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Betty Leacraft and Blanche Epps featured in Philadelphia Tribune

'Gifts from Mother Earth' inspired by folk arts

by Pheralyn Dove, Tribune Correspondent
October 23, 2010

Outside it was a typical fall evening on an unassuming block in West Philadelphia. The wind scattered the leaves, which swirled toward fuchsia clouds rolling over lavender skies. Almost imperceptibly, the sun began to set, making way for the rising full moon. Inside, fiber artist Betty Leacraft tweaked her installation, “Gifts From Mother Earth,” on display at the Philadelphia Folklore Project through Oct. 29.

Leacraft carefully orchestrated the placement of the objects, artifacts and crafts that are central to this project, which was inspired by the master gardener and folk artist Blanche Epps. A reception and gallery talk honoring Epps’ lifelong dedication and contributions to the community was planned for Oct. 23, and Leacraft wanted to make sure everything met her scrupulous standards.

“Gifts from Mother Earth” is an ebullient assemblage of creative expression that includes quilts, photographs, potted herbs, bottles of distilled herbs, jars of fruit preserves and a mélange of crafts and dolls handmade by Blanche Epps. The installation is the documentation of a diverse, intergenerational community project, explained Leacraft. She said the quilts are visual testimonies of various aspects of “Gifts from Mother Earth.” The meticulously crafted quilt squares feature hand-painted fabric and photographs of the participants involved in art-making. While most of the activities took place over a six-month period in West Philadelphia-based community settings, the participants hailed from a number of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, including Mexican, Jewish, Jamaican, Tanzanian and African American. The intergenerational component was also a salient aspect to the project.

Children from the Spring School of the Arts, an early childhood learning center, participated in gardening and quilt-making workshops led by Leacraft and Epps. They also took a field trip to Bartram’s Gardens for a “Curious Herbs” tour. Leacraft also indicated that, “My [project] partner, 76-year-old master gardener Blanche Epps, accompanied me to the Spring School of the Arts where she spoke to young students about seeds, gardening and where she displayed her crafts. Epps asked the class of 5-year-olds to tell her what helps a garden to grow. Many of the students knew the answers because each spring they plant vegetables and flowers with retired educator Ruth Morris in the school’s garden that bears her name.”

At other junctures during the project’s implementation, Leacraft led adults in group discussions at the University City Arts League, which she refers to as “memory and story sharing sessions about women who had practical everyday knowledge of healing herbs and plants as folk remedies.” Adults were also involved in fabric painting workshops that took place at the Community Education Center.

According to Leacraft, “During and after these gatherings, participants conversed with one another regarding similarities and they made regional and cultural comparisons.”

While she was not available for an interview, Epps provided insight through her artistic statement. She intimated that she “started learning about gardening (and a whole lot more) from my grandmother Louise Bufford, my Uncle Shelley and Aunt Janie who raised me in Kershaw County, S.C. and Heath Springs, S.C. Their teaching was passed down through eight generations: what the family ancestors brought with them from Africa and native tradition and what they figured out here.”

Epps continued, “In 1941, I moved to Philadelphia and began to study and remember and look back. In addition to family members, I have found many other mentors and teachers, people who have also studied the folk crafts of gardening, quilt-making, doll-making and making-do. People find their way to my home and I teach them what they need to know: survival skills. I help people reconnect with traditions and arts they thought were lost, out of reach.”

“We were thrilled when artist Betty Leacraft had the idea of honoring Epps as part of her project to bring people together to share knowledge and make art. Blanche Epps has been teaching people to “undormacize” agricultural knowledge for many decades — long before current “green” and “slow food” movements,” noted Debora Kodish, the Folklore Project’s executive director. “At the Folklore Project, we value the knowledge and skills that have enduring value for our communities. In hosting “Gifts from Mother Earth,” we are privileged to be part of this work of ‘undormacizing’ community traditions.”

“As a fiber artist, I create art for reasons that often reach beyond aesthetics,” observed Leacraft in her statement prepared for the installation. During the interview, she also stated, “My art-making, especially in community projects, is about integrating subject matter that goes beyond just the art experience. I’m not purely a studio artist. I don’t create work that’s only going to be displayed. I’ve always had a community aspect in what I do. The need for art application to help people is what’s important. I’m using art expression that can help a person in crisis, whether it’s helping someone dealing with substance abuse or helping a mother re-bond with her children following incarceration.”

The “Gifts from Mother Earth” installation also includes an inter-active herb table. Most of these herbs were donated by master gardener Vanoka Morris-Smith of the Blaine School Environmental Learning Center’s Strawberry Mansion Garden Club.

A “Lifetime Achievement Certificate” was prepared for Epps by Patricia Schreiber, associate director of Education for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society. The project was made possible through a generous “Art and Change” grant from the Leeway Foundation.

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