my life.”