By Charles Curtis III | For AC JosepH Media

CAMDENCamden FireWorks, a non-profit organization that caters to the creative community, has become a contributor to the blossoming artistic growth in the city.

Positioning themselves in Camden’s downtown section in a renovated historic fire station, Camden FireWorks’ mission is, “to use art to create social change.”

Asiyah Kurtz, of the Camden FireWorks with artwork produced there.

The firehouse, formerly known as “Engine Company 3,” was built in the late 1800s. The building went into service on June 1, 1890. After serving Camden City for nearly 100 years, the firehouse ceased operations amid concerns over the building’s structural integrity. Revitalization was made possible after the property was acquired by Heart of Camden.


After several decades of disrepair, volunteers began renovation in May 2010. The gallery opened on June 17, 2016, and currently boasts original architecture, exposed brick, hardwood floors, and twelve-foot ceilings that work in tandem to create an aesthetically appealing environment.

A brown staircase is adorned with African motif elements, with each step displaying a different artistic discipline, with “jewelry making” and “painting” being among the various disciplines on display. As individuals make their way upstairs, they find a more intimate setting: a lobby adorned with painted art on the walls and several private studios that are conducive to creating.

The gallery is the only one of its kind in the entire city. Support from local organizations like Sacred Heart Church assisted the Heart of Camden in securing the building. While companies like PSE&G as well as the State of New Jersey’s Neighborhood Revitalization Tax Credit Fund helped secure funding for the project, residents and volunteers put in the sweat equity to bring the gallery to life.

In 2012, Camden FireWorks was incorporated as a New Jersey nonprofit corporation and in 2016 became a tax-exempt section 501(c)(3) organization. As a nonprofit, Camden FireWorks is mostly financially backed through donations and grants.

Asiyah Kurtz is the director of Camden FireWorks, responsible for overall operations and fundraising for the organization. She is also an artist specializing in fabrics and textiles. “Everything that we do in our approach to programming is artist-focused but community-centered,” Kurtz said.

A recent gathering of communicators met at the Camden FireWorks in May, 2023.

Since its inception, Camden FireWorks has grown beyond a simple gallery as the organization has dedicated itself to nurturing local artists. “My predecessor Casey McDonald was the founding director and was instrumental in standing up the organization,” said Kurtz reflecting on Camden FireWorks’ expansion throughout the years.

“FireWorks started as a development project between The Heart of Camden, and Sacred Heart Church as well as residents of Camden’s immediate surrounding neighborhood — Waterfront South. Casey stood up for this organization through grit and perseverance. It has grown deep roots here in the community.”


Kurtz joined the FireWorks family two years ago. “[My goal] was to take that approach of relational focus and relationship building and take it outward beyond Waterfront South,” explained Kurtz.

Camden FireWorks maintains partnerships with various local businesses and nonprofit entities. Over the years the nonprofit has fostered relationships with South Jersey Cultural Alliance, CraftNOW Philadelphia, Waterfront South, and Watu Moja, to name a few.

“We want to know what’s happening in and beyond the area,” explained Kurtz. “We don’t limit ourselves on who we work with. We’re open to working with organizations that see Camden as an asset like we do and have the best interests of the city in mind.”

Camden FireWorks also extends its partnership directly with emerging artists to host workshops, and community events, and provides studio space that can be rented to artists.

Workshops are offered for free to Camden residents with materials provided at no extra cost to participants and are generally held twice a month. Workshops take a multidisciplinary approach, offering mindfulness yoga, charcoal painting, quilting, and much more.

Estefany Rodriguez (25) is an instructor at Pennsauken High School where she teaches painting. Although born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Pennsauken, Rodriguez feels closely connected to the city of Camden — the birthplace of her mother. As such, Rodriguez has spent much of her time utilizing her talents to uplift the city.

Art educator and artist Estephany Rodriguez. Photo courtesy of Charles Curtis III.

