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Sloan Carter in her home studio in Ardmore, PA. Photo: Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.
Sloan Carter in her home studio in Ardmore, PA. Photo: Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.

How a SEPTA bus saved Sloan Carter’s life

Not only did her rides from West Philly to Center City introduce her to the world of art, but also one away from the abuse she faced at home.

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The Philadelphia Sloan Carter returned to in the 1970s as a 14-year-old from Prichard, Alabama, gave her a lot of firsts. It was a culture shock of the worst kind coming North and settling at 50th and Spruce in West Philly.

“I was not ready for the level of violence that I experienced,” Carter said in a recent interview with AL DÍA News.

Gangs, fights in school, and a racist mayoral administration under Frank Rizzo that targeted communities of color with a brutal police force, all contributed to Carter’s feeling of isolation.

At 14, she had also already come to terms that she was a lesbian and didn’t make it a secret. Not only did that lead to targeted attacks at school by peers, but also from her community at church and even her own family.

“I didn’t have a lot of friends. I did have a lot of cousins in Philadelphia on my father’s side, but because I was gay they treated me differently,” said Carter.

She was in need of an escape from her environment with verbal or physical abuse around every corner, and she found it on SEPTA’s 42 bus, which ran down Spruce Street through her neighborhood before crossing the Schuylkill River on Walnut on its way to Center City.

It was there that Carter discovered a new world where she felt she belonged. That was helped along by places like Giovanni’s Room, the country’s oldest LGBTQ+ bookstore, and the many art galleries and cultural events she visited.

“It broadened my community,” said Carter. “By taking a bus, it's almost like you step out of one world into another world.”

When it came to finding her place as a Black lesbian, Carter said “it was literally like somebody’s turning a light on in a dark room.”

“It was like: 'I'm not in the world alone. I'm not in this closed vortex where it's just me and I'm trying to fight against everybody else just to fit in,'” she said. “By catching a bus, it allowed me to see the world differently from where I was.”

Art came into Carter’s life around the same time. It started with her taking a chance on a free art class at the community center across the street from the bus stop she frequented to get to Center City. While often not seeing eye-to-eye with her teacher, Carter said the experience opened her eyes to using art as a form of expression for whatever she was feeling.

As she began to experiment with that expression on canvas, Carter began to appreciate what went into the practice of art in its many forms. The pieces she saw in the many museums and galleries on her trips to Center City took on new meaning, and she developed favorites over time like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jackson Pollock to name a few.

“I found that art was a way to express everything that I was feeling inside, but able to do it on the canvas, and then step back and start to understand myself more and start to empower myself more,” said Carter.

Career-wise, she’s led a life helping at-risk youth like herself find their way in the many systems in society that often fail them, and has done it for decades. However, art has remained a constant since she first took SEPTA’s 42 bus decades ago, and it’s sometimes come in handy to connect with certain kids.

“Through art I've been able to help kids like art helped me,” Carter said. “Pull out feelings and emotions and things that they have suppressed, that's harming them over the long run, get it out. That has been my greatest joy.”

Art’s presence in her life is also obvious in a visit to her apartment in Ardmore. Her pieces — the ones she hasn’t sold and donated the proceeds back to causes near and dear to her art — adorn the walls, and her kitchen also functions as a studio space. 

To this day, painting is a form of the most intimate expression that can strike her at any moment big or small. From the time she drove through a desolate Philadelphia amid the George Floyd uprisings to the day she just wanted some sunshine instead of rain, it’s all fair game.

When it comes to SEPTA, Carter laughed when asked about how she uses the system now considering she drives a Jaguar. The regional rail still serves as her occasional transport to catch a Phillies game here and there, but she will never forget those bus rides as a teenager on the 42 she would often save money and her tokens to experience.

“It gave me the opportunity to heal,” said Carter. “If it had not been for that bus, I don't know if I would be here today. It saved me.”

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