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As she began shoveling out the driveway of her Haddon Heights home, Asiyah Kurtz was struck by a metaphor that should serve her well in her new job as director of Camden FireWorks.
"When I was shoveling all this darn snow, I had an awareness that it's so much easier to step into my own footprints and do something on my own, rather than step into my son's footprints," the Memphis native observed.
So while Cassie MacDonald, FireWorks' first director who saw the gallery, studio and event space move from idea to reality, left an indelible imprint, Kurtz knows she has to walk her own path as she steps into the role.
MacDonald, who will remain in the Waterfront South neighborhood and will continue to be a presence at FireWorks, stepped down late last year after 10 years as director of the former firehouse, which reopened as a an art gallery with studio space upstairs in 2016.
Kurtz, whose background is in cultural sustainability, takes over at a challenging time for the arts: The COVID-19 pandemic has meant no in-person events at FireWorks, which frequently hosted book and poetry readings, fundraisers and community gatherings in addition to art exhibitions.
But where others might see a challenge, she sees an opportunity.
"This has been a little bit of a silver lining, because I don't have to hit the ground running with programming," she said. "I can figure out who we are and what we can do, and work on setting us up for the future."
Photographer Erik James Montgomery, muralist and painter Danielle Cartier and potter Hope Mead all have studio space at FireWorks.
Meeting some of the artists, Kurtz said, was "like coming home."
"Seeing all this vibrancy, it's a different energy. Everyone has their own thing they work with, but at the same time, no one is in their own little silos. It's all so integrated. There's such a variety, a diversity, and that is such a benefit to the organization.
"That reiterates to me that there's no one way to do this — there's no one way to be an artist and there's no one way to run a nonprofit. There are myriad ways to be creative."
Kurtz, a councilwoman in Haddon Heights, has a degree in anthropology from the University of Memphis. She's worked in administration and fundraising and now oversees the budget for the borough's parks and recreation department. She describes herself as an artist, and enjoys quilting and building furniture.
At Fireworks, she'll report to the board of directors, including president Kimberly Camp, who pointed to her "commitment to social justice and the arts" as one reason Kurtz was chosen for the position.
"Our hope is that FireWorks will become an indispensable part of the lives of Camden's artists and the community at large," Camp wrote in a release announcing Kurtz's appointment.
Kurtz, who is still getting acquainted with Camden and Waterfront South, said she's hoping she can see the city and the neighborhood with an outsider's eye for a little longer.
"I think that's a good thing, because some things I'd heard (had) the city not positively portrayed," she admitted. "It's good because it gives me a lot of room for growth."
She wants to FireWorks to once again become a center for the community, once it's safe to do so.
"I think the neighborhood where we are is so vibrant; I love neighborhoods that have people walking around. You get a better sense of the community when people are out engaging. It has its challenges. I'll reference those challenges but not focus only on them."
During this week's snow, she saw a mother and daughter having a playful snowball fight, and it made her think, she said.
"How are you engaging with them? What do they sense when they pass by this building? Do they feel like it's open to them, or closed off? How do you fit into a community in a way that allows people to feel like they're a part of it?
"That will evolve as I mature in this role. I don't have the answers yet and I'd be a fool to tell you I did," she said with a laugh.
"Figuring that out is part of the joy of being a leader."
Phaedra Trethan has been a reporter and editor in South Jersey since 2007 and has covered Camden since 2015. She's called South Jersey home since 1971. Contact her with feedback, news tips or questions at [email protected], on Twitter @By_Phaedra, or by phone at 856.486-2417.
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