“Camden FireWorks is creating a pipeline for artists to be connected to businesses and foundations that help us,” says Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a resident artist, who rents one of the 9 studios available at Camden FireWorks.


Rodriguez specializes in oil painting and also enjoys pottery. Her artwork is very much reflective of her experiences drawing upon her background and themes of spirituality and Christianity. “I love pottery; how you can create something from nothing. It reminds me of my creator,” Rodriguez explains. Much like Rodriguez’s pottery, Camden FireWorks is utilizing art to create something purposeful that will last for generations.

Some of the artwork at the Camden FireWorks.

Rodriguez first learned about Camden FireWorks in 2021 after searching for studio space. Since then she has immersed herself by attending workshops, teaching art classes, and most importantly introducing her students to the space.

“Bringing the students to the gallery, I can teach them about art and how to see the world differently. They also get to see how to apply art in the real world,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez’s affiliation with Camden FireWorks has afforded her several opportunities such as contributing to the various mural events as well as being connected to potential grants. “They ([Camden FireWorks]) have workshops that teach the artist community about economics. I’ve been paid to be a teacher and this summer. I was even able to hire a paid intern from the Community,” explained Rodriguez.

Brittany Anne (39) is a Camden-born artist who specializes in oil painting and illustration. Raised in Orlando, Anne returned to Camden and looked to continue her artistry.

“I began doing art full-time in 2020 and was doing art out of the shed in my backyard,” said Anne. She was initially made aware of the non-profit in June 2022 when she was contacted by the director and allowed to host a solo exhibition. “I do portrait paintings but rather than real people they are more reflective of vintage 70s and 80s editorials. My work centers on Black women and men, it’s a lot of glamor, disco, sparkles, and gloss.”

A year later Anne would open her exhibit to a nearly sold-out show. “Camden FireWorks helped me tremendously! From promotion to providing food and drinks to those in attendance, I was supported.”

In February 2023, Anne was able to lease a studio at Camden FireWorks, upgrading from her backyard shed to a more vibrant and creative environment.

“Being at the studio gives me a more professional setting and it puts me on the path to make so many connections,” said Anne.

While also lending her talents to the organization by curating drawing workshops, Anne makes clear that her favorite workshops are those that she attends as a participant.

“My favorite workshops are the ones that are educational based such as grant seminars. I also love crocheting and drawing,” she recounted her fondest moments at FireWorks.

“Camden needs the arts. Art brings together the community,” Anne proclaimed.

Her sentiments were shared by another artist resident, Erik James Montgomery. Montgomery (51) hails from East Orange and moved to Camden in 1999. He is a professional photographer and photo educator and specializes in fine arts photography.

Montgomery has had a successful photography career, having worked in Johannesburg, South Africa teaching photography to HIV positive teens. In 2022, he was chosen to display his work in the Newark Museum of Art. His work was also featured in various universities and galleries.

The Erik James Montgomery Foundation “creates photographic public art to inform the entire world about the world they live in.” Montgomery currently leases a space at Camden FireWorks. “I had a studio — but I knew I wanted a home in Camden,” explained Montgomery.

Montgomery has worked closely with Camden FireWorks, serving as a board member for the

nonprofit from 2020-2022 curating community projects.

 “During the pandemic, we opened up the gallery. We also started ‘Camden Reframed.’ It was a project where we took pictures pairing various individuals with illegal dumping sites to bring awareness,” Montgomery detailed.

“I’ve been able to blossom because I’ve been able to work with and support other artists,” said Montgomery. “I love organizations like Watu Moja. Whenever they host an event at FireWorks, I’m always there.

“They bring multigenerational audiences, various artistic disciplines, and love.” Watu Moja is a nonprofit organization, whose mission is “to connect African American and Afro-Latino young people to the global community.”

Throughout the years, Watu Moja has partnered with Camden FireWorks hosting workshops, open mics, and other events that directly speak to community artists and provide an outlet for expression.

