At Northgate Park in Camden, a chain-link fence, much like countless others in the city, surrounds the perimeter of a tennis court. But it’s what’s adorning the fence that has visitors stopping in their tracks.
In early July, teaching artists from the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts (RCCA) guided a group of six teenagers as they transformed the fence into their personal canvas. After a quick instruction, the teenagers, who are members of the Student Conservation Association’s local chapter, spent six days weaving strips of plastic – cut from disposable table cloths – through the links to create a colorful, 30-foot-long fire-breathing dragon.“I showed them the idea and their creativity took over,” recalls Miranda Powell, program assistant for arts education and community arts for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts. “They really put their heads together, came up with the design, and carried it out on their own.”
Thanks to a $10,000 grant from the Campbell Soup Foundation for 2014-15, the mural is one of several projects that the RCCA is leading through its Camden Art Gardens program, a series of initiatives that transforms deteriorated public spaces while integrating arts into the community.
“Without support from caring organizations such as Campbell Soup, we wouldn’t be able to do what we do,” says Carmen Pendleton, community and artist programs manager for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts and a member of the District Council Collaborative Boards, which oversees the park. “We wouldn’t be able to purchase the supplies, or to bring in professional teaching artists who realize the beauty of what kids can do, and who understand the importance of working with children, parents, and teachers.”Since 2007-08, Camden Art Gardens has been dedicated to the reclamation of Northgate Park, a large park spanning two city blocks, located north of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge between the Cooper's Poynt and Pyne Poynt communities. In addition to expanding the fence mural, the grant will be used to complete a park-wide mural, created by 400 students at Rafael Cordero Molina Family School and seniors at the Meadows at Pyne Poynt, and installed on concrete steps. Teaching artist Kathryn Sclavi, who organized and guided the project in 2012, will return to clean the mural and add the last remaining sections.
The grant is also being used to complete the second phase of a fun and engaging After School Arts project at Acelero Learning Center, a daycare facility in Camden. The RCCA’s After School Arts program invites resident teaching artists to conduct 10-week arts creation courses in a variety of visual and performing arts.
In September, resident teaching artist Doris Nogueira-Rogers began guiding the children, ages 3-5, along with their parents and siblings, in the creation of “Our Butterfly Garden,” an installation that will be located between the facility’s front sidewalk and an adjacent playground.
The display will feature a mosaic of two large butterflies on the building’s side wall. To create the butterflies, the children will stamp their footprints in clay; the shapes will then be cut out and assembled. The children will also paint bisque tiles and create handmade tiles to form a mosaic for the garden.“I envision this garden to be something very special and wonderful,” says Nogueira-Rogers. “By building this ‘artsy’ space and cultivating the garden, perhaps by a school butterfly garden club, it will give it continuity for many years to come.”
Last fall, the children, parents, and siblings completed “The Inside Garden.” The installation consists of two mosaic murals, displayed on the front-entrance and back-entrance walls, featuring images of plants, flowers, and butterflies. Using the same techniques, the children painted bisque tiles and made handmade tiles – stamping clay with seashells and small toys – that were incorporated into the mosaics. As part of the design, wall planters, in which plants will be cultivated, will be added. The final composition will resemble an “eco wall,” bringing life into the space.
“The project is inspired by nature’s beauty and the beauty that resides in the hearts and souls of children,” says Nogueira-Rogers.
The project, like others in the Camden Art Gardens program, depends upon the direct involvement of the children’s parents and siblings, adds Noreen Scott Garrity, the associate director and curator of education for the Rutgers–Camden Center for the Arts.
“This is truly a family-oriented, intergenerational project,” she says, adding, “Camden Art Gardens brings together people of all ages. These programs contribute to community wellbeing, empower youth to make a difference, and help to build healthy neighborhoods.”