Thursday, July 10, 2014

A is for Art and Artists

Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom, 1826
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC"
implicit public domain as artist died over 100 years ago
photograph uploaded via Wikimedia Commons

After digging into the draft revisions of New England Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice in the early 1980’s, I felt a sense of unease. There were no references in the main body of the text —or, for that matter, in the Advices and Queries— to art and artists in an medium. Since Friends were encouraged to send questions and concerns to members of the revision committee, I wrote about that concern and two other questions I had to the only person on the committee whom I knew. I received an almost immediate reply. The response to my inquiry about the arts could be summarized as, “Whoops!”  If I had seen the draft the year before, when I was still in England, Friends might have been able to make substantive changes, but there were limited opportunities to do so at that point. As far as I can tell, the only reference to the arts in the 1985 Faith and Practice of New England Yearly Meeting of Friends is the paragraph “Art is Part of Truth,” from Elfrieda Vipont Foulds’ “Living in the kingdom” (William Penn Lecture, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1955, p. 14).

It was thus with some trepidation that I opened Stephen W. Angell and Pink Dandelion’s magisterial Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). There were discussions of music included in numerous chapters. I was delighted, but I began to worry when the index revealed nothing under “art” or “painting,” let alone “sculpture.” To my relief, however, the problem was with the indexing and not with the text itself. With the exception of the omission of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist Signe Wilkinson, Roger Homan’s article “Quakers and Visual Culture” was exactly what readers could wish for in both theory and breadth.

Most unprogrammed Friends of my acquaintance have well-developed musical tastes, and a number of unprogrammed Meetings incorporate music into some aspect of their Quaker experience. The visual arts, however, have been a tougher sell, at least in the decoration of Meeting Houses. The concerns early Friends might have had about graven images are not a factor in most people’s personal lives today; the issue is the theological basis of our corporate life. Physical representations of crucifixes and the life of Jesus are as much an outward representation of religion as are the physical sacraments. Even if Friends put aside those concerns, given the wide range of views modern “liberal” unprogrammed Quakers have about Christianity, it is hard to come to a sense of the Meeting as to what kind of representation we should have on our walls. Although Friends' Meeting Houses are not consecrated, the feeling that walls in the Meeting room should be plain —with a few exceptions, maybe, for posters from Friends’ House in London or FGC or FUM, if posted in discreet locations such as the entrance or above the door— is as much a sacred norm as its opposite. (See also the detailed discussion in Homan, 2013, pp. 494-500.)

Expense and permanence are two other issues with the visual arts. If Friends pick a hymn which grates on someone's nerves, it is usually over in five minutes. People who dislike hymn sings altogether can have Meeting for Coffee before Meeting for Worship. On the other hand, a work of art that is donated by someone in the group may end up as a blob on the Meeting House walls for the next twenty years, with Friends not wishing to offend the donor by removing it or, in a vain hope to save face,  moving it to the most inconspicuous location on the premises. At least, that is what many Friends fear would happen. Whether it would is another matter.

There are pragmatic considerations as well, whether with paintings or with other possible outlets for artistic expression in the Meeting House. A colorful area rug, even if safely secured beneath a table, can invite allergies in some people, as can seat cushions, as much as the latter are needed by other individuals. Curtains harbor dust mites. As a result, unless a Meeting is fortunate enough to own a historic property built when one of the few artistic outlets for Friends was cabinet making and Meeting House design and or has both the resident architectural know-how and the money to construct an engaging modern structure, Quakers are all too often left worshipping in rooms with all of the psychological warmth that one might expect from the people who invented the penitentiary.
The chapel at the penitentiary, Port Arthur, Tasmania, Australia.
It is designed so that prisoners worshiped without seeing each other.
Although Quakers did not design this particular penitentiary, the English Quaker James Backhouse did visit the area.
photographs ©Kristin Lord 2008

Theologically, we are supposed to search for the Light within. I know. But as the Good Book reminds us, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Some Friends wrestle with leaving ecclesiastical music behind when they join our Religious Society. Speaking personally, I have no shortage of opportunities to enjoy and even make music. What I miss is an attentiveness to a sense of God as expressed in material culture.

There may not be much a Meeting can do about a Meeting House that is an unprepossessing box on the outside except to plant window boxes, but a lot can be done with paint, lighting, plants, and the color and texture of any carpet and upholstery in the Meeting room. There might also be some way to modify benches that are excruciatingly painful to sit in for an hour. I attended a Meeting for two years that had benches like that. The Meeting room was well-proportioned and painted in a color to show off the midday sun, but, oh, those benches. After about a month of sitting there and watching Friends walk in wearing nothing but muted colors and muttering sotto voce about the seating, I saw red and I started to wear red.

