An artist with a green thumb: The creative vision and resilience of Kathleen Chapman, designer of Tuesday Market poster

PHOTO BY PAT JAMES

PHOTO BY PAT JAMES

Kathleen Chapman designed this year’s Grow Food Northampton’s Tuesday Market poster.

Kathleen Chapman designed this year’s Grow Food Northampton’s Tuesday Market poster.

By PAT JAMES

For the Gazette

Published: 05-09-2024 3:20 PM

Kathleen Chapman (“KC”) and I met under a clothesline near her patchwork garden behind McDonald House in downtown Northampton. I wanted to learn more about her artwork, what brought her to Northampton, and how she connected with Grow Food Northampton and came to design this year’s Tuesday Market poster.

Over the course of two early spring afternoons that included KC’s spicy homemade herbal tea and other treats, she told a story that has the makings of an engaging picaresque memoir. KC was the oldest of two children raised by a talented creative school teacher mother, and had a Mississippi childhood that was both adventurous and a little unstable.

As a child, KC’s mother, Babs, took her fishing and camping, and “taught me the proper names of many things in the natural world like rocks, stars, fish, plants, the planets, and more.” KC also started gardening and learned about “cyclic planting” that uses nature and other universal elements and events to guide the process of growing food.

By 16, KC left much of her complicated past behind, and as an emancipated minor, won a full scholarship to Jackson State University, a historically Black college in Mississippi. “I was so glad to be able to continue to attend school!” she said.

All the while she made art.

As a young adult In the 1970s, “a partner and I lived in a broke-down house for $30 a month, and we did most of the work on our own to keep it up,” she said of her days as a young artist in Rockport, Mississippi, a small country town south of Jackson. “We got leftover wood from a rubber stamp factory, and used it as fuel for our wood burning cook stove.” Later, KC became an artist-in-residence for the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, living in a large renovated 150-year-old house on the Millsaps College campus. “It was the best studio I ever had,” she said, adding with glee, “all the appliances were bright red!” KC also wrote for Nexus, the progressive newspaper of her generation.

The through line in all her work was making art. Every job was a way to support her art, and art often became her work. “Well, it’s all artwork really,” KC said. “I knew how to write, and I knew how to be self-motivated,” she added as she described her contribution to the collective of artist studios where she lived and worked. She bartered art for dental and medical care, and even for a Singer Featherweight sewing machine.

Under the tutelage of her soon-to-be life partner Rob, they produced cyanotype prints in the style of 16th century Renaissance painter, Arcimboldo. My blank expression gave me away as a failed student art history. “But you know his work,” KC insisted. “He’s the painter who made faces out of fruit and vegetables.” She was right. Arcimboldo’s “Vertumnus,” a portrait of Roman Emperor Rudolph II using fruits, vegetables, and flowers, is a common meme for community gardens and harvest festivals.

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“We used lots of garden flowers, feathers, and other natural things, dead and living. One highlight of this time was a show at the Chimneyville Crafts Gallery which included a selection of large-scale cyanoprints of somewhat disguised nudes on fabric. “This was our response to having an inoffensive nude removed from an earlier gallery exhibit,” she explained with a wry grin.

KC lived around the Jackson area with Rob for 34 years. In 2009 they became first time homeowners of another rambling old giant home. That beloved home burned down 10 years later in 2019, taking with it the life of Rob and their combined collection of art and rare books. “It was almost a complete loss,” she said. “My good dog Gal survived and she lives here now in Northampton.”

After five years here in the Valley, KC chooses to look at the fire, and the loss of Rob, as an important time of “love and loss,” words borrowed from the title of a Lou Reed album that “I listened to on repeat after the fire. 2019 was my personal hell for a few minutes,” she said softly.

Shortly after her arrival in Northampton, the pandemic hit, and the normally gregarious KC found it challenging to connect with her new community. Then she met Eliot, a third-grade student at Leeds Elementary School.

“The Senior Center had a program where we could become pen pals with an elementary school student.” Eliot and KC exchanged letters that were so engaging that Eliot’s mom, Francie Lin, asked to meet her. They became friends, and Francie and KC shared a garden plot at the GFN Community Garden for a season. “Gardening has been the other thread through everything in my life. It became as necessary to me as art-making, and both have been essential ingredients to my life and health.”

KC eventually gave up her community garden plot. “I’m not 26 – or even 56 – anymore! And besides, I need to be mindful of wearing myself clean out!” After connecting with Francie, KC became a founding member of GFN’s Food Access Advisory Committee (FAAC), a group with lived experience of food insecurity that shapes all of GFN’s food access programming. “My food insecurity issues followed me up from Mississippi. I’m here to lend my voice,” she said.

The FAAC advises GFN’s Free Mobile Farmers Markets, a program that buys produce and other products from local farms and delivers it to community members experiencing food insecurity in Northampton’s low-income housing where KC and other FAAC advisors live. FAAC advisors and guests lead cooking classes for the community to teach interesting ways to prepare the foods delivered by the now thriving Mobile Markets “under the spells cast by the magic of Erin’s amazing work.” Erin Ferrentino manages GFN’s food access programs.

“Back in Mississippi, we held regular gatherings of our chosen family. These included a long-held Sunday brunch event that continued until half of my family passed on,” said KC. “Since warm maple syrup was a part of those brunches, along with hand-ground grains, it seemed like western Massachusetts, a place with so much maple syrup, would be a natural place to carry on the event. I bet we could even locate an old hand-cranked grain grinder and some school kids to help crank it. There are bound to be kids these days longing to return to simpler ways.”

KC said she “holds close to her dream of turning the community on to the power of the homemade waffle,” as a way to use leftovers in a creative and tasty manner.

In the last few years, GFN staff and members of the FAAC established community gardens at several of the area’s low-income housing sites, a project that has inspired KC’s most recent art. GFN discovered KC’s artistry when she made some decorations for a FAAC event. “I am well-versed in the home arts,” she said. “That event needed decorations, and I had flowers!”

KC’s poster for GFN’s 2024 Tuesday Market season echoes the energy and abundance of Arcimboldo’s paintings, and she adds her own passion for gardening, community, activism and her love for her chosen community.

KC will be at the Tuesday Market in May to share stories and talk about her poster. Tuesday Market is open every Tuesday from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m., and runs through November 5 on the plaza behind Thornes Marketplace. GFN’s SNAP Match program doubles SNAP benefits up to $10 at each market. HIP (Healthy Incentives Program) is also accepted.

Pat James is manager of the Grow Food Northampton Organic Community Garden.