Changing the narrative of Camden through art at FireWorks

NJ INDIE by KYLE NARDINE August 4, 2021

“You dumped all this stuff on us, but we’re still here.”

As a young girl growing up in Memphis, Asiyah Kurtz was shy. She certainly couldn’t have imagined herself running an art studio; collaborating with artists, hosting public events, integrating with the community.

“I couldn’t look people in the face and have a conversation with them without cracking up inside,” Kurtz says about her childhood. Recognizing this, her grandmother forced her to get into music and art, hoping, maybe, it would crack the veneer.

“I hated, I hated, I hated it at first, but something sparked, and it was the power of creative expression that helped me find myself,” says Kurtz.

Kurtz indeed found herself, and more. She went from that shy girl to an anthropologist and councilwoman for Haddon Heights. Then, in 2021, Kurtz became the director of Camden FireWorks. an art studio and gallery in the Waterfront South neighborhood of Camden. Now she wants to use creative expression to give Camden residents a spark, to give her community the same gift of creation that her grandmother gave to her so many years ago.

FireWorks has been around since 2016 and has nine studios for artists, a gallery to showcase art, and a space for art workshops that it hosts free of charge. One of those artists benefitting from the FireWorks accessibility is Danielle Cartier. She uses Camden FireWorks as her creative workspace.

“I see projects and possibilities everywhere,” Cartier says. “Camden Fireworks has become my home base and my family here in Jersey. Everyone at Fireworks has an untouchable passion within their discipline and wants to bring their knowledge and skills to the Camden community.”

Fireworks has had charcoal painting classes, and classes on crocheting with plastic bags, among others.

Kurtz says the workshops will remain free, something in which she takes pride: “Our workshops are meant to be accessible to the people of the community here who don’t have $25 or $50 to pay for art lessons.”

Originally the FireWorks building located on Broadway & Ferry in Camden was a Firehouse. Now the 121-year-old building serves the community in a different way.  One of Kurtz’ biggest goals is for the art at FireWorks is to break stereotypes that people in the Delaware Valley have about Camden. 

“People tell a story about Camden that doesn’t match reality; my personal goal is to change the narrative,” Kurtz says. “Not to talk about Camden from a need-based perspective, but one that shows Camden assets. One of those assets is this building (Camden FireWorks).”

So far the building has been an asset for the City Invisible and one that uses art to showcase what is going on in the community and spark change.

“We’re not just trying to do art for pretty pictures, that’s not the goal,” Kurtz says. “We want art that creates social change and raises questions like why people dump here.”

Earlier this year, Camden FireWorks hosted a gallery that showcased illegal dumping that goes on in the city. “The dumping is from people who come into the community and they don’t care.” says Kurtz.”They think it’s Camden, right? ‘Let’s just dump our crap there and let them deal with it.’”

The exhibit was well received, and it lasted seven weeks. Kurtz’s favorite part of the exhibit was seeing the subjects of the photos in the gallery see themselves in an art gallery. One of Kurtz’s main foci is that representation matters.

“If you go into any black grandparents’ home, the gallery walls are in their homes,” Kurtz says. “They take pictures of family, loved ones and friends. The walls become their gallery because you don’t see yourself reflected in art galleries or museums. Using that analogy, it means everything on our gallery walls shows people like me because that’s not the case in most art galleries. I’m intentional about making sure that we are incorporating different perspectives and beauty of art.”

In her five-year plan for Camden FireWorks, Kurtz would like to have more room to showcase art from the different communities that make up Camden. She would expand the footprint of Camden FireWorks, open up a gift shop, and expand her staff to include staff members from Camden’s Latino community.

Some of the difficulties that Kurtz faces with FireWorks are on the financial side of things. FireWorks was closed for 14 months due to COVID and that meant little donations were given to FireWorks. FireWorks recently received a $12,500 grant from the Princeton Area Community Foundation, however.

FireWorks also has to deal with the perception that people from suburban South Jersey have of Camden. “You will be OK, I promise,” says Kurtz.

In the immediate future though there will be a new exhibition opening up at Camden FireWorks. “We Are Here” will be debuting at Camden FireWorks on Sept. 12. The exhibition will feature work from attendees who attended the workshops at FireWorks, and who used old windows and doors and turned junk into art. Attendees made art that reflected who they are, and made a statement about themselves.

Says Kurtz of the exhibit: “You dumped all this stuff on us, but we’re still here.”