PHL Airport Exhibitions Program 25th Anniversary Artist Profiles: Syd Carpenter 

PHL Airport's Airport Exhibitions Program is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Over the coming weeks, the airport will take a look back at some of the artists who have participated in the program over the last 25 years. 

Artists group shot
Syd Carpenter (second from right) was among the artists in attendance at PHL's Exhibitions Program 25th anniversary celebration.


Syd Carpenter 


Professor Emerita of Art at Swarthmore College (1991-2022).The recipient of a Pew Fellowship, Syd’s work is held in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, among other institutions. Her sculptures tell stories of African American culture, U.S. history and courage. 

PHL Installation: Stand at Ease

2001 –Terminal B, "Stand at Ease" (aka "Frank as the Sun King")

Describe in general your artistic themes/subjects and the media that you work in. 

Currently, I’m working on a series I started in 2010 called Places of Our Own – which focuses on the history and legacy of farming and gardening that has been in African American families for multiple generations since the early 20th century. I identify with women working the land through my grandmother and mother, a master gardener, in Pittsburgh where I grew up, and it's that line of gardening that I’m continuing in contemporary settings. I’ve done portraits of them in various media, primarily in clay, but now steel, wood, and glass are among the media that have gone into describing the narratives in sculptural form.  

What did you exhibit at the airport and what inspired this particular body of work?

The piece was called "Stand at Ease", but a secondary title, which I’d say is interchangeable, is "Frank as the Sun King" – a tribute to my brother who had passed away. I included an image of him and made a circle around it – a halo or aura – as a symbol of his spirit, along with small emblematic artifacts that referred to his character. He was handsome, charming, a good listener. Frank was also a proud member of the military and I wanted to convey that now that he has passed, he can “stand at ease.”

I chose this mixed-media piece for the PHL exhibition because it had to do with symbolism. At a large venue like the airport with many people coming and going, I thought passersby could be drawn in by curiosity about who this head in a porkpie hat belongs to, but then ultimately see that it was a portrait of a young man who had something special about him. I had hoped people would wonder about the man who looked both confident and wistful at the same time. 

The piece will be in my retrospective that’s coming up in two years in three different locations: Woodmere Art Museum, The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, and the Frances M. Maguire Art Museum at Saint Joseph’s University. 

What was it like exhibiting at the airport compared to where you usually display your work?

Exciting! I was so proud to have had the honor of being selected to represent your city as a visual artist in a place that’s going to be seen by people across the planet. Airports are the crossroads of the world. 

What impact, if any, did the PHL opportunity have on your future work/career?

Exhibiting at such a prominent location as the Philadelphia Airport was an ignition point for me more than anything else. In terms of materials, it was a more ambitious, broader reach. Exhibiting in a venue that attracts so many different audiences was definitely an advantage. Where else was I going to have that many people looking at my piece, even if their time with it was momentary? You don’t get that kind of visibility and accessibility looking at your piece in the studio or a gallery. Also, kids are less likely to show up at a gallery, but I like that PHL’s art program offers school trips to visit the art and discuss it. 



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