Most Meetings that own their own premises have rooms available other than the Meeting room. There may be more flexibility here in terms of visual representation, although Friends frequently do not take it. Quakers have produced visual artists and art projects of some repute. It is high time that more people, especially children and visitors, knew more about their work and their connection to Friends. (Note: the links to commercial websites in this section are not an endorsement of their businesses but are meant to give an idea of the resources available.) Few Meetings have the resources to pick up a reproduction of a sculpture of Sylvia Shaw Judson, whose work graces a number of public and private spaces (e.g., the Chicago Botanic Garden); a number of Meetings, however, have a competent photographer in their midst who could take and have framed a high-resolution picture of Judson's statue of Mary Dyer, who was executed for her faith in 1660, in front of the Massachusetts State House on Boston Common. The Philadelphia Museum of Art sells prints in its on-line store of two paintings of the nineteenth-century Quaker folk artist Edward Hicks of Newtown Friends Meeting in Pennsylvania, who is known for his many versions of the Peaceable Kingdom. Amazing to say, there are still signed prints of Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcuts available. In the UK the Quaker Tapestry Project sells photographs of many, if not all, of its panels; the prints may be ordered in various sizes and shipped worldwide. With a bit of luck it might be possible to locate reproductions of landscapes by the English painter Samuel Lucas or botanical watercolors by Mary Vaux Walcott, the Philadelphia Quaker known for drawing and cataloguing the flora of the Canadian Rockies. (The many copies from the work of the latter shown on the Internet may or may not be in the public domain.)

Meetings are understandably reluctant to accept original offerings from individual members and attenders, given their desire not to offend the artists we have in our midst. Under what circumstances could this reluctance be reconsidered, especially given the number of Quaker quilters who would be happy to produce a wall hanging on a theme chosen by their Meetings? Are there opportunities to take and display high-quality photographs of historic Meeting Houses? Is there someone who knows the traditional Quaker art of silhouette drawings and can do them in First Day School for both wall decoration in those rooms and for parental keepsakes?

Friends Meeting House, Sparta, Ontario, Canada
an excellent example of traditional Quaker architecture
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013

Interior of Sparta Meeting House
traditional Quaker craftsmanship at its finest
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2013
Some Meetings may be able to consider the work of practicing Quaker artists and/or architects when building or renovating their premises. Not every Quaker community is in the position of Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston or Chestnut Hill in Philadelphia, with both the need for new facilities and the resources to commission an artist of the caliber of James Turrell, but more Meetings might wish to consider smaller-scale installations of the size of the stained glass designed a few years ago by Tony Serviente for the new Meeting House in Ithaca, New York. (This is different from inheriting stained glass, as did Valley Friends Meeting in Harrisonburg, Virginia, which acquired stained glass by purchasing property owned by another denomination; Kitchener Area Monthly Meeting in Canada has for its part some Art Nouveau green stained glass panes that came with the property.)
Rear addition of Friends Meeting House, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA
The addition, containing a Meeting room, was designed by Treat Arnold,
a member of the Meeting.
photograph ©Kristin Lord 2011
Finally, Friends should encourage the artistic education of their young people and find ways to give moral support the careers of Quaker professionals in the field, regardless of whether their works are to the taste of individuals in a given Meeting and whether they have the means to make a commission or purchase. To that end I would encourage Meetings to consider whether they have the resources to support an institutional membership in the Fellowship of Quakers in the Arts. It would be a small way to start righting an old wrong.

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque ("the Blue Mosque"), Istanbul, Turkey:
restrictions on the use of graven images and requirements for simplicity
do not necessarily mean abandoning aesthetic pleasures.
photo by Christian Perez via Creative Commons License
(Wikimedia Commons)
Edward Hicks, "The Residence of David Twining," 1845-8
Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, Williamsburg, Virginia
uploaded to Wikimedia Commons via the Yorck Project
(artist died more than 100 years ago, presumed public domain image)

1 comment:

  1. Some interesting (and controversial) art installations at meetinghouses include the "Skyspace" designed by James Turrell for the Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston, and the newest one at Chestnut Hill Friends Meeting in Pennsylvania. We tried to visit the latter in our last School of the Spirit residency, but it rained. I believe it is an interesting experience, but is not designed to be part of Meeting for Worship. Here is a site with some photos (including of the meetinghouse, which is also quite lovely.)