“When art and community come together — that’s culture,” said Nas Rider. Rider (26) is a Camden native and music producer. He was first introduced to the Camden FireWorks gallery after attending a Watu Moja open mic several years ago. “Before the Watu Moja event, I was (wasn’t???) even aware that this space had hosted these events.”

Since his initial exposure to the Camden FireWorks gallery Rider has been back several times. He was even invited by Watu Moja to participate in a jam session as part of a music series the nonprofit curated at the gallery. “We had a good time at the jam session. There was even a projector that played “Toonami,” the video matching the musical beats!” Rider raved, recalling his musical experience.

Camden FireWorks has been a connecting gateway for residents seeking an oasis of creativity as well as for artists who seek resources and growth. Studio spaces can be rented for one-year lease with applications available online.

“We remain equity-minded. We try to limit things that gatekeep artists such as credit checks or high fees.” Kurtz clarified. “We’re interested in identifying, sustaining, and developing artists. In the long term, we want to build relationships.”

Due to supply and demand, the current waiting list for artists is 2 years. “We have some plans to offer additional spaces for artists soon, so don’t be discouraged,” she said.

Kurtz remains optimistic about the future and the potential of Camden FireWorks to reach more artists in Camden and the greater surrounding areas. As the years pass, Camden FireWorks looks to expand its reach by diversifying its creators.

“Last year we were at a point of transition. We had to revise and look at how we do business,” explained Kurtz. “We wanted to break up the monotony and support emerging artists and curators from different backgrounds.”

Lasha Stewart is a graduate of Drake University with a bachelor’s degree in Arts. Stewart is an artist with a mixed focus on oil painting and sculpture. She has been working at Camden FireWorks for one month and is currently one of two managers — Jazlyne Sabree being the other. Sabree facilitates workshops, while Stewart oversees art exhibitions.

“It’s been great working here,” Stewart said. “There is a lot of value in diversity and inclusion, from the artwork to the people who work here, to even the people who use the studio space upstairs.”

Camden FireWorks continues to be a hub of culture and artistic growth for artists and community residents alike who can create and experience art in ways previously uncommon in the city.

“Creating pretty art for the sake of creating pretty art is okay, but when your community has experienced divestment, your art has to provoke dialogue,” exclaimed Kurtz. The nonprofit was recently awarded a $11,500 grant from the NJ Arts & Cultural Renewal Fund (NJACRF). The goal is to utilize the funds to support minority and marginalized artists.

Camden FireWorks started hosting an exhibit. Entitled “Making an Appearance” in August. This exhibit looks to answer the question: “What are ways that the body can be used as a canvas?”

The exhibit will conclude with an artist talk last week. Clothes, hair, and even gender are all things that have implications beyond being wearable and that look to convey community and identity.

“Just in the month working here and looking at the art other people are doing, how they’re taking different materials and using them has really helped me in trying to figure out where to go with my work. It also helps me to understand how artwork sits in a gallery and that has helped me in making decisions with my own work,” Stewart explained.

The exhibition includes works from Vincent Mark, Giovanna Eley, Sakreea Mo’Nay, Jonah Taylor, and Genesis Pizarro. The exhibition is curated by Visual artist, curator, and gallery manager Jake Foster. Private and group tours for the exhibition are available and can be scheduled on Camden FireWorks’ website. Tours take place Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.

Camden FireWorks has undoubtedly cemented itself in the community and continues to expand resources and opportunities for development for local artists who would otherwise have to leave the city for this level of education, development, and connectedness.

Kurtz further conveyed the need for Camden FireWorks in the city, “The capital ‘W’ in FireWorks emphasizes the work that we have to do. We’re the only independent art gallery operating in Camden. There is no budget set aside for the arts. We’re working to create what we want.”

NOTE: A Camden native, Charles Curtis III was a recent participant of the South Jersey Information Equity Project. Story was edited by Front Runner New Correspondent Daniel Winner